By Mike Owens
(KSDK) - Two weeks after severe weather wreaked havoc on the St. Louis area, a south St. Louis county family is still reeling from their brush with the storm.
Pam Manley, her mother and her four young boys were eating at a fast food restaurant as the severe weather hit. Imagine their surprise when management forced them out into the storm.
Like all kids, Manley's children love to go to McDonald's, but after what happened two weeks ago there's one particular location they won't be stopping at again.
As far as the weather is concerned, July 19, 2006, is a day for the history books. That day, a storm like we haven't seen in more than a half-century leveled buildings, uprooted trees and cut power to more than half a million home and businesses. It's also a day Manley, her mother and sons won't soon forget.
While the storms were blowing and severe weather brewing, Manley, her mother, and her four small boys were eating at a McDonald's at Telegraph and Baumgartner Roads.
"We were in the playroom and the lights went off and on and we looked outside and it was raining really hard," said Manley. "A little bit later some employees came in and said everyone had to ... leave the play area and go to the inside part of the restaurant."
Like others, they were caught off guard when the weather took a turn for the worse.
"Some employees came around and told us we had to leave because there was a tornado warning for Oakville and this was Oakville and we had to leave now," said Manley. "And we were like, ‘What?’"
“I said, ‘What if we go out and get killed?’ and she (the employee) said, ‘The assistant manager said you've got to leave,’" said Manley’s mother Marilyn Haus.
"We were like, ‘You've got to be kidding me?’" said Manley.
The restaurant is owned by the McDonald's corporation. The I-Team called the corporate headquarters to find out the company's policy regarding storms. They did send us a copy of the policy, but would not do an interview. The policy is listed in each restaurant's operations and training manual.
According to McDonald's, in the event of a tornado warning employees are to, "take everyone, including all crew members and customers, to a designated secure place in your restaurant."
It adds if there is, "no basement, make everyone takes shelter in a small room."
It seems like the right thing to do, but according to Manley and her mother it's not what happened.
Haus said the assistant manager told them to leave and twice to, “be safe.”
“We didn't even answer him. We were so busy with the boys. They were scared,” said Haus. "We didn't want to go, but we didn't have a choice."
Worried about the weather and the safety of her family, Manley admits they didn't argue to stay. Instead they packed up and headed home in the storm. An assistant manager unlocked the door.
In a statement, McDonald's said, "Our number one priority is the safety and well-being of both our customers and employees...we would never knowingly ask customers to leave a restaurant if there was a tornado warning."
The statement goes on to say that customers were asked to leave when the power first went out for safety reasons. It's the company's understanding that the tornado warning came sometime afterward, but the Manley's dispute that claim.
We asked repeatedly for an on-camera interview with someone from the south county McDonald's and were told we would only receive written statements. We contacted the Missouri Restaurant Association and were told that although it doesn't enforce policy, it would encourage all restaurants to equally protect its customers and employees.
Despite everything, the group said this incident won't keep them from going to other McDonald's.
We also contacted three other popular restaurant chains in the St. Louis area to find out how they deal with severe weather and customers.
“Hardee's would not advise its guests to leave our stores during a weather emergency. Instead, our general managers are instructed to treat our guests the same as our employees.
As such, during a weather emergency like a severe storm or a tornado, we advise our managers, crew and guests to seek shelter in pre-identified "safety" locations inside our restaurants. Some of our stores have basements so shelter could be sought there. For stores without basements we advise locations near interior walls and away from windows. Again, specific locations vary depending on store designs."
"In a crisis situation, Denny's management asks that employees contact 911 emergency officials in the case of a disaster. After that assessment, employees and customers should take the necessary safety precaution. Each disaster would be handled on a case by case basis. The safety of our employees and customers is a top priority."
"In the event of a tornado, our most important and immediate priority is always the safety and security of our customers and employees. In these situations, everyone in the restaurant is encouraged to calmly move to the rear of the building, away from the front windows, until the all-clear signal is given."