One minute, Connor Hall was eating barbecue in a quiet restaurant with two friends.
The next, everything exploded. A Ford Expedition, after avoiding a collision on the highway outside, plowed through Doan’s Bones Restaurant on Tuesday in Stone Valley. A 20-foot wall disintegrated. Tables and chairs shattered. The three Penn State students, the only customers, were blasted off their feet.
When it was over, waitress Sarah Tkach, 19, of Huntingdon, lay pinned to the back wall under the SUV’s bumper.
Hall, 20, of Boalsburg, found himself staggering outside, his leg torn.
Inside the obliterated room, Heather Derr, 19, of State College, was badly injured. Also hurt was Tyler Smith, 20, from near Scranton.
But nobody had died — a fact not lost on Hall when he returned Wednesday to look for his keys and phone in the debris.
“Honestly, I thought we were really, really lucky,” he said. “Everything was completely destroyed.”
Even so, restaurant owner Brandon Corvin also thanked his lucky stars.
His waitress escaped with only a hairline fracture in her leg. The students sat in a rear table to the side, not against the shattered wall. And the car crashed at about 4:45 p.m. on a weekday rather than dinner time or over the weekend, when the room might have been full.
“There was definitely somebody watching over the place,” Corvin said.
Derr remained in “serious condition” Wednesday, according to her mother, Tish Derr. She did not provide more details but said her daughter had been transferred from Altoona Hospital to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian for further treatment.
Smith’s injuries and condition were not available Wednesday. It started with a snack.
Hall, Derr and Smith had come from a day of swimming at nearby Whipple Dam State Park. Hungry, they stopped for a bite at the corner of Whipple Dam Road and state Route 26 in Miller Township, Huntingdon County.
Initially, they took their orders to an exterior table. But the heat drove them inside to the air conditioning.
Meanwhile, the Ford and a Pontiac Aztec approached from opposite directions.
State police said a 17-year-old girl from Bellefonte was driving the Pontiac south on state Route 26 when she turned left onto Whipple Dam Road — and into the path of the oncoming Ford.
Daniel Ingle, 48, of Tyrone, swerved to the right, police said. He missed the Pontiac but went off the road.
Police on Wednesday did not release his speed but said he appears to be not at fault. The girl, who police did not identify because she’s a juvenile, will be charged with a traffic violation. Neither driver was injured.
Minutes after sitting down, Hall heard a loud screech.
“I was ready to hear a car crash,” he said.
Instead, chaos erupted. Hall thinks he was thrown against a wall.
“The last thing I remember is I jumped up and ran outside,” he said.
Corvin said his other employee on duty, Casey Hawbaker, 19, of Huntingdon, ducked for cover, saw Tkach in the rubble after the crash and immediately called 911.
“Picture a dining room and crumble it up into little pieces, and that was what she was laying in,” Corvin said. “I don’t have one chair that’s not broken in the restaurant.”
He was away, in Centre Hall, at the time. His phone rang with the news. For a heart-stopping minute, he misunderstood the caller and thought his three little daughters, as they often are in the summer, had been at the restaurant.
The truth still caused him to rush back. Before him was a shocking scene — his restaurant in ruins, emergency medical technicians treating people on the ground, fire trucks and ambulances everywhere.
A day later, still dazed, he tried to look on the bright side.
One waitress was a “hero,” the other a survivor “in pretty good spirits.” His boarded-up dining room is out of commission for at least three months, but his 9-year-old business will continue with outside dining, takeout and catering.
“We’re going to do our best,” he said. “We’re a small family-run restaurant. We’re really strong, and we’re making the best of anything we can do.”
After the crash, Hall learned his friends were alive only while strapped on a stretcher en route to Mount Nittany Medical Center. He received stitches and went home, shaken.
Wednesday, still in pain but feeling a little better, he thought of Derr.
“I just hope she’s OK in the end,” he said.
After an afternoon turned upside down in midbite, he’s glad he still has two friends.
“They’re both strong,” he said. “So they’ll pull through, hopefully.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews