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Region torn asunder by hard-hitting storms

Mount Washington is among areas hardest hit by funnel clouds spun off from fierce storms, which hit Salisbury again

Wednesday, June 03, 1998

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dana Barker of William Street in Mount Washington won't soon forget the tornado that ravaged her neighborhood last evening, ripping the roofs from houses, shattering windows, and knocking down trees and power lines.

To her, it didn't sound like a freight train. Or thunder. Or an airliner.

  Additional storm coverage:

Salisbury residents relive trauma of tornadoes

District residents weather stormy evening

Twister-battered town lives on the edge after the storm

Weather twists make tornadoes

Twisters have deadly history in region

Wyoming County storm kills 2


Instead, she said, "it was eerie and evil and awful."

And that was just the beginning of a night of chaos -- in Mount Washington and throughout the Tri-State area.

At least 14 tornadoes churned through the region between 5:30 and 9:30 last night, leaving a path of destruction from Beaver County into Pittsburgh and beyond into Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties.

The storms began in eastern Ohio in the late afternoon and rolled into Western Pennsylvania about 5:30 p.m. Funnel clouds first appeared in Beaver County and swept into the North Hills of Allegheny County, then headed into Pittsburgh and off into Westmoreland County.

Trees fell into streets. Walls blew down. Hail as big as marbles pounded cars. Roads flooded. And everywhere, people huddled into basements to wait it all out.

No one was killed. But Mark Kanny, a spokesman for the UPMC Health Systems, said at least 16 people were treated at UPMC hospitals for injuries directly or indirectly related to the storm.

At UPMC South Side, one person was admitted for treatment of a broken wrist and another was being treated early today for injuries she suffered when her car's air bag deployed after a minor crash. Five others were treated there.

At UPMC Presbyterian, one man was treated after his van was flooded and he developed hypothermia from exposure to the cold water, Kanny said. Two others were being treated early today for injuries from a car crash during the storm.

One person was treated at UPMC Passavant in the North Hills. Five others were treated at UPMC Beaver Valley for injuries from a car crash that occurred after the storm dumped trees, power lines and mud over roads throughout northwestern Beaver County.

The storm also damaged part of the roof in the Pavilion Building at UPMC Shadyside, causing a severe leak. No patients were in that area and patient care was not affected, Kanny said.

In Beaver County, a tornado touched down in Raccoon in an area near Route 18, Aspen Lane and Holt Road. Every house in a six-block area around Holt and Route 18 was spattered with mud, and tangles of snapped trees and wires were piled 6 feet high.

Outside his small brick home on the 100 block of Holt Road, Randy Lyle walked in a daze as he assessed the damage.

His house had slipped off its foundation. Two 75-foot trees that had graced the back yard were blown away in the storm and were nowhere to be found. And in his front yard, he found a gas grill, a chaise lounge chair, a bowling pin, a hairbrush, a can of bug spray and a cast iron table. The top of the glass table had shattered, showering his lawn with giant shards of glass.

None of the items belonged to Lyle.

"I was down the road eating when I heard there was a storm coming through Potter," he recalled later.

"I called my dad to tell him, and when we got here," he said, his voice trailing off as he pointed to his house.

His wife had broken down in tears. His children were worried about their pets, but they were OK.

In Pittsburgh, high winds toppled the steeple of St. Stephen Catholic Church on Second Avenue. Police said there were people inside the church at the time, but that no one was injured. Several cars were damaged when the steeple fell onto the street.

In Wilkinsburg, police and emergency crews battled widespread flooding. Paula Speer of Braddock was driving home from her job when she found herself trapped in her car when water 2 feet deep on Brinton Road stalled her engine. She said she saw the water coming but was unable to veer because of oncoming cars, which pushed her car into the deepest water.

Robert Cecil of Coral Springs, Fla., who was staying at the nearby Holiday Inn, ran to Speer's car and pushed it out of the water.

About 2 1/2 hours after the initial line of funnel clouds passed on to the east, a second line roared through at about 8 p.m.

The National Weather Service wouldn't confirm last night that any tornadoes had formed or touched down. But meteorologist Lee Hendricks said 14 tornadoes had been reported by people who "know what they're looking at," such as firefighters.

"At this point we're treating them as confirmed," said Hendricks, "but we won't know for sure until we go out and do an assessment (today)."

Witnesses described numerous funnel clouds that mowed down trees in Beaver County, swept over Sewickley and followed the Ohio River to the South Side and Mount Washington, then out of town to the east into Westmoreland County.

"The clouds spiraled together in tight formation, the sky got dark, and then it dropped down just over the mountain," said a clerk at the Howard Johnson Inn in New Stanton, where the storms passed through between 6:20 and 7 p.m.

In addition to the funnel clouds, the storms brought heavy rain, lightning, thunder and quarter-inch hail.

The five members of the Borelli family find comfort outside their house on William Street on the north slope of Mount Washington after a tornado ripped the third floor off their house and deposited it in their front yard. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Of all the communities ravaged by the storms, Mount Washington sustained some of the heaviest damage. The historic Chatham Village section was hit especially hard.

Mayor Murphy said the tornado cut a half-mile swath across Mount Washington, after first touching down near Herschel Park in the West End and then moving on to touch down again in Hazelwood.

City Public Works Director Ralph Kraszewski said that the damage was citywide, with the exception of Downtown and the North Side.

On Mount Washington, Del Grant, 32, a landlord, said lamps and paper in his bedroom rose and began to spin around when the storm hit a few minutes after 6 p.m.

The storm ripped half the roof from his house, and his cat, Maniki, disappeared.

"The lamps started to spin," Grant said. "It really seemed like it was twisting inside my room. I'll probably never see my cat again."

Twisted corrugated steel landed in front of Grant's house. The storm snapped tops off surrounding trees and knocked over telephone poles.

"You could just see a funnel cloud forming above the trees," said Craig Stout, 23. "The clouds kind of split up. You could see stuff getting sucked toward it. It was wrapping around."

Marion Meixner of Meridan Street lost about one-quarter of the roof of her home.

Meixner, 43, was in the basement kitchen of her home when she saw the storm intensify through her bay window. She gathered her four children and a couple of their friends into the back, away from the window, and the storm passed in a matter of moments.

It was windy and she could hear the hail, but as the funnel cloud passed, she couldn't hear anything outside.

"I didn't hear anything but the kids screaming," she said. "It was over in just a few seconds.

"My back porch roof is down and a big corner of roof is gone," she said. "It was just unbelievable because I never thought this would happen in this area."

Near her home a picket fence was lodged in tree limbs about 25 feet off the ground.

Along William Street, Patrick Borelli was wandering through what remained of his home. His wife, Jeannine, and two children scrambled to the basement. By the time they emerged, the third-floor of their house was gone.

"There it is, right over there on the lawn," Borelli said, shaking his head. "It took 20 years. This cost me my life."

At dusk, the sounds of chain saws drown out just about anything else as workers tried to clear trees that stretched across streets, electrical wires dangling precariously from them.

Bricks from the top of a four-story apartment building were scattered along William Street at Boggs Avenue, which, like many other streets on Mount Washington, were closed by circumstance and by order of city officials.

Along Boggs Avenue, a screen door hung from a wire atop a utility pole.

Inside the eight-story apartment building The Mountvue, dozens of tenants found themselves in an unenviable spot as the second line of storms approached. Police ran down the street, ordering people into buildings, shouting, "There's a funnel cloud coming this way."

Residents frantically ran door to door inside the apartment building looking for elderly tenants to help get them into the basement and away from their windows.

At about 8:02 p.m., a dark, funnel-shaped cloud moved toward Mount Washington, but it apparently did not touch down.

Pat Crowley, a manager of the building, saw the first line of storms come through and then heard a tremendous sound.

"It was howling something awful," Crowley said. "It picked everything right up off the balconies."

Commuters on their way home found themselves stranded on the Monongahela Incline when the storm cut power. The car was stuck on the track 60 to 80 feet from the station house on Carson Street.

"I tried to yell up to tell them we were going to get them out, but they couldn't hear," said Renee Reynolds, a Port Authority maintenance worker. "All the trees were leaning down almost completely on their sides. The sky just got super dark. Debris was flying just everywhere. I've never seen anything like it," she said.

The riders on the incline weren't the only ones who emerged from their ride with the Port Authority frightened but unscathed.

The windows were blown out by flying debris on the 51 Arlington bus at Arlington and Clover Avenues. Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil said no one on the bus was injured.

Before they hit the city, the first tornado appeared in Beaver County in mostly-rural Raccoon.

As the funnel clouds swept into Allegheny County, golfers at the Sewickley Heights Country Club sought shelter in the pro shop and watched.

"We saw it coming," said Tim Pivoli, shop assistant. "It came all the way down and then went out of view."

There was no damage reported, and 15 minutes after the storm passed, the sky cleared and birds started chirping again. Bill Lincoln and his nephew, Chad, watched the storm with a friend from a shelter on the 15th hole. They didn't see the actual funnel cloud.

But after the storm passed, they went out and finished their round of golf.

The storms caused power outages throughout the region.

Duquesne Light Co. spokesman Barry Kukovich said 50,000 of his company's customers were without power after the storms last night.

While some had their power on by midnight, other's won't be so lucky.

"This could go on for days," Kukovich said.

He said the storms struck the power lines and transformers.

Power was back on for customers in Squirrel Hill, Pleasant Hills, Baldwin Borough, the North Side, Bethel Park, Hopewell, Crescent, Ambridge and Aliquippa.

Kukovich said the continuing outages were mostly concentrated in the following communities: Dravosburg; Hayes; Greenfield; Penn Hills; Port Vue; Glassport; Liberty; Monroeville; Swissvale: Swisshelm Park; Shaler; Mount Washington; Knoxville; Arlington Heights; Ben Avon Heights; Avalon; Ambridge; Sewickley; New Sewickley; Brighton Township; Raccoon; Monaca; Coraopolis; and Center.

About 3,300 Allegheny Power Co. customers were without electricity last night, company spokeswoman Janice Lantz said.

The largest concentration of customers without power were in Arnold, New Kensington, Natrona Heights and Lower Burrell where a downed tree struck a major line that was coming out of a substation.

In other areas that were without power, 800 customers were affected in Jones Mills and Scottdale; 600 customers were blacked out between Greensburg and North Huntingdon and in the Bethel Park and Canonsburg area another 300 to 400 customers were without lights.

Staff writers Gretchen McKay, Johnna A. Pro, Bill Schackner, Ann Belser, Rena A. Koontz, Jonathan Silver, Tom Sterling, Matthew P. Smith, Cindi Lash, Lawrence Walsh and Jim McKinnon and free-lance writer John D. Catone contributed to this report.

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