The staff of the Atrium caters three weddings in the wake of massive tornado damagePaul F. P. Pogue

Right here is our office, these days," Louie Annee said Monday evening as he took a seat in a metal chair in the lobby of The Atrium, the banquet hall he owns with his wife Rhea at 3143 E. Thompson.

Atrium owner Louie Annee (right) and cook Frank Tiano stand before The Atrium, where the sign being ripped off the front is only the beginning of the tornado damage.

The lobby is the least wrecked area in the place, which is saying something. At the corner of Thompson and Carson on the Southside, Carson Square Mall is right in the center of one of the hardest-hit areas by Friday"s tornado. Several nearby buildings are completely demolished. Inside The Atrium, power is still out and debris still lies on the floor. It"s a total mess, and yet in the middle of all this, with their site wrecked, Annee and company managed to move, cater and completely take care of three wedding banquets the next day.

Looking tired but strangely content, Annee and head cook Frank Tiano recount their story of Indiana"s worst tornado streak in years:

On Friday, around 2 p.m., Tiano and pastry chef Bunny Peirson, working with several members of a bridal party for that evening"s festivities, knew they were in serious trouble when the power died. That and radio alerts of impending storms were all the warning they had; they couldn"t hear anything outdoors, not even the telltale freight-train roar of a tornado swooping in.

They started hustling everyone deeper into the building. Tiano and Peirson knew exactly where to go: the liquor room at the center. A holdover from the building"s days as a grocery store, it was lined with concrete and metal.

They were nearing the double wood doors to the room when the tornado struck, exploding the doors outward. One smashed across Tiano"s face; another threw Peirson to the ground, snapping her wrist and banging her head.

The bride was caught by the pressure, striking her so hard she was frozen in place with her hair standing straight up. Tiano grabbed her by the shoulder, yanked her down and protected her with his body until the tornado passed.

Atrium co-owner Louie Annee was several miles away when the tornado hit, picking up his children from their schools. The only thing on his mind as he made the drive back to the building was fear that he might have lost one or both of the most important people in his life. Tiano was more than an employee; he"d been with him 13 years - he was family by this point. Peirson had been his mother"s best friend for decades.

As he drove over the hill he could see the extent of the damage. The parking lot was wrecked, with glass and debris everywhere. The tornado had lifted a dumpster and flung it across the street, smashing a car. The Atrium"s outdoor sign had been ripped right off the building. Tiano was there, too - standing in the rain, battered but alive.

Tiano filled Annee in on the details: He was certain nothing was broken, even though he looked like he"d been smashed in the face with a baseball bat. Peirson was at the hospital, where she would be diagnosed with a broken wrist and receive eight stitches to the head.

They couldn"t re-enter the building for two hours; firefighters wanted to be sure there was no gas main leak. All Annee and Tiano could do was wait outside in the driving rain.

They pondered what to do next. They had four weddings scheduled over the next 24 hours. One set for that night had to be cancelled; there was no way around that. But they were determined to follow through with the three scheduled for Saturday, even though The Atrium was wrecked.

They got to work that night, calling in in-laws, relatives, anyone they could get to help, while trying to organize the massive logistical task of shifting three wedding locations in one day.

"My wife was really the one who took care of most of the work," Annee said. "I was doing the physical work; she was the one on the phone, handling all the details, planning and strategizing, getting on the phone with these brides and keeping them calm."

They were able to move two of the smaller weddings to the Annees" other site, The Columns. The third proved more problematic, but help presented itself at midnight. Father John Farrell, their priest from St. Barnabas" Church, drove to the site and found the disaster zone blocked off. He left his car a mile away from The Atrium, walked the rest of the way and offered the use of the church"s gym for the third wedding.

Louie and Rhea Annee and company stayed up until 4:30 Saturday morning, moving everything to the backup sites, 10 pickup truckloads in all: china, tables, chairs, liquor, food, everything. Louie Annee spent what few hours he could dealing with the mess in The Atrium"s lobby. Then, at 7 a.m., it was back to work until 3 a.m. the next morning.

All three wedding banquets proceeded flawlessly; aside from having to go to different sites, nobody noticed any difference, Louie Annee said. One of the weddings was an international event, with people from Scotland, Australia, Japan. The crew got a standing ovation for their efforts to make that one happen.

Despite his injuries, Tiano showed up to work Saturday morning. He sported dark bruises across his face and a nasty goose-egg on his forehead, but he still worked nearly 10 hours before Annee made him go home.

"It takes an awful lot to get me not to come to work," Tiano said later. "Thirteen years, I"ve only missed one weekend, and that"s when my father passed away."

And, Annee muses, everything could have been so much worse. The tornado missed his home by two blocks, and his brother"s home and the schools of his children by much less than that.

The ordeal is far from over. Annee figures they"re going to have to repeat this process every weekend for six to eight weeks, until repairs to The Atrium are complete (which, fortunately, will be covered by insurance).

"That"s the great thing, that these brides didn"t get left in the cold," Annee said. "It"s nobody"s fault this happened, but there"s still a wedding." He recalled the satisfaction of getting the job done, under such extreme conditions, fueled for 28 hours by pure adrenaline.

"It"s gonna be pretty hard to top this one!" he exclaimed.

"Yeah," Tiano added. "If we can do this, we can handle ANYTHING!"


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