Thursday, Aug. 12, 1999 | 4:37 a.m.
SALT LAKE CITY - Buddies Mark Tilles and Rich DiLeo drove 11 hours from California, sleeping in their car, just to make it to the world's largest trade show for outdoor retailers.
For the fledgling businessmen, who manufacturer hot dog holders and fly swatters, the convention would mean boom or bust.
They never dreamed a tornado would be their downfall.
On Thursday, as hundreds of other exhibitors set up their wares inside the Salt Palace Convention Center, Tilles and DiLeo stood outside a yellow police line near two exhibit tents shredded by the twister.
Somewhere inside those tents lay samples of their products, brochures and business cards - thousands of dollars worth of materials that may have been destroyed in the storm.
But with authorities keeping the site cordoned off, Tilles and DiLeo had no way of knowing how much of their exhibit was damaged.
"They're going on with the show, and we're losing our stuff," DiLeo grumbled. "This is a show that could make or break a small company. These are potentially million-dollar contracts for us."
Thursday afternoon they were given 20 minutes to rush into the tent and gather and mark their salvageable property so emergency workers could move it to a warehouse to be claimed later.
"It went great for us," said DiLeo, despite having a television and videocassette recorder that bounced on the asphalt and may or may not work.
Much of DiLeo and Tilles' merchandise escaped water damage and was, for the most part, where it they left it when they were forced to abandon it Wednesday afternoon.
Exhibitors such as Tilles and DiLeo were setting up their booths inside the convention center and the tented pavilion when the sky darkened, the wind picked up and the rain began to fall.
Moments later, ventilating ducts connecting the two tents were slamming against the ceiling and the floor.
"We ran to the door, and the entire crowd was behind us," DiLeo recalled. "The tornado was right out there - you could see all these things churning in there."
DiLeo and Tilles latched onto each other and grabbed a nearby pole, as other exhibitors embraced in desperate bear hugs, trying to fight the force of the storm.
When it was over, DiLeo managed to grab a few newspaper articles about his product - a patented fly swatter called the Buzzwacket - and flee.
Tilles left empty-handed, 1,600 samples of his Cowboy Hank's Hot Dog Holders still inside the tent.
Later they would learn that the only person killed in the storm, Allen Crandy of Las Vegas, was struck in the head by debris as he inspected booths in the pavilion.
The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, held twice annually in Salt Lake City for the past four years, allows manufacturers of everything from fishing poles and tents to kayaks and sunglasses to peddle their goods to stores.
This year there were to be 860 exhibitors in 2,550 booths, with an estimated 17,000 retailers and visitors expected.
The city "is typically a good setting for this segment of the market - the biking, skiing, paddling type people," convention spokesman Drew Simmons said.
In all, 331 companies had 700 booths in the shredded pavilion, Simmons said. The convention, scheduled to open Thursday morning, was postponed until Friday.
On Thursday morning, Tilles and DiLeo stood a block from the destruction, watching as a bulldozer tracked back and forth, carrying away tree limbs and debris.
Tilles prayed his hot dog holders weren't among all the trash.
"Oh, that makes me nervous," he said.
Tilles, of El Cerrito, Calif., first released his product a year ago, selling to vendors here and there. DiLeo, of Berkeley, began marketing his fly swatter in 1997, establishing a rapport with hardware stores.
For both men, the convention was a chance to finally break into a bigger market.
"We were going to kick butt," DiLeo said.
They may still get that chance.
Many exhibitors whose booths were not damaged offered to share space with those who weren't so lucky. That will likely mean the small exhibitors will be crammed between larger exhibits handing out business cards and brochures, but it is better than the alternative.
"This is going to hurt, but we're not going to let this keep us down," said DiLeo. "We didn't come this far to have a tornado take us out."