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District residents weather stormy evening

Wednesday, June 03, 1998

This story was reported by staff writers Ernie Hoffman, Gretchen McKay, Johnna A. Pro, Bill Schackner, Jonathan D. Silver, Tom Sterling, Matthew P. Smith, Barbara Vancheri and Lawrence Walsh.

Suzanne Filiaggi of 416 Olympia Road heard the wind rise outside her townhouse at historic Chatham Village on Mount Washington shortly before 6 last night. She felt a few drops of rain when she went outside to move her car to the garage about 20 yards away.

The ride was a short one.

Filiaggi drove a few yards when a tree fell across the road.

Then the real trouble arrived.

"I heard the tree crunching as the wind tore it from the hillside and I saw it falling on my car. I crouched down as far as I could when the tree hit. I was trapped inside the car. The front doors wouldn't open.

"I crawled over the back seat and got out through the back door. It was freaky," she said.

Filiaggi was not hurt, but was worried that her crushed car might be in the way, since it blocked Olympia Road.

She needn't have worried.

Chatham Village, a picture-perfect housing development known for its immaculate groundskeeping and floral finery, was now a jungle of downed trees and branches, power lines tilting toward the ground, slates with sharp edges stuck in the turf, broken glass and more crunched cars. No one would be driving down Olympia Road.

In a scene somewhat reminiscent of the hours after the crash of USAir Flight 427 -- but without that devastating loss of life -- KDKA, WTAE and WPXI scrapped network and syndicated programming last night. They stayed on the air for hours, issuing tornado watches and warnings, and advising viewers to leave the video cameras alone and head for the basement, preferably with pillows and blankets.

It was a night when high-tech equipment -- fancy storm-tracking devices and helicopters -- and low-tech equipment -- phones and stationary cameras such as the one Channel 2 has perched atop the nearby Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers -- paid off.

In what almost seemed like time-lapse photography, KDKA's camera showed lightning flashing over Downtown and then dense rain clouds rumbling in over the city like a deadly fog. During its 6 p.m. news, it had a wide shot of Mount Washington that depicted ominous twin funnel-shaped clouds hovering over the hillside like that alien spaceship in the film "Independence Day."

Two police officers, Monongahela Incline personnel, a few residents and a news reporter spent 15 minutes in the basement of the incline building on Mount Washington as a second funnel cloud formed at about 8 last night.

The police radio crackled a warning: "A funnel cloud is coming down the Parkway West and is headed toward Mount Washington. All officers are to abandon their posts and take cover."

Two motorcycle patrolmen pushed onlookers inside the incline building and down the steps to the basement. They could see the low clouds swirling horizontally, waiting for the funnel to "go vertical."

Conversation was slight as the winds rose outside and the skies grew very dark. By 8:15 p.m., the danger had passed and the group left its mountainside haven.

Mayor Murphy was running on the new Second Avenue trail toward the city when he saw the approaching storm. It had just started to rain as he entered the City-County Building.

When he learned that a tornado had touched down in his city, he couldn't believe it.

"We've never had a tornado in Pittsburgh," he said with an incredulous expression on his face. "That's what my parents told me."

Murphy rode to Hazelwood and Mount Washington after the storm to see the damage.

He said he was amazed at the damage on Mount Washington.

"I saw the roof of a building impaled on a street sign," he said. The roof was ripped off and had sailed a block before landing on the sign. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it."

On his way home to Shadyside from his job in Kittanning, Mark Denovich drove over the Highland Park Bridge, turned onto Washington Boulevard and found there was more water than pavement.

Heavy rains had led to the flooding of a grassy area along the boulevard normally reserved for pick-up athletic games.

"The water was blowing out of a storm sewer," Denovich, 24, said. "It was blowing three or four feet in the air."

In the midst of the new lake, an abandoned brown car floated, water up past the door handles. As Denovich watched, a tow truck driver tried to lend a hand. He drove the truck into the water until it stalled, leaving him stranded.

Shortly after, Denovich saw an 18-wheeler back up toward the tow-truck driver as far as it could through the pool. The driver jumped into the water, was hauled into the back of the semi and taken to dry land.

When calls from frantic West Street residents began pouring into the Wilkinsburg police station last night, Officer Don Hamlin wheeled his patrol car around and headed over to the block between Penn and Kelly avenues.

Ahead of him, near the Kelly School, Hamlin could see that the occupants of a truck appeared to be stopped as water from backed up storm sewers swirled in the street around them.

Hamlin pulled his patrol car forward intent on helping them.

And then it happened.

In seconds, the water began rising and pouring into his vehicle, nearly trapping the officer.

"The water just started rising. The car stalled and then the water flooded the interior. Everything went dead," Hamlin said.

With his radio equipment shorted out, Hamlin climbed out the window and onto the roof of the car. Using his portable radio, he called for help.

Wilkinsburg firefighters rescued Hamlin after he spent about 45 minutes atop his car.

Except for his pride, he wasn't hurt. He even joked about it later.

"We don't have a river, we don't have a creek, we don't have a stream, but I almost drowned in Wilkinsburg," Hamlin said.

Bellevue Fire Chief Charlie Amrhein was presenting a plaque to a firefighter at last night's borough council meeting when the town's police chief came in with a worried look on his face.

Chief Michael Bookser whispered in Amrhein's ear, "You've got 12 minutes, Charlie. A tornado's coming."

Amrhein quickly wrapped up his presentation and council adjourned its meeting, ushering the audience of about 25 people to the basement of the borough building for safety until the storm passed.

In Pitcairn, worried residents kept one eye on the weather and another on the streets.

Memories of the flash floods that devastated Pitcairn and Monroeville in July 1997 are still fresh in the minds of many.

While the rain did bring flooding, it was nothing of the sort that caused millions of dollars of damage last year.

"We had a couple of basements flooded, but that's all," a Pitcairn police officer said last night.

Duquesne University's radio station, WDUQ-FM, was knocked off the air at 6:20 p.m. when the storm cut off electrical power to its transmitter on Mount Washington.

The station, located at 90.5 FM, will be off the air indefinitely until power is restored, station spokeswoman Cynthia Ference-Kelly said.

Shoppers at the Wal-Mart on Route 19 in Cranberry weren't allowed to leave the store when the storm approached around 8 p.m. Instead, store employees ordered all customers to the ladies' clothing area in the middle of the store, then directed them to sit in a huddle on the floor.

"Everyone was petrified," said shopper Georgia Hopkins, 79, of Mercer, who had been shopping with her grandchildren.

Some people in the huddle were so frightened they began to sob, she said. Shoppers weren't allowed to move for about 30 minutes.

Mike Sarnelli hosted state troopers and volunteer firefighters who ducked into his market in Donegal to avoid the storms.

He said the troopers had been out on the roads when the first bad storm came through. But when the second storm hit, they decided to take cover. Suddenly, his basement was filled with uniforms, he said.

Sarnelli said Route 711 was closed by a tree that fell across the road, wiping out the power lines with it.

Heather Gavlick, 24, of Green Tree, was headed to the Pirates game last night when she got a phone message saying people needed her help.

Gavlick, a new volunteer for the American Red Cross, canceled her plans, donned her Red Cross T-shirt and headed to the office.

It was the first time she was called out by the organization and she didn't know what to expect.

"When I got the call saying they needed volunteers (last night), I thought it was a good chance to get some experience."

Gavlick was stationed at Brashear High School, where a shelter for Mount Washington residents was opened.

No one showed up, but as Red Cross spokesman Mike Stack pointed out, the situation was one where many people felt more comfortable staying with relatives, or at home.

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