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Fronts created tornado alley

How cold air met the heat to create tornadoes

Thursday, June 04, 1998

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sometime in the middle of last week, a mass of cold air hovering thousands of feet above northern Canada began a long downward journey toward Western Pennsylvania. Borne by the jet stream, it traveled through the Midwest, scudding over Michigan before bending eastward into Ohio.

Wading through debris, the J.A. Battle contractors were busy early yesterday morning replacing the side of Chester Belback's home on Bigham Street, Mount Washington. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Eventually, that cold air would collide with moist, balmy winds sucked up from the Gulf of Mexico to form a devastating line of thunderstorms that menaced counties from Ohio to Maryland. Those storms, captured by television in high-tech detail and broadcast live across the region, unleashed the first tornado to touch down in the city of Pittsburgh in living memory.

But as of last Thursday, when meteorologists at AccuWeather Inc. first got wind of the event while poring over long-range computer models, tornadoes were not prominent on anyone's mind. The forecast showed two cold fronts, a completely normal phenomenon not worthy of any special concern -- yet.

By Sunday, the first cold front rammed through the area. Thunderstorms broke out as a result, erupting into a powerful tornado that ripped through the tiny community of Salisbury in southern Somerset County. One person was killed, 15 were injured and scores of houses were damaged or destroyed.

It was just a harbinger of things to come.

At 1 p.m. Monday, the National Weather Service in State College issued a statement warning that the second approaching cold front could lead to severe weather. That was followed by a similar announcement from the service's center in Moon at 2:50 p.m. Wind speed was increasing and its direction was shifting at different altitudes -- signs that nasty weather was on its way.

That severe weather warning was repeated at 10:30 p.m. Six hours and 10 minutes later, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, meteorologists in State College upgraded their warning to include the possibility of tornadoes. Noting the strength of the cold front, knowing that warm, wet air was heading north, the weather watchers decided that twister conditions were shaping up to be just right.

"This was not a big surprise," said Mike Evans, a meteorologist in State College. "The only question on this storm was how much moisture would move up ahead of it.'

Enough, was the answer.

Around 2 p.m. Tuesday, a series of thunderstorms began forming across Ohio, cutting through Lake Erie and extending to points north. They raged over Cincinnati and east of Cleveland, and they churned over Toledo and Lake Huron, burning themselves out and reforming. They are called supercells, and they are the wombs from which tornadoes emerge.

At 3:52 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Columbiana County along the Pennsylvania line. It was the first official word from the National Weather Service in Moon that severe weather was on the way. Eight minutes later, a tornado watch was declared.

At 5:25 p.m., as meteorologists watched flecks on their Doppler radar arrange themselves into a "tornado signature" -- an ominous rotation in a thunderstorm that is the hallmark of a tornado -- the first tornado warning blared out.

It would be the first of 22 such warnings that accompanied the twisters into a long night of terror.

Beaver County provided the entry point for a string of tornadoes, with the first funnel cloud touching down in Raccoon at 5:30 p.m. It was rated an "F1," in a classification system that ranks tornadoes from the least powerful -- F0, with winds of between 40-72 mph -- to the most powerful, an F5 with 261-318-mph winds. Think of the movie "Twister."

As far as meteorologists could tell yesterday, the strongest of seven tornadoes confirmed in the region by the weather service -- it uses reported sightings from specialists and examinations of damage on the ground later -- was an F3 near Seven Springs in Somerset County. Winds in an F3 spiral at speeds of between 158 and 206 mph. They can scoop up cows and toss them through the air.

Although the damage spread far and wide in Pennsylvania, the region has seen far worse horrors spinning from a funnel cloud.

A swath across Raccoon

On May 31, 1985, an F5 tornado wiped out the town of Wheatland, Mercer County, and killed six people. Winds were clocked upwards of 260 mph. Seven more tornadoes that day registered at F4. They were two of 41 twisters gyring within a band of thunderstorms that ravaged parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Canada and killed 88 people.

Just as the 5:25 p.m. tornado warning rang out, the first funnel cloud was observed, said Russell Chiodo, emergency management coordinator of Beaver County's Emergency Services Center.

Packing 100-mph winds, the tornado in Raccoon stayed on the ground for about seven miles, cutting a path 300 yards wide and lasting 10 minutes as it cut across Route 18 and traveled down Holt Road. It sucked up 10 power poles from the ground, downed power lines and trees, blew transformers and pulled down awnings, shutters and rooftops from houses in its path.

About 25 homes in the area received damage, three of them severely, according to Raccoon police Sgt. Mike Anderson.

Leaving Raccoon and nearby Potter, the tornado slipped across the North Hills without consequence. Golfers at the Sewickley Heights County Club who spotted the funnel cloud fled the greens and took shelter in the pro shop.

As the cloud whipped by Sewickley, Pittsburgh police Sgt. Richard Carlson, who works out of the West End station, caught word of it.

"I was in the station and the medics were pulling out when, on the EMS (radio) channel, they got the report of the funnel cloud heading toward Pittsburgh near Sewickley," said Carlson, who was the highest-ranking supervisor on duty in his zone that night.

"I called (the city's communications center) about it, and they said it was on the way. I was standing in the front door of the station when I saw it go by."

As the twister headed roughly along the line of the Parkway West toward Pittsburgh, patrons of tony LeMont Restaurant atop Mount Washington were dining by candlelight. As the skies darkened over Downtown and the wind picked up, office workers flocked to windows to take in the scene at the Point. As usual, traffic was backed up on the Fort Pitt Bridge. As 6 o'clock approached, hail began pounding the East End and storm sewers were backing up.

At 5:40 p.m., a tree was blown down in the back yard of John and Elizabeth Harrington in Elliott. Five minutes later, winds tore down a dozen trees in Crafton Heights.

Looking out the spacious windows of LeMont, customers watched a funnel cloud that had skipped down briefly on Campbells Run Road in Collier before heading toward them.

LeMont's windows flexed so much under the windy onslaught they looked as if they would burst.

At 6:05 p.m., a tornado pounced on Mount Washington. Four minutes earlier, Jeff Kearns, 37, of Greenbush Street, heard a TV alert about a funnel cloud. It was enough to persuade him to hustle his 17-year-old son into the basement, get a phone message to his daughter, who was at a friend's house, and then run to the basement himself.

It was also enough time to see some bizarre sights -- like that of Christmas decorations flying out of his neighbor's second-story window, sucked away from storage by the storm's intensity.

Then there was the 60-foot evergreen tree across the street that snapped from its trunk and, instead of falling, rose in the air and hovered for a few seconds near the roof of a neighbor's house.

"This scared me more than any other storm in my life," Kearns said. "I just freaked."

A couple of doors down, Ruth Bittner didn't have the benefit of a TV warning because her power was off, she said. She sat in her kitchen, blissfully unaware, while the tornado swirled around her. She was concentrating on completing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle -- a peaceful rural cabin scene.

"I heard a really loud noise, but thought it was just wind and rain," Bittner said.

Frozen with fear

Pittsburgh Community Oriented Police Officer Joseph Cirigliano knew better. As the funnel cloud descended, he drove quickly through the streets of Mount Washington.

He was headed for his office at 122 Shiloh St., where he would be safer than in his car. Once there, he reasoned, he would also be able to provide some security for his vehicle by parking it close to the building.

But as Cirigliano approached his office, he spotted an older man standing on the sidewalk. Hands on his head, the man was panicked and paralyzed as the funnel cloud approached. He just stared as the tornado thundered toward him.

Cirigliano put his car in park in the middle of Shiloh. He grabbed the man and dragged him to safety inside the office just as the twister roared through.

Neither man was hurt, but Cirigliano's car, left out in the open, was severely damaged by debris. The windshield was shattered and there was extensive damage to the hood.

By this time, Carlson had made his way by car up to Mount Washington from the police station on South Main Street. He said he expected to find downed trees, wires and maybe some roof damage.

"When I got up there, I (had) never expected the kind of devastation I found up there," Carlson said. "I had no idea how much damage this thing was causing. I took a look around and then I called for every supervisor in the world."

He said he directed public safety workers to use the firehouse at Virginia Avenue and Shiloh Street as a command post and then asked the 911 communications center to summon crews and equipment from the city's Public Works Department and from utility companies.

Doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians who "just showed up" were also directed to the command post to await instructions and to be set to treat the casualties that, Carlson said, he and other police officers were sure they'd find through the night.

"Based on the number of places we saw (that were) damaged, I was sure we'd be finding people trapped all night. I was expecting lots more injuries," he said. "It just never happened. We were very lucky."

While police received a heavy volume of calls for help and damage reports from elsewhere throughout the West End zone Tuesday night, they weren't run ragged answering calls from people in Mount Washington.

One reason may have been that those most in need of help didn't have the phones or power to summon it. But Carlson said most of those in need didn't bother to ask for help -- they just pitched in and helped themselves.

"A lot of times, where there's a big storm, we get a bunch of people calling us to say, 'There's a tree down on my street,"' he said. "That didn't happen here. People seemed to realize that something bad had happened to everyone and that they all had to work together.

"People walked around, they checked on their neighbors, they offered each other help. People yelled back and forth and shared their chain saws and trucks -- whatever they had. People were surprisingly and incredibly civil."

The tornado, though, was not. When it was done with Mount Washington, it lifted off only to touch down in Hazelwood, Rankin and Donegal, Westmoreland County, at 7:05 p.m.

LeMont, left without power, opted not to close. Owner Jim Blandi said 75 customers were served by the staff, which cooked all of the entrees at tableside with propane.

"At the LeMont, you can eat duck, and you can duck," Blandi quipped.

Tree destroys house

By about 6:10 p.m., Hazelwood became the focus of the fury that had just visited Mount Washington.

Margaret Smith, 68, was chatting with her neighbor and lifelong friend, Veda Michalik, when the first gusts of rain pushed into Chaplain Way, a narrow street of small houses just past the sprawling LTV complex.

She walked the few steps from Michalik's porch to her front door, its porch spanning the twin house clad in once-red Insulbrik darkened by its years as a neighbor of the sprawling mill. In seconds, the home in which she had raised her family would be uninhabitable.

Smith walked to her sink, ready to make a cup of coffee, when the 75-foot maple tree that had stood next to her house for decades was pulled from the ground, crashed through her attic and second floor and burst through her kitchen ceiling, opening the room to cascading rain and swirling winds.

"I screamed; I screamed and cried but no one could hear me," Smith said yesterday afternoon, in a voice still shaking from the memory.

She made her way through broken dishes and debris to the telephone.

"Oh, my God, I don't have any house," she told the son-in-law she finally managed to reach.

He told her to get out of the house, but when she tried, she found that the front door was pinned shut. Finally she managed to crawl out through a hole in the bottom of the door. She made her way past the disinterred roots of the tree, leaving behind a lifetime of memories and an uninsured wreck of a house.

Just a few blocks away, Jim Rushey was looking out his front door on Courtland Street across the CSX yard toward the Monongahela River.

Between him and the dark cloud approaching with a roar of wind and rain was a CSX tanker truck, ready to be hauled away by a tractor-trailer rig.

"I looked up and I saw this thing, it looked dark and like it was turning ... It lifted the ... thing up and spun it around two or three times."

The storm front appeared to veer away from the line of small homes on Courtland Street and moved along the river, downing trees and power lines along Langhorn Street.

"It looked like Zambelli fireworks," Rushey said of the crackling and flashing of the severed power lines that fell to the street.

Nearby, at St. Stephen Church, the families of 17 eighth-graders had gathered for a graduation Mass when the lights went out.

Then the rain, hail, thunder came -- along with the tornado. Two parents held the church's double front doors shut as the twister tried to suck them open. Everyone else huddled in the center aisle. The pupils screamed, cried and held each other as a copper dome and cross were ripped from the top of the church, a stained glass window in the bell tower was blown out, a branch smashed the protective covering of another window and another tree limb slammed five windows shut simultaneously.

When the storm had passed, the Rev. Neil McCaulley finished the prayer service by candlelight.

As the storm system dumped hail and rain throughout Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs, storm sewers backed up in Monroeville, Pitcairn and Wilkinsburg, causing flooding. As Wilkinsburg police Officer Don Hamlin headed in his patrol car to help the occupants of a truck that was stopped in the water, he almost became a victim himself. Water rushed into his car, but Hamlin was able to scramble out the window and onto the roof, where he radioed for help.

Then the system spun further east.

In Pleasant Unity, near Latrobe, Jenni Perrino had been listing to reports of the approaching storm on television in her mobile home for an hour. When, shortly after 6 p.m. the broadcast told Westmoreland County residents to take shelter, she called her son, Bobby, 9, in from the yard and gathered up his 20-month-old brother, Jeffrey.

Pausing not much longer than it took for Bobby to grab his prized Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, they piled into their car in pursuit of safety.

But the quest was complicated by the fact that the family had just moved to the area and didn't know many neighbors.

The houses of two acquaintances were empty.

"I drove and drove right in the storm," Perrino said. "I didn't know what we could do. We were driving around for, I don't know, five, 10 minutes. It was black and it was lightning and it was blowing."

Finally, they found refuge in an open grocery store.

"The walls just shook," she said. "I don't think it touched down there, but it did right over the hill."

Second, smaller twister

After the tornado had punched its way through Pittsburgh and its eastern suburbs, a period of calm followed.

The sun came out, birds chirped, the Pirates went ahead with their game. It seemed as if the storms were over.

But too quickly for most, the warnings sounded again around 8 p.m. as the second batch of twisters followed a similar path through Beaver County and into the North Hills, following the path of the Ohio River again.

Shoppers at the Wal-Mart on Route 19 in Cranberry were ordered to the ladies' clothing area in the middle of the store, where they huddled on the floor.

Police ran down the streets of Mount Washington, ordering people into buildings, shouting, "There's a funnel cloud coming this way."

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

A group of people including two police officers huddled in the basement of the Monongahela Incline building.

KDKA-TV broadcast dramatic live footage of lightning strikes in the West End and an enormous black mass engulfing the West End Bridge.

A tornado formed around 8:20 p.m., roughly five miles southwest of Irwin, This one, though, was small, lasting five minutes, and its wind speeds were estimated at 60 to 74 mph.

About 8:30 p.m., a tornado touched down in Seven Springs. It cut a 25-mile swath through the county, and its speeds reached 158 to 206 mph -- the fiercest of all of Tuesday night's tornadoes. It continued southeast, passing over a mountain ridge and killing cattle. Around 9:15, it passed through Boynton, just two miles northeast of Salisbury, the town hit on Sunday, before continuing into Maryland.

The twisters then moved off to Maryland.

The terror was over. The cleanup was just beginning.

Staff writers Tom Barnes, Ann Belser, Michael A. Fuoco, Rena A. Koontz, Cindi Lash, Jim O'Toole, Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Mark Waligore and Bill Schackner contributed to this report.

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