May 31, 1985 — The United States–Canada Outbreak

[NOTE: Mouse over or click on individual photos for larger versions and more info. Also, I’ve created an interactive map of the outbreak to make it easier to follow along. It includes every known tornado track as well as every fatality, so feel free to zoom and pan around or navigate via the menu on the left side of the screen.]

While this article was meant to be read as one piece, I realize it can be a bit overwhelming. To that end, I’ve included a table of contents that should hopefully make navigation a little easier:

  1. Niles Park Plaza
  2. The Elevated Mixed Layer
  3. The Prelude
  4. Trouble Brewing
  5. Rush Cove, ON F2
  6. A Wicked Breeze
  7. Where the Hell Is This Thing?
  8. Hopeville, ON F2
  9. Corbetton, ON F3
  10. Grand Valley, ON F4
  11. Lisle, ON F2
  12. Barrie, ON F4
  13. Tornado Watch #211
  14. Albion, PA F4
  15. Mesopotamia, OH F3
  16. Linesville, PA F2
  17. Atlantic, PA F4
  18. Corry, PA F4
  19. Saegertown, PA F3
  20. Centerville, PA F3
  21. Wagner Lake, ON F2
  22. Reaboro, ON F2
  23. Alma, ON F3
  24. Ida, ON F2
  25. Rice Lake, ON F3
  26. The Spark Arrives
  27. Niles, OH-Wheatland, PA F5
  28. Tionesta, PA F4
  29. Johnstown, OH F3
  30. Tidioute, PA F3
  31. Undocumented Tornadoes
  32. New Waterford, OH F3
  33. Moshannon State Forest F4
  34. Dotter, PA F2
  35. Kane, PA F4
  36. Beaver Falls, PA F3
  37. Elimsport, PA F4
  38. Drums, PA F1

Niles Park Plaza

The sky grows dark and threatening as swollen storm clouds roll in from the west, extinguishing the late-afternoon sun. Shade trees bend and creak in protest, their broad canopies quivering in the wind. Rain comes in fits and starts, spattering against the windshield in fat, heavy droplets.

None of it matters to Ronnie Grant. After one of the proudest and happiest days of his life, a few thundershowers won’t dampen his spirits. His daughter has just graduated high school — in a few months, she’ll begin her scholarship at a prestigious university halfway across the country. In the meantime, he and his wife Jill are heading out to celebrate at their favorite local restaurant.

A lineman for the utility company, Ronnie has lived in Northeast Ohio all his life. He’s driven this stretch of U.S. 422 so many times he can do it in his sleep, arcing north and west from Girard through the outskirts of Niles. As he crests a hill overlooking a commercial strip on the city’s northeast side, the gossamer veil of rain begins to lift.

His wife gasps and stiffens in her seat. He opens his mouth to speak but the words catch in his throat. Something is terribly wrong, and suddenly the whole world is unmoored from the flow of time. Seconds linger like minutes, unfolding in a stilted, stop-motion fashion that only adds to the deep and pervasive sense of unreality. Without thinking, he instinctively pulls off the highway and slides to a stop.

He can hardly process what he’s seeing, yet every image is seared into Ronnie’s brain with inexplicable and excruciating clarity. The black, debris-choked funnel, looming like a vast shadow against the sky. The familiar outlines of homes and businesses forever disappearing, consumed in an instant by a violent, seething darkness.

The monster moves with manic energy, rapidly crossing U.S. 422 and sweeping into Niles Park Plaza. Fragments of lumber and aluminum and steel erupt in all directions like the blast wave of a grenade. Roofs and walls sail away and break apart, adding to the ever-growing cloud of wreckage.

A large, bright-colored object whirls up into the air, spinning like a helicopter. And then another. And another. The shapes are distinct and immediately recognizable — vehicles. Ronnie’s stomach turns at the realization, but he can’t look away. He watches helplessly as one car is torn apart, disgorging its occupants. Within moments, they disappear into the middle of the raging maelstrom.

They will not be the last.

The Elevated Mixed Layer

It began with a deliberate slowness, as things often do in the American Southwest. The late-spring sun burned above the Llano Estacado, a muted sea of dirt and grass and scrub that slopes gradually into the stark canyonlands of the Pecos River Valley. Intense solar radiation cut through the lacquered blue of a perpetually cloudless sky, baking the desiccated landscape.

Through the final days of May 1985, the scorching sunshine cooked up triple-digit temperatures from northern Mexico to central Oklahoma. Roiling with thermal energy, the superheated air near the surface rose in great convective currents while cooler, denser air sank toward the ground. This slow and steady churning created a deep, stable, uniform airmass over the high mesa.

Further north, a progressive trough moved swiftly toward the Northern Plains, bringing with it a powerful 70-knot jet streak. At the surface, a low-pressure system developed in the lee of the Rockies and intensified as it moved into the Upper Midwest. In response, the well-mixed airmass over the Desert Southwest began to push eastward.

On the 7 am surface map from May 30, a broad area of low pressure was beginning to develop in the Northern Plains.

Reaching the lower elevations around the Mississippi Valley, this stable airmass overspread a vast pool of warm, humid air flooding in from the Gulf of Mexico. Acting like a lid on a pot, the resulting elevated mixed layer (EML) effectively suppressed convection beneath it, allowing tremendous energy and instability to build without boiling over.

Analysis showing the edge of the lid (double solid line) at 8am May 30. (Adapted from Farrell 1989)

The Prelude

By Thursday afternoon, May 30, the deepening surface low had moved into western Minnesota. A warm front extended across the Great Lakes, while a strong cold front trailed south into Kansas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the elevated mixed layer had continued spreading to the east and north, expanding in a broad arc from northern Iowa to central Kentucky.

As unstable, moisture-rich air pooled beneath this atmospheric lid, trouble began brewing along its edges. A line of storms formed near the cold front, producing baseball-sized hail in Missouri. Brief spin-ups throughout the evening caused moderate damage in parts of North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Minnesota.

At about 10:30 pm, a large supercell fired along the northern edge of the EML in northeastern Iowa. Feeding on the untapped supply of warm, moist air, it quickly strengthened and produced a tornado in rural Clayton County. The destructive twister struck entirely without warning, badly damaging about two dozen farms and causing several injuries.

As it passed north of Elkader, the tornado leveled the south wing of the Clayton County Care Facility. The collapse of the concrete structure killed two elderly residents and hurt several others. Crossing the Mississippi River into Wisconsin, the tornado leveled a large farmhouse near Bagley, seriously injuring a woman and her son. It continued for another 10 miles, tearing through nearly two dozen farms and producing significant damage across central Grant County.

The storm promptly reorganized as it moved across southern Wisconsin, producing subsequent tornadoes in Iowa and Dane counties. During the overnight hours, additional storms broke out over parts of Ohio, bringing small hail, gusty winds and torrential downpours to the eastern half of the state. Though no one could have known it at the time, the drenching rainfall only served to add fuel to the coming fire.

Trouble Brewing

Spirits were high as the sun spilled over the northern reaches of the Ohio Valley on Friday morning, May 31, 1985. A tangible sense of excitement permeated the air as children prepared for their last day of school, the endless possibilities of summer stretching out before them. Others anxiously awaited their graduation ceremonies — or simply the end of another work week.

Few people took notice of the morning severe weather outlook issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City. The center had been monitoring the atmospheric conditions for several days, watching with growing concern as pieces began to fall into place. Even with the relatively primitive technologies of the time, NSSFC forecasters could recognize a troubling pattern when they saw it.

With an unseasonably deep low-pressure system pushing into a highly unstable airmass, backed by a dynamic and well-timed upper-level trough, the NSSFC included a Moderate Risk on its 4 am outlook for much of the Northeast and Great Lakes. Going a step further, the outlook explicitly mentioned that a “significant severe weather episode” was expected.

Not much had changed by 11 am, when the NSSFC was scheduled to produce its second daily weather outlook. In fact, the meteorologists had become even more confident in their forecast, issuing a much smaller Moderate Risk area that pinpointed eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York as the areas of greatest concern. With the picture seemingly coming into clearer focus, all that remained was to refine the details for the day’s final 3 pm outlook.

By 7 am on May 31, the surface low had begun moving into the Great Lakes region.

A loop of 500mb heights shows the developing shortwave swinging into the Great Lakes.

Rush Cove, ON F2

As the sprawling low-pressure system moved over the Great Lakes through the early afternoon, it pulled in a conveyor belt of steamy tropical air. Beneath the EML, which covered most of the Ohio Valley, brilliant blue skies provided ample sunshine. The atmosphere bubbled with convective energy.

Analysis showing the edge of the lid (double solid line) at 8am May 31. (Adapted from Farrell 1989)

Beyond the northern edge of the lid, a stiff southerly flow transported rich moisture across the Canadian border. Weather stations as far north as Central Ontario reported dewpoints in the middle and upper 60s. When the potent cold front began pushing into the region from the west, isolated thunderheads quickly developed over Lake Huron and the Bruce Peninsula.

Around 2:45 pm, the line of storms produced the first tornado of the day near Hopeness, a small farming community 15 miles north of Wiarton. Hurrying off to the northeast, the fledgling tornado quickly solidified. It began uprooting trees and breaking off large limbs, lofting them into the air and carrying them along.

On a small farm on Rush Cove Road, Roger Meneray and his family were visiting with a friend in their living room when he noticed strange movements outside. He peered out the window just in time to see a “vicious-looking” white funnel come into view through the trees. Tall and slim and barely 80 yards wide at its base, the needle-like whirl glinted and shimmered in the front-lighting of the midday sun.

Unable to tear his eyes away, Meneray looked on as the compact cone cut a diagonal swath across his property. His barn and tool shed collapsed into a heap of broken boards and beams. The van in his driveway slid and spun across the ground, ending up 25 feet away facing the opposite direction. His small sailboat sailed some 80 yards across the sky; his aluminum rowboat disappeared entirely.

The wreckage of Roger Meneray’s barn.

In a flash, several windows blew out and the siding was stripped off the south side of the house. Luckily, no one was hurt and there was no major structural damage to his home. Although the barn was mostly leveled, a pony tied up in its stall was unharmed and even continued to munch on hay, seemingly unfazed by the experience.

Several other farms around Hopeness experienced similarly close calls, losing flattened barns and outbuildings but sustaining minimal damage to homes. There were no known injuries in the area, although one horse suffered minor lacerations from flying wood. One truck was reportedly flipped onto its roof.

After tearing through the Meneray property, the tornado began to strengthen and grew to approximately 175 yards. It “clear-cut a section of bush” along the escarpment overlooking the coast, snapping off trees and depositing twisted bits of debris over a few hundred yards. Before it could intensify further, however, it moved out into Rush Cove and quickly roped out over the waters of Georgian Bay.

At the time, few could have guessed the minor spin-up would mark the beginning of one of the most violent — and unusual — tornado outbreaks in history. And yet, even as the storm weakened and dissipated, the first seeds of disaster were being sown less than 100 miles to the south.

A Wicked Breeze

With most of the region still enjoying unbroken sunshine, the atmosphere across the Ontario Peninsula was becoming more unstable by the minute. As the hot, humid air began to rise freely, the air over the surrounding Great Lakes — cooled by the moderating effects of the water — flooded ashore to take its place.

The leading edges of these airmasses formed lake-breeze fronts that spread northward from Lake Erie and southeastward from Lake Huron. Along these boundaries, cooler onshore flow plowed into the warm, buoyant airmass already in place, wedging beneath it and forcing it skyward. The lake-breeze fronts progressed inland through the early afternoon, pushing into the center of the peninsula just as the cold front arrived from the west.

The collision of contrasting airmasses generated tremendous lift, increasing vertical motion in the atmosphere and fueling vigorous convection. Intense updrafts exploded into towering supercells. Feeding on enhanced convergence and vorticity along the boundaries, they quickly overspread nearly the entire northern half of the peninsula.

What began as a refreshing lake breeze on a hot, muggy day had turned into the match that lit an atmospheric inferno.

Where the Hell Is This Thing?

Nearly 800 miles southwest of Ontario, officials at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City were vexed. So, too, were meteorologists in Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and other weather offices across the Northeast. Their calls seemed to be coming into the forecast center with increasing regularity, but the refrain was always the same: “Where the hell is this thing?!”

When NSSFC forecasters issued a Moderate Risk in their 11 am severe weather outlook, they were confident they’d see the beginnings of a significant outbreak developing in the Northeast by mid-afternoon. As the 3:30 pm deadline for the day’s final outlook rolled around, however, the latest satellite imagery showed nothing of the sort. In fact, there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Poring over the latest maps and data reports, Steve Weiss found himself just as conflicted as everyone else. His instincts, sharply honed through years of experience as an NSSFC lead forecaster, told him the classic pattern for a significant severe weather episode was still on track for the northern Ohio Valley.

There was the unseasonably strong low-pressure system and its associated frontal boundaries. The well-defined shortwave moving through the Upper Midwest, supported by a potent jet streak at its base. The tinder-box instability that continued to build. And yet, all of the available data seemed to suggest the violent storms brewing over Southern Ontario were likely to be the main — perhaps only — show.

With the afternoon outlook due and radar scopes across the area still unexpectedly clear, Weiss and his team faced an agonizing dilemma. Continuing with a Moderate Risk would imply a much higher level of confidence than they felt, risking unnecessary alarm and eroding public trust. If storms did fire, however, there would be little to stop them from reaching their explosive potential.

With no small degree of trepidation, the NSSFC crew opted for a conservative approach. Although they continued to emphasize the possibility of intense storms and tornadoes, they resignedly downgraded the outlook for Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York to a Slight Risk just after 3:30 pm.

Hopeville, ON F2

While meteorologists puzzled at the lack of activity across Ohio and Pennsylvania, things were rapidly going downhill north of the border. As a line of powerful supercells spread over the heart of Southern Ontario, the northernmost storm lashed the pastures and hayfields of southern Grey County. A barrage of heavy rain and hailstones as large as tennis balls pummeled roofs and vehicles from Holstein to Mount Forest.

Around a quarter to four, the swirling winds beneath the supercell’s updraft began to coalesce. Tightening into a slender but potent vortex, the budding tornado made contact just outside the hamlet of Maple Lane. Moving swiftly off to the east-northeast, it demolished several barns, sheds and utility buildings as it tracked about a mile south of Hopeville.

Although it remained on the ground for just over 10 miles, ending south and east of Ventry, the twister’s path through the wide-open countryside presented few opportunities for destruction. Aside from some leveled outbuildings, it left only patches of intense tree damage to mark its passing. No known injuries were recorded.

Corbetton, ON F3

Just off Ontario Highway 10 in Corbetton, a dozen miles east of Hopeville, 45-year-old carpenter Walter Lloyd was nursing his drink at the Skylight Restaurant. He watched as crisp, cottony clouds sprouted up over the horizon and piled up like a traffic jam. By the four o’clock hour, the sky had turned dark and swollen with rain. Less than enthusiastic about the thought of driving in a downpour, he settled up and headed for home.

As he drove out of town, he couldn’t help stealing peeks at the mountainous mass of clouds. It seemed almost alive, “black as tar and swirling like an eddy.” Within moments, Lloyd caught sight of something that stopped him in his tracks: a long, willowy protuberance dangled from the trailing edge of the storm, its tip “thrashing around like a fire hose under pressure.”

Owner Stevo Zderic stands under the torn-off roof of the Sky Light Restaurant.

The twister disappeared behind a cloak of rain and battering hail, but there was no mistaking where it was headed. Cutting through the outskirts of Corbetton, it tossed aside large trees and ripped the roof off the Skylight Restaurant, dumping it in a field nearly 200 yards away. Despite the damage, owner Stevo Zderic and his six remaining patrons were unharmed. Several neighboring houses sustained significant damage and one was “sliced in half” when a recently completed addition was smashed to bits.

Weaving through the agricultural area northeast of Corbetton, the tornado steadily picked up speed and strength. Near the intersection of the 5th Line and 20th Side Road, Earl Looby stood at his cellar door and hesitated, waiting to get a better look at the storm. Instead, the rain-wrapped funnel blew through with surprising swiftness. It grazed his home and tore away the attached garage, wrecking two snowmobiles and crushing a new motor boat.

Not far away, Jacques St-Denis was home alone with his young sister when the storm’s terrible roar drew close. Leaping into action, he quickly ushered her toward the basement. The siblings reaching the bottom of the steps just as the house above began to come apart.

Less than a mile to the east, several people watched what happened next from a repair shop on Highway 24. A murky curtain of rain and wind engulfed the St-Denis home, spraying a cloud of debris across the countryside. When the dust settled, the house was gone. A well-constructed barn on the property was also demolished.

The Wilson Farm before the tornado.

On their family potato farm west of Highway 24, Harold Wilson and his son Bruce were in the midst of another busy planting season. Gusty rain squalls had briefly forced them to bring their equipment inside, so father and son busied themselves working on a tractor with another farmhand. As the rain let up, Harold was surprised to hear a noise like some giant tractor-trailer or piece of farm machinery rumbling across the property. Perplexed, he headed toward the front of the workshop for a better look.

Suddenly, the large 24-by-14 door exploded in a shower of fiberglass splinters. The three men dove for cover as the workshop “disintegrated in seconds,” raining down debris and blowing equipment through the air. They narrowly escaped death when the heavy shop wall behind them blew outward rather than collapsing on top of them.

As the tornado sliced diagonally across the farm, it blew away several barns and storage buildings, sheared off a 70-foot concrete silo and toppled a full 100-ton fertilizer blender. Of the 18 vehicles on the farm, 17 were destroyed. Pickups, 10-ton trucks and pieces of farm equipment were hurled hundreds of yards and crushed. Two tractor-trailers were thrown or bounced a quarter-mile down the road and torn apart. Pieces of vehicles were found on a neighboring farm nearly two miles away.

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Still, the Wilsons were somewhat fortunate. The narrow swath of intense destruction missed their farmhouse and several other buildings, resulting in more moderate damage. Although Harold and Bruce were both hurt, no one on the property was permanently injured or killed.

After dealing a blow to the Wilson farm, the tornado continued on a curving path to the northeast. It destroyed the Agrico Fertilizer Plant and wrecked about a dozen more homes and farms as it passed south of Redickville and north of Terra Nova. The 14-mile path came to an end when the twister dissipated just northeast of Ruskview.

Grand Valley, ON F4

While Corbetton residents were digging out from the rubble of their devastated properties, an even more dangerous and destructive storm was roaring to life 30 miles to the southwest. Fueled by an unfettered flow of warm, humid air and enhanced by colliding lake-breeze boundaries, the supercell developed in nearly ideal conditions. At 4:15 pm, the longest recorded tornado track in Canadian history began.

The slithering funnel touched down in an open field near the community of Arthur, snapping tree limbs and blowing down fences as it traveled to the northeast. Passing north of the village, the intensifying twister swiftly tore through a string of farms. Several houses were wrecked and dozens of barns, sheds and other outbuildings were damaged or destroyed.

In addition to the structural damage, the storm also wreaked havoc on local crops. Fields of corn and grain — “the best in years,” according to some — were cut down or littered with wreckage. Utility poles were snapped, cutting off electricity and telephone service throughout the area. On one farm, a multi-ton tractor was rolled around and flipped upside-down.

Like a speeding car, the tornado barreled along Concession Road 2 at tremendous speeds approaching 60 mph. Due to its powerful but compact wind field, farms on the south side of the road were smashed while those on the north were largely unharmed. One woman reportedly napped peacefully on her couch, unaware that anything had happened until she was awoken by a neighbor whose home across the road had been hit.

As Barry Wood finished his beer at the Grand Valley Tavern, his thoughts turned to his horses. A truck driver by trade, the 50-year-old Wood also raced and bred horses at his farm just west of town. When the weather outside began to go downhill, he fished his keys from his pocket and started for the door. Donny Tower, a friend and fellow horse breeder, tried convincing him to stay for one more drink, but his mind was made up.

Wood hopped in his pickup truck and headed west, but he never made it to his farm. A few hundred feet from his driveway, the onrushing vortex emerged from behind a curtain of rain, striking him head-on like a freight train. It lofted his truck into the air, flipping it several times before throwing it into a ditch. Barry Wood was killed instantly on impact.

Barry Wood’s mangled pickup truck. (Courtesy of Dufferin County Museum and Archives)

Continuing northeastward along Amaranth Street, the powerful drillbit tornado swept through the heart of Grand Valley at breakneck speed. About a half-dozen homes were leveled in the town of 1,300 and more than 20 others suffered varying degrees of damage. The rows of majestic maple trees that shaded the quiet streets were broken off or yanked up by the roots and thrown through the air.

The Grand Valley Church of Christ collapsed almost in its entirety. So, too, did the small community medical center and the town hall. A public health nurse was pinned between two doors at the medical center and later had a “large wedge of glass” removed from her neck. Elsewhere, some residents remained buried under flattened structures for hours before being freed.

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At the corner of Amaranth and Main, village clerk Les Canivet was working in the municipal office beneath the Grand Valley Public Library. When menacing clouds outside the window threw the sunny afternoon into near-darkness, he sprinted toward the staircase to alert the chief librarian, Shann Leighton. He’d barely reached the bottom step before his voice was drowned out by the deep, discordant howl of the storm.

Canivet scurried back to his office to find shelter as bricks rained down around him. In the library above, Shann Leighton instinctively threw herself to the floor and covered her head. Before she could call out to the others in the library, heavy objects began to collapse on top of her. She lost consciousness.

The sturdy red-brick building, constructed in 1913 with a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Corporation, broke apart in seconds. Brick walls and wooden beams tumbled to the ground. The library’s collection of roughly 7,000 books flew through the air in every direction. In the below-grade municipal office, a large piece of sheet metal sliced through a boarded-up window and went hurtling across the room — precisely where Les Canivet had been sitting at his desk minutes earlier.

After the chaos subsided, Canivet carefully made his way out of the office and up to the library. Only the southwest corner of the exterior wall was left above ground, standing stubbornly above the rubble like a makeshift obelisk. He quickly joined the small crowd that had already gathered, digging with their bare hands to reach those buried beneath the wreckage.

Shann Leighton regained consciousness only to find herself trapped and unable to move. Somewhere above her, the librarian could hear a mother calling frantically for her children. She knew where they had been when the storm struck and could only pray no harm had come to them.

By the time she was extricated nearly an hour later, Leighton’s entire body was covered in scratches and bruises. Soon after, rescuers also pulled the two children from the rubble. Katherine Moore, 7, had been buried under heaps of bricks and books but wasn’t badly hurt. Her six-year-old brother Ricky, who was freed just moments before the rubble pile above him “collapsed in a cloud of dust,” suffered a broken left leg.

Young Kathryn & Ricky Moore sit in the rubble of the library.

Doug Hunter knew something was wrong as he raced home from work, but nothing could have prepared him for what he found when he arrived. The beautiful house he’d recently built on the outskirts of town, perched on a small hill near the banks of the Grand River, was no more. Only the lowest floor, a small walk-out basement, remained standing.

Less than an hour earlier, Hunter’s wife had been hosting relatives in the living room when the storm struck without warning. The mighty winds quickly penetrated an opening at the front of the basement, generating a huge amount of force that sheared the structure from its base and tossed it into the yard. Seventy-year-old Matilda “Tillie” McIntyre, visiting from Scotland, was killed. Her sister and brother-in-law suffered serious injuries.

Meanwhile, 10 miles east of Grand Valley, Stewart Horner was just finishing his Friday shift at Temprite Industries. He hardly noticed the darkening skies as he fired up his 1980 Chevy Monte Carlo, turning north on Highway 10 for a half-hour drive home to Shelburne. Before he’d even made it out of town, however, conditions started going downhill.

A thick blanket of gunmetal clouds swallowed up the sun as he drove, turning the afternoon as dark as midnight. Hailstones began pinging off the roof of the car and shattering on the road ahead. Stewart flipped on his headlights, searching for a place to get off the highway and hunker down. About two miles north of town, he pulled into the parking lot of the Mono Plaza and tucked in beside a large van.

Inside the shopping plaza, Cashway Building Supplies manager Jim Kant was processing an order when he, too, noticed the enveloping blackness. He hadn’t heard anything about severe weather in the area, but his interest was piqued by a faint droning sound that he couldn’t quite place. Stopping to listen more closely, he was alarmed to hear the noise growing louder and more threatening.

A few hundred yards west of the Mono Plaza, Fred and Devon Raymond were becoming worried as well. Though both were blind, they didn’t need sight to recognize that trouble was brewing. The gentle rustling of gusty winds outside had grown steadily louder and more frequent until they melded into a tremulous, metallic wail. The ground beneath their feet quivered and reverberated. Fred quickly pulled his wife to the floor and shielded her, preparing for whatever was to come.

Fred Raymond had spent 20 years building his dream house with the help of his father and a few friends. He’d labored for thousands of hours erecting walls, hanging doors and installing windows built by hand while living in a small Toronto apartment. On weekends, he’d carefully dismantle each new window, carry it with him on a Greyhound bus to Orangeville and reassemble it for installation.

In seconds, the tornado erased nearly half a lifetime of work. The noise was nearly deafening as the wind shoved the Raymonds’ home from its foundation, sending most of the walls tumbling down upon them. A large chimney, heavy enough to crush the couple to death, fortunately collapsed in the opposite direction.

Nonetheless, Fred and Devon Raymond could feel the weight of shattered walls and splintered furniture pinning them to the floor. Once the storm had relented, Devon gave voice to a terrifying thought that had entered both their minds: “Do you think anyone will find us? Do you think they even know we’re here?” They didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Within 10 minutes, their neighbor had arrived and carefully freed them from the wreckage of the house he’d helped build.

Fred Raymond stands in front of the foundation of his house.

Back in the Mono Plaza parking lot, Stewart Horner watched the tornado approach with incredible speed, not fully recognizing what he was seeing until the van to his left began to tumble toward him. Unable to free himself from his seatbelt, he ducked down and braced for impact. The van landed with a crunch, nearly flattening the roof of his Monte Carlo before bouncing along and crashing into several other vehicles. His own car quickly followed, tumbling helplessly like a toy in the furious gale.

When Horner finally came to a stop, he found himself dangling upside-down, still strapped into his seatbelt. With the driver’s side of the car completely crushed, he wriggled out of the tiny gap that had been the passenger’s window. Though dazed and covered in cuts and bruises, he escaped his wild ride relatively unscathed.

Inside Cashway Building Supplies, the low rumble rose to a terrible roar in an instant. Manager Jim Kant quickly urged his customers to get down and seek cover. On the other end of the store, 54-year-old Walter Frena never got the warning, nor had he heard the distant grumbling of the twister’s approach. In fact, like many others in the plaza, he had little inkling that anything was amiss at all — until the store exploded.

Drawn by the sudden commotion, Frena turned around just in time to see a car smash through a nearby plate glass window as if fired from a giant cannon. He instinctively whirled around to look for his wife; instead, he saw an entire section of concrete wall — complete with light fixtures, bathroom cabinets and other display products — crumbling in on him.

Partially buried under the wall, Frena clawed his way out and immediately went searching for his wife. He feared the worst as he stumbled through the piles of unrecognizable rubble. Though its northern half remained standing, the violent core of the tornado had sliced through the plaza’s southern half like a wrecking ball, leveling most of the steel and concrete masonry walls. A plaza employee’s half-ton pickup sat upside-down in the wreckage, its wheels jutting out above the flattened remnants of Cashway.

The southern half of Mono Plaza was virtually obliterated.

After a few agonizing minutes, Walter Frena found his wife Rosemarie lying among a pile of bricks. Blood leaked from numerous lacerations caused by wind-borne debris, covering her face and arms and caking to her hair. She would ultimately require more than 100 stitches.

Beyond Orangeville, the tornado thundered through the Hockley Valley and traversed a rural stretch of Adjala Township, tearing up trees and power lines but encountering relatively few structures. That changed almost immediately as the twister crossed the Adjala Tecumseth Townline two miles southwest of Tottenham. Cutting across the 3rd Line at a shallow angle, it first blew through a dairy farm owned by Jack Maher.

Although he and his house were spared, that was the extent of Maher’s good fortune. His barn was totally destroyed, killing several prized Holstein cows and completely wrecking the costly milking equipment inside. A $70,000 steel silo was flattened and most of the farm equipment was totaled, including a hay wagon thrown by the wind and “twisted like plasticine.”

The vortex narrowed and gained strength as it sped along the 3rd Line, drifting gradually from the north side of the road to the south. It shattered barns and outbuildings and blew away multiple homes, flinging pieces of shrapnel in every direction. On one farm, a steel tank that had been strapped to a concrete pad was snatched up and tossed into a stand of shredded and denuded trees. A multi-ton combine on another farm was crumpled into a ball and deposited half a mile away.

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Just west of Tottenham Road, Joan MacDonald’s house was torn to shreds as her mother, unable to reach the basement, clung desperately to the toilet in the bathroom. When the storm passed, virtually the entire house was gone. Incredibly, all that remained was the toilet — and her mother.

Half a mile to the east, Marjorie Webster had just pulled into her driveway when the skies opened up. She ran inside, sprinting down the hallway in the direction of her bedroom. The initial blow of the tornado jolted her off her feet, but she recovered and grasped for the bedroom door. Her ears filled with the screech of twisted tin and pried-up nails as the roof pulled apart.

The walls began to fall apart around her as she struggled to crawl along the hallway. The floor shook and pitched as if riding the wild swells of a gale at sea. Suddenly, the entire house broke loose of its moorings, shattering into pieces as it sailed through the air.

Marjorie Webster took flight along with her home, traveling well into a nearby field before tumbling out, injured but alive. She tried to stand but quickly slumped into the rain-soaked grass, lapsing into a coma from which she would not awaken for a month. Because of the severity of her injuries, Webster spent almost an entire year recovering in the hospital.

All that remained of Marjorie Webster’s home was a streak of debris.

At the intersection of the 3rd Line and 10th Side Road, two miles east of Tottenham, the tornado was again near peak intensity. A log-cabin home perched atop a small rise on the southwest corner of the intersection was “swept off its foundation and scattered.” Yvonne Rabbets, 59, was thrown hundreds of feet into the hollow behind her home and killed. Several other houses nearby were also splintered.

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Less than a mile to the east, 66-year-old Jack Oldfield was busy tinkering in his workshop, oblivious to the approaching storm. A few hundred yards away, his daughter-in-law Jane watched uneasily from her window as thick clouds turned the afternoon into an opaque twilight. She considered warning her father-in-law but thought better of interrupting him; surely it was only the product of an overactive imagination.

Before the thought had even left her head, blistering winds lashed the window with sheets of rain, rattling the glass against the frame. A frightful, high-pitched keening announced itself above the whooshing gusts and staccato static of raindrops. The sound was unlike anything she’d ever heard, but she understood at once what it meant.

It all happened so quickly that she barely had time to step back and crouch down to protect herself. Within seconds, the madness outside stilled and the shrieking winds were gone. Jane waited a few moments before cautiously approaching the window and peering out across the field, scanning for the familiar outline of her father-in-law’s workshop. It wasn’t there.

She bolted out the door and ran toward the workshop, or at least the place where it had been. Now, all that remained was a jagged heap of timbers and metal and ruined equipment. Jack Oldfield lay motionless beneath it all. Neighbors quickly streamed in to help pull Oldfield from the rubble, loading him into the back of a pickup and racing to the hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries soon after arriving.

In the little community of Dunkerron, a few miles east-northeast of the Oldfield property, the tornado sliced through a pair of farms belonging to Harold and Ron Hirons. It destroyed five large barns between the two farmsteads, wrecking machinery and killing a cow and a donkey. Ron Hirons’ home suffered considerable damage, but the destructive winds just missed his father’s large brick house nearby.

Just across Highway 27, the twister cut down an entire row of homes like a buzzsaw. Two houses were reportedly swept away, leaving “just the foundations sitting there.” Others avoided a direct hit but still suffered significant damage. Cars and trucks were rolled, thrown and bombarded by debris impacts, leaving them battered and wrecked.

The storm abruptly shifted northward as it crossed Highway 400, chewing up hundreds of mature willow trees along Canal Road before plunging into the Holland Marsh. The resulting destruction was extensive. Dozens of warehouses, greenhouses, barns and other outbuildings were flattened across the vital agricultural region.

Hardest hit was the area along Fraser Street, later renamed Tornado Drive. Utility poles were shattered and toppled. Storage bins, vehicles and pieces of farm equipment were lofted or rolled along the ground. Acres of crops were mowed down, the fertile fields littered with shingles and lumber and crumpled strips of sheet metal.

The storm’s intensity finally began to wane as it entered York Region, causing moderate damage to homes along Dufferin Street in Ansnorveldt. The damage path gradually became broader and more diffuse as it passed through the south side of Holland Landing and the north side of East Gwillimbury, ripping roofs off houses, shattering windows and toppling a few unanchored outbuildings.

Video from the Holland Marsh area. (Courtesy of Jim Culbert)

The Grand Valley tornado finally dissipated near Mount Albert at 5:31 pm, some 76 minutes after it began. In that time, it covered more ground than any known tornado in Canadian history, tracking just under 70 miles at an average forward speed of 55 mph. It produced violent damage and claimed lives in multiple communities, yet this record-breaking twister was soon to be overshadowed by the monstrous storm looming just 20 miles to the north.

Lisle, ON F2

As the historic storm to its south was ripping through Grand Valley, the northern supercell was wasting no time in reloading. The Corbetton tornado was still roping out when a new vortex formed immediately to the southeast. Beginning just below the bluffs outside of Ruskview, it promptly began flattening and uprooting trees along County Road 21.

Hacking and slashing a trail through the densely wooded countryside, the tornado produced a “considerable swath of destruction.” It dipped south of Randwick before drifting slightly northward as it neared the Simcoe County line, leaving few trees standing in its path. Missing the tiny community of Airlie, it then clipped the south side of Lisle, causing significant damage to two properties.

Beyond Lisle, the twister entered the historic grounds of CFB Borden, the Canadian military’s largest training base and the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Disaster was averted, however, when the funnel rapidly dissipated and the supercell once again began to cycle.

The narrow escape would soon prove fortuitous in more ways than one as base officials began receiving urgent calls for help from the region’s largest population center — just 11 miles away.

Barrie, ON F4

Having already produced a trio of significant tornadoes and a near-continuous damage path spanning some 40 miles, the prolific northern supercell geared up to deliver a coup de grâce as it pulled away from CFB Borden. A new updraft base quickly formed immediately to the northeast, its broad circulation beginning to stretch and tighten. For the people of Barrie, a thriving city of more than 40,000 on the western shore of Kempenfelt Bay, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

A few miles southwest of downtown, the static thrum of rain drew Evelyn Fisher’s attention. Fat drops swirled through an open window nearby and spattered on the kitchen floor. Dismayed by the growing puddle, she hurried off to the laundry room to fetch a rag.

Outside the laundry room window, movement flashed across the edge of her peripheral vision. Peering out across County Road 27, she spied a “swirling gray mass” heading in her direction. She ducked behind a set of cupboards and covered her head as the laundry room door slammed shut and windows began crashing in around her.

Once the commotion had stopped, Fisher slowly made her way to the door. She was puzzled to find soggy batts of insulation strewn across the floor, but the cause quickly became evident. Most of the roof was gone, ripped up in sections and flung hundreds of yards away. Little remained of the kitchen. A barn across the road was “taken out,” its contents blown into the Fishers’ yard.

Barely a minute after touching down, the tornado was already becoming ferociously destructive. It moved along the north side of Ardagh Road, tearing a gash more than 500 yards wide through a pine forest plantation. Hundreds of trees snapped like toothpicks, their bark peeled away by the wind and debris. Where the forest thinned out, a narrow strip of scoured ground marked the sinuous path of the vortex core.

In a small, tree-lined residential neighborhood between Crawford Street and Patterson Road, eight-year-old Nicki Lefebvre was playing a game of hangman with her neighbor and best friend, Paula Bodenham. Nearby, her mother Patricia watched the deteriorating weather through the window with growing apprehension. When the local paperboy stopped to make his daily delivery, Patricia urged him to head home right away.

As a gusty squall blew through the subdivision, she called the boy’s mother and was relieved to learn that he’d arrived safely. Before she could replace the handset, a blast wave of wind and debris exploded through the kitchen. The entire Lefebvre home was shattered and swept from its foundation, throwing Patricia and her five-year-old son Danny 200 yards to their deaths.

Nicki Lefebvre was gravely injured and spent two weeks in a coma, while her friend Paula was killed. Just down the street, the Bodenham home was torn apart and scattered. Paula’s parents and young brother were ejected from the wreckage but survived. Another neighbor did not. Todd Wilson, 13, was fatally injured when his family’s home was demolished.

The tornado was nearing the crescendo of its calamitous power as it swept through the outskirts of Barrie in near-F5 fashion. Vehicles were hurled hundreds of yards and crushed or twisted around trees, some of them stripped to their bare frames. Homes disappeared in the blink of an eye, transforming into a sea of fragmented debris.

Wilhelmina Schoneveld, 66, was at her kitchen table chatting with a relative from Holland when her two-story house at the corner of Patterson Road and Patterson Place was “reduced to splinters and sawdust,” killing her instantly. A few doors down, Natalie and Verne Ferrier were in their garage visiting with friends when the entire structure suddenly blew away. Verne was struck by a plow and Natalie was buried under broken trees, but the Ferriers and their friends managed to escape with their lives.

For most of the workers in the Morrow Road industrial park, the weekend came unexpectedly early. Widespread grid damage caused by the tornado near Orangeville had cut power to the area half an hour earlier, leading many plants to shut down and send their employees home. Fuzzy sunlight shone through a hazy veil of cloud as hundreds of people streamed out of the area, winding their way toward the nearby Highway 400 interchange.

One of the few people heading in the opposite direction was Bill Vandeburgt, owner of Barrie Retreading Ltd. He’d set out to do some banking downtown, but the citywide power failure cut his trip short. As the industrial park emptied, he returned to his office in a low, squat building on the west side of Morrow Road.

Despite the power outage, Bill was in no hurry to leave. Instead, he sat in the quiet office and chatted with his son David. A bright and mischievous young man with a penchant for pranks and practical jokes, David Vandeburgt had just celebrated his 27th birthday with friends and family the previous evening.

A few minutes past 5 pm, a murky gloom fell over the industrial park. Heavy squalls followed, peppering the roof with torrential rain and hail. When a deep, gravelly roar rose up outside the shop, David darted for the door to check on the commotion.

“Holy shit Dad, it’s coming right at us!”

No sooner had the words left his lips than David was gone, borne away by winds of almost unfathomable violence. In the same instant, a terrific blow knocked Bill Vandeburgt from his chair. He tumbled like a ragdoll, crashing into one wall after another as Barrie Retreading began to disintegrate. Suddenly, he came to a halt as he collided with a large, heavy object, knocking him unconscious.

Not far away, the windows at the Atlas Auto Supply Company rattled loudly in their frames. Owner Ron McKittrick, who’d stayed behind in the office with another man to finish up some business, cautiously reached for the nearest window to stop the vibration. When the entire building began to shudder, the two men hit the deck and flattened themselves against the floor.

Within seconds, the tornado leveled the Atlas warehouse with a deafening blast. Thundering winds toppled brick walls and shredded roof panels. The two-inch structural steel columns supporting the bulk of the building warped and twisted like twist ties.

When Bill Vandeburgt regained consciousness, he found himself lodged between a gas meter and a compressor bolted to the concrete slab — among the few things remaining of Barrie Retreading. Though dazed and disoriented, he immediately began combing through the rubble in search of his son. Others soon arrived to join in, but there was no sign of David.

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Just down the street, Ron McKittrick surveyed his surroundings in disbelief. Had the power outage not sent his employees home for the day a half-hour earlier, they’d have surely been buried under the tons of rubble occupying the former site of the Atlas Auto Supply warehouse. As it was, the office in which he and another man sought shelter was the only section of the facility left standing.

Outside, Ron’s prized Mercury Cougar — purchased just two months earlier — was sitting in a crumpled ball hundreds of yards away. Semi-trailers were smashed together and “tossed like children’s toys.” Heavy manufacturing equipment was torn apart and strewn about in pieces.

In all, nearly a dozen factories and shops in the Morrow Road industrial park were totally destroyed. Several others along the edges of the path were still standing but heavily damaged, as was the city’s Masonic Lodge at the northern end of the street. Near the center of the track, the winds were so violent that they drove splinters of wood into concrete and left a steel brake drum practically folded in half.

Some of the worst devastation occurred at the Albarrie textile plant. The large industrial building was utterly demolished, leaving behind an unrecognizable heap of shattered brick walls, mangled steel beams and ruined machinery. Amid the wreckage, first responders found the unidentified body of a young man clad in work clothes.

Tragically, the victim was later identified as David Vandeburgt. His head had struck a steel door frame when he was sucked into the tornado, killing him instantly. Ultimately, he’d been carried more than 1,000 feet from his original location.

Still at peak intensity as it exited the industrial park, the tornado plowed across the northern end of the Highway 400 interchange. Vehicles were blown off the road and bombarded with bursts of high-velocity shrapnel. Steel guardrails were ripped out of the ground and clumps of grass were scoured from the embankments flanking the elevated roadway. Even hardy, low-lying shrubs were completely debarked and shredded, indicating extreme near-surface winds.

Clark Priester, a 46-year-old surgeon, was driving north on the highway when he noticed what seemed to be a heavy rain squall coming from the west. Looking closer, he could see chunks of wood and strips of sheet metal “fluttering through the air like tinsel.” As he contemplated the unusual sight, several things suddenly happened in rapid succession.

A pitch-black darkness washed over the highway, followed by a frightful roar. All at once, a massive jolt shattered the windows and sent Priester’s Buick pinwheeling through the air. He blacked out, but only briefly, awaking to find that his car had improbably come to rest on all four wheels. Though it was smashed far beyond repair, he was able to force open the driver’s door and escape.

Stopping momentarily to take stock of the situation, he became vaguely aware of a warm trickle flowing from the right side of his head. Blood seeped from a gash in his scalp, running down his neck and onto his shirt. Bits of glass and metal had pockmarked his opposite shoulder like birdshot.

All around him, Highway 400 suddenly looked like a warzone. Dozens of people lay strewn in bloody heaps across the roadway and down the embankment. Others wandered aimlessly in shock. Gathering his wits, Priester quickly drew on his medical training and set about rendering aid until first responders arrived. Ultimately, although many commuters were injured — some very seriously — no motorists on the highway were killed.

At the popular Barrie Raceway, wedged between Highway 400 and Essa Road, racing horses ran frantically in all directions as the air filled with debris. Destructive winds raked the grounds as the core of the twister passed narrowly to the south, flattening barns, tossing horse trailers and badly damaging a grandstand. Stables blew away in their entirety, plastering anything left standing downstream in a thick layer of mud and manure.

A pickup truck parked outside one of the horse barns was “tossed like a dinky toy” and nearly crushed flat as it landed 400 yards away. Luke Tremblay, 27, was sitting in his car in the nearby raceway parking lot when it, too, was snatched up by the winds. He was ejected from the car as it tumbled away, suffering grave injuries to which he later succumbed.

The funnel began to contract and move eastward as it crossed Essa Road, damaging the Barrie Curling Club and several other structures. Climbing a small rise into Allandale Heights, the tornado sheared off the upper floors of an entire townhouse complex on Adelaide Street and leveled sections of it to the ground. Homes along Debra Crescent and Innisfil Street were also hit hard.

One home in this area was nearly flattened when the crumpled sleeper cab of a semi truck smashed through its roof. The cab was believed to have been torn from a truck in the vicinity of the highway — a distance of nearly half a mile.

The still-shrinking vortex seemed to lash out randomly as it followed Murray Street up yet another slope. Dozens of homes were struck, with impacts ranging from roof and siding damage to near-total destruction. The hit-or-miss damage pattern continued along Joanne Court, Springhome Road and Tower Crescent. By the time it crossed Woodcrest Road, the track was just 150 yards wide.

As it raced eastward along Greenfield Avenue, however, the tornado once again surged in intensity. In the nearby Trillium Crescent subdivision, 12-year-old Crystal Poechman was sitting in her kitchen watching black specks fly and swirl through the air. She wondered whether she was seeing a flock of birds, but her father knew better — “It’s a tornado, get downstairs!”

The roar was nearly deafening. When it passed, Crystal and her father emerged to find the new subdivision around them in ruins. The air reverberated with screams and cries and piercing sirens. The Poechmans’ own home had been saved, but their relief was quickly replaced by a chilling realization: Crystal’s younger brother had been away from home when the storm hit.

Nine-year-old Jonathan Poechman was fishing with a group of friends at Brentwood Marina when storm clouds began rolling through. As he was always told, he jumped on his bike and headed for home as soon as it started raining. Though his friends took shelter with a trusted neighbor, Jonathan continued pedaling on toward Autumn Lane.

Sadly, the young boy never made it home. Only minutes from his destination, he was overtaken by the storm and killed by flying debris, becoming the tornado’s eighth and final victim.

Just to the east, an already devastating situation very nearly became an unthinkable calamity. The tornado savaged a small industrial park on the west side of Highway 11 — now known as Yonge Street — ripping apart a row of warehouses and storage facilities. One of the demolished properties was a propane distributor with several large, fully-loaded storage tanks on-site.

When the powerful vortex swept through, it snatched up a school bus and hurled it into the industrial park. The battered bus landed with a crunch and came to rest among the propane tanks, missing several of them by a matter of feet. A direct impact likely would have ruptured the tanks, violently depressurizing the liquefied gas inside and triggering a catastrophic boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE). In such an explosion, fire officials estimated that the resulting blast wave and aerosol fireball may have reached a mile in diameter.

This bus only narrowly avoided triggering a horrific explosion.

Crossing the railroad tracks east of the highway, the funnel again reached a width of a quarter-mile. It cut through the Tollendal Woods subdivison, causing moderate damage and snapping swaths of trees. The final recorded damage came on the shores of Kempenfelt Bay, where it tossed around boats and wrecked several structures at the Brentwood Marina.

Although the official path of the Barrie tornado ends at the shoreline, witness reports suggest the tempest may have continued well out into Kempenfelt Bay as a tornadic waterspout. The waterspout may have traveled up to four miles over the water before finally dissipating south of Shanty Bay.

Tornado Watch #211

Two hundred miles south of Barrie, the mood was growing tense inside the National Weather Service office in Cleveland. Though not yet aware of the carnage unfolding north of the border, the forecasters were seeing worrying signs much closer to home. Standing at the window, Jack May watched a bulging cumulonimbus tower rise like a mushroom cloud, its buoyant energy propelling it tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

GOES visible satellite loop for the afternoon of May 31.

It had been less than 90 minutes since the National Severe Storms Forecast Center issued its afternoon severe weather update, making the fateful decision to downgrade the region to a Slight Risk. Local forecast offices had no more than received and reviewed the outlook before the first thunderstorm flared to life in Northeast Ohio. Another soon followed. And then another.

As it happened, Jack May was far from the only weather official feeling apprehensive. At the NSSFC in Kansas City, lead forecaster Steve Weiss monitored the incoming satellite imagery with growing alarm, watching as storm cells began exploding like popcorn kernels. His stomach tightened into knots.

Even days in advance, the forecasters at the NSSFC had rightly recognized the large-scale patterns of a dangerous outbreak. What they hadn’t seen in the moment — what the limited tools and technologies of the day hadn’t revealed to them — was the intricate dynamics coming together to create something approaching a worst-case scenario.

Throughout the day, abundant sunshine had steadily heated the atmosphere until it roiled with energy. Temperatures along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border surged by 10 degrees or more in less than two hours. Strong southerly flow acted like a pipeline for steamy tropical air, injecting atmospheric jet fuel into an already combustible environment.

Atmospheric instability is most commonly expressed by Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE), which essentially measures the amount of energy available to any storms that might form. CAPE values of 1,000 j/kg or more indicate moderate instability and are usually sufficient for strong to severe thunderstorms. Readings of 2,500 j/kg or more suggest a highly unstable atmosphere, supportive of powerful updrafts and intense storms.

Across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, afternoon CAPE values soared to 3,500 j/kg or more. The bubbling pot seemed poised to boil over at any moment, yet the elevated mixed layer — blown in from the superheated Desert Southwest — remained clamped over the region like a giant lid.

CAPE values at 5pm on May 31 indicate an exceedingly unstable atmosphere.

To forecasters, the resulting lack of thunderstorm development outside of Southern Ontario seemed a reason for optimism. Perhaps some crucial, unseen ingredient was missing. Perhaps the lid was strong enough to suffocate the would-be outbreak before it began.

In reality, however, the clear skies simply allowed the atmosphere to continue simmering like a pressure cooker, waiting for a trigger to release its pent-up fury.

For the people of Ohio and Pennsylvania, that trigger arrived at the worst possible time. Around 4 pm, the shortwave trough swinging through the Upper Midwest began pushing into the Great Lakes. An intense mid-level jet streak at its base provided ample wind shear and lift, priming the atmosphere for convection. A subtle split in the jet streak created diffluent flow directly above the region, further enhancing upward motion.

Just ahead of the trough, the EML that had been suppressing convection across the area continued its slow eastward migration. As the edge of the mixed layer slipped away, the rising motion in the atmosphere effectively lifted the lid, releasing the explosive airmass below. Plumes of hot, moisture-laden air rushed out from beneath it, surging high into the troposphere. In the blink of an eye, multiple vigorous updrafts filled the skies over northeastern Ohio with clusters of towering cumulonimbus clouds.

Analysis showing the edge of the lid (double solid line) at 8pm May 31. (Adapted from Farrell 1989)

It was these bright, cauliflower-shaped thunderheads that Jack May watched from his window at the National Weather Service office, but his perch afforded only a limited view of the larger picture. In Kansas City, the satellite data streaming into the NSSFC offices left no doubt. The fuse had been lit — the powder keg was about to explode.

After conferring with local weather offices in Cleveland and Buffalo, Steve Weiss quickly issued Tornado Watch #211.



4:25 PM EDT FRI MAY 31 1985













Albion, PA F4

Greg Galloway hadn’t thought much of the tornado watch when it blared from his truck radio, but he knew trouble when he saw it. As the 22-year-old warehouse worker and his girlfriend drove north toward Monroe Center, a tiny town about a mile from the Pennsylvania border in Ashtabula County, Ohio, the whole sky seemed in turmoil. Thick, carbonous clouds swelled and churned ahead of them, spiraling into a central updraft like a massive gyre. The whirling bolus dipped low, sagging below the cloud base as if being sucked down a drain into the earth.

Surrounded by flat farmland, Galloway and his companion were afforded an excellent view of the storm. A succession of faint, ephemeral funnels formed, dissipated and reformed beneath the lowering wall cloud. After several false starts, the young couple watched as the transient funnel cloud suddenly took root a mile southeast of Monroe Center.

Almost instantaneously, a dark, well-defined cone began mowing through a stand of trees along Hilldom Road. Utility poles broke loose and toppled, showering the road with sparks. Power lines snapped like flailing whips. Hastening across Middle Road, the vortex flipped several mobile homes into the air and scattered them hundreds of feet. At a nearby farm, it picked up pieces of machinery and tossed them into a field.

Rushing off to the northeast at nearly 50 mph, the storm entered Pennsylvania in the extreme northwestern corner of Crawford County. It surged across Joiner Road, blowing a pair of houses off their foundations before crossing into Erie County. There, the tornado cut a swath up to half a mile wide through a dense patch of forest known locally as Jumbo Woods, splintering hundreds of beeches and sugar maples.

From his home in southern Conneaut Township, 40-year-old Richard Bomboy studied the tumultuous western sky with deep concern. Despite being paralyzed in a workplace accident a few years prior, Bomboy was an active and experienced Skywarn storm spotter. He often called in valuable reports during foul weather, using a 180-degree video camera affixed to a high-gain directional antenna to scan from horizon to horizon.

A little after 5 pm, Bomboy’s intuitive sense of foreboding proved correct. As the supercell emerged from Jumbo Woods and came into view of his tower-mounted camera, he spied a broad, dark wall cloud descending from its rear flank. A ragged funnel hung beneath it, surrounded by a sheath of dust and seemingly scraping along the tops of the trees.

The tornado left a clear scar through Jumbo Woods on satellite.

Inside the heart of the tornado, shrouded in the pulverized remains of trees and vehicles and houses, a metamorphosis was taking place. Driven by extremely low pressure, an intense downdraft began to punch through the core. Surging outward as it neared the ground, the downdraft clashed with the violent low-level circulation, splitting the vortex and spinning up multiple subvortices — small, individual mini-tornadoes rotating at high speeds within the broader flow.

The sight was mesmerizing, but Bomboy had no time to watch. Grabbing the radio, he reported his sighting to the local National Weather Service office in Erie: “Just spotted a tornado touchdown about five miles west of Albion. Actually, I see at least two of ‘em forming. They’re headed directly toward Albion.”

Nestled into bucolic farmlands 20 miles southwest of Erie, Albion was a quiet and peaceful town of about 1,800 in 1985. Though it was near the peak of a modest population boom, the town had fallen on hard times. The Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad, Albion’s largest employer, had pulled up stakes and shuttered the local freight yard two years earlier, eliminating nearly 300 railroad jobs. Few other opportunities popped up to replace them.

Despite its misfortune, the community remained tight-knit and resilient. Not many people ever left Albion, if only because not many wanted to. Even in poor soil, family roots often run deep. Still, in a place whose only claim to fame was the excellent steelhead and muskie fishing supplied by Conneaut Creek — the spidering branches of which meander along the periphery of the borough — it was easy to believe that nothing ever really happened.

And so, when a tornado watch began popping up on television screens across town on a hot and sunny Friday afternoon, few people paid it any mind. The area had seen bad weather on occasion, of course, but a tornado? That wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in Albion.

Fire Chief Herk Shearer felt much the same way, at least until his emergency radio suddenly crackled to life with an urgent call from the station. After alerting the Erie weather office, Richard Bomboy had called the Albion Volunteer Fire Department to report that a tornado was headed their way. Moments later, a woman called to report that she’d witnessed “three tornadoes” — likely the twister’s multiple vortices — heading northeast and doing damage just beyond Jumbo Woods.

All across Albion, the call went out for firefighters to report to the fire hall immediately.

A few miles southwest of town, Jim and Bunny Reighard were sitting down to enjoy a pizza with their children. Before they could dig in, however, the floor of their two-story farmhouse began to vibrate. A deep, plangent roar reverberated the air, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.

The peculiar sensation defied ordinary experience, like being buzzed by a succession of low-flying jets on a bombing run. Unnerved, the Reighards quickly grabbed their children and led them toward the cellar steps. They reached the bottom just as the first-floor windows blew out.

On the other side of Knapp Road, Teresa Heaton had seen the monster coming as it climbed a small hill in the distance. Her first thought was for her mother, 78-year-old Lydia Taylor, who lived in a trailer a few yards away. With no place to take shelter, she knew the only chance of survival was to flee.

Heaton sprinted for her car and rushed to pick up her mother as the storm stalked over the hill and through the field. Hesitating briefly, she ran back inside to grab a flashlight. She returned only moments later, but it was already too late.

Just up the road, another neighbor had spotted the pulsating funnel as well. Debbie Sherman, 24, was arriving home from her factory job in Edinboro when she spied the infernal whirlwind above the distant treeline. She dashed inside to pick up her beloved dog, clambered behind the wheel of her van and gunned the engine.

Nearly a third of a mile wide and moving at 45 mph, the tornado tore through several properties along Carter Road before bearing down on Teresa Heaton and her mother. The churning debris cloud enveloped them in a sudden, impenetrable darkness, the chewed-up remains of houses and barns and trees and scoured fields battering the car from every angle.

Teresa clutched the steering wheel with all her might as the wind tried to pry her loose, exerting such force that the steering column began to give way. The windows shattered, peppering her body with a hail of glass fragments. The wheels of the car lost contact with the ground.

A short distance away, the Reighards scrambled for cover as their farmhouse lifted from its foundation. The sturdy two-story structure collapsed like a house of cards, filling the cellar with wind-blown debris. A floor joist struck Bunny in the head, knocking her out cold. Her daughter let out a piercing scream. Jim tried in vain to search for his family, finding it impossible to force his eyes open in the gritty, blinding wind.

At the same time, Debbie Sherman was unwittingly hurtling toward disaster. As she peeled out of her driveway onto Knapp Road, she had no idea she was driving straight into the jaws of death. A neighbor pulling his tractor into his barn recognized Sherman’s fateful trajectory and hurried to intervene, racing toward the road and frantically trying to get her attention.

To Jim Reighard, the ghastly assault seemed to stop time in its tracks. In reality, it lasted scarcely 30 seconds. When he could again open his eyes, he found his world entirely altered. The house was gone, a gaping opening the only thing remaining to mark its location.

Jim & Bunny Reighard’s home was blown away. (Courtesy of Sally Dobson)

A twisted piece of farm equipment from a neighbor’s property jutted out from the opposite end of the cellar. Trees were totally denuded, snapped off at the base or torn out by the roots and tossed across the yard. A savings book belonging to one of the Reighard children later turned up some 50 miles away in Maysville, New York. Bunny was seriously hurt, but the Reighards escaped with their lives.

The frame of Lydia Taylor’s trailer wrapped around a totally debarked tree near the Reighard property. (Courtesy of Sally Dobson)

Against all odds, so did Teresa Heaton. Although she suffered terrible injuries and lived for years with glass fragments embedded in her skin, the steering wheel of her car held her in place and likely spared her life. Sadly, her mother had no such protection. Lydia Taylor was sucked through a window and found in a shallow ditch near the crumpled car.

Despite his best efforts, Debbie Sherman’s neighbor could not arrest her fate. He watched helplessly as her van shuddered, tipped and lifted from the road, rising hundreds of feet into the air before sailing over the top of a silo. It crashed to the earth in a nearby field, instantly killing Debbie and her dog.

After a long day’s work in neighboring Springboro, Robert Koehler couldn’t help letting his thoughts drift as he followed Route 18 home to Albion. His 10th anniversary was approaching and his mind wandered as he ruminated over the perfect gift. Thoughts of fine jewelry and romantic getaways soon evaporated, however, when he fixed his eyes on the distant horizon.

The mid-afternoon sky was cloaked in low, murky clouds. Faint tinges of green and yellow flecked the storm’s bubbling base, creating an unusual and vaguely unsettling appearance. A large funnel, as dark and dingy as charcoal, hung from a lowering a few miles off to the west.

The shape-shifting mass moved like a wounded animal, surging forward erratically and recoiling before striking out again. Pulling over at the crest of a hill overlooking downtown, Koehler watched as the tornado came to a sudden halt, wobbling drunkenly in place and briefly looping back on itself before accelerating again. To his immense relief, the vortex appeared to be tearing itself apart.

But all was not as it seemed, and while the whirling cloud had shed much of its mass, it had lost none of its potency. Sporting a deceptively slimmed-down profile, it began to gently curve away from him as it picked up speed. In fact, it seemed to be following the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad — directly toward downtown Albion.

The tornado’s wobbly track as it approached Albion. The Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad tracks are on the right. (Courtesy of Ipper Collens)

All at once, unseen structures began to explode, cloaking the funnel in a swirling sheath of debris stretching hundreds of feet into the air. Robert Koehler could feel his pulse pounding in his ears. A cold sweat prickled his skin and he felt ill as he muttered to no one in particular: “My God, they’re all going to die.”

About a mile to the northeast, Michael McCabe was headed back to Albion after running a few errands in neighboring Cranesville. Heavy rain began falling in torrents, pelting the family station wagon as he turned west on Route 6N with his mother and younger brother in tow. Pitch-black clouds blotted out the sun, reducing visibility even further.

Cresting a hill just east of town, the rain abruptly gave way to reveal a startling view. A broad, dark funnel hung from the clouds, splitting the opposite horizon into contrasting thirds. For a moment, the extraordinary sight seemed too overwhelming, too implausible to sink in. “Is that what I think it is?” Michael’s mother asked incredulously. The answer came from his younger brother, Sean. “Yes! It’s a tornado!”

Worse still, the powerful tempest seemed to be heading straight for the McCabes’ neighborhood. Michael thought of his grandmother, home alone and likely unaware of the impending calamity. He raced ahead into the path of the storm, throwing caution to the wind in a desperate bid to reach her before the maelstrom closed in.

The tornado was less than a mile away by the time the McCabes pulled into their driveway on East State Street. Hail ricocheted off the car and bounced across the pavement. Sean McCabe sprinted for home and dashed for the basement while Michael and his mother went to warn his grandmother of the rapidly approaching storm. Unfazed, she remained characteristically skeptical: “Well, who predicted it?”

As if on cue, a violent gust of wind whistled through the neighborhood, blowing heavy rain and hailstones almost horizontally against the side of the house. Windows began to shatter. With no time to spare, Michael lifted his grandmother and carried her down the narrow steps into the cellar.

Sweeping across the railroad tracks into the south side of town, the tornado struck Albion with phenomenal force. It swept away trailers and frame homes alike in a 300-yard swath along Main Street, Park Avenue and Jackson Avenue, injuring multiple people and killing 70-year-old Lena Keith. The savage winds smashed structures to bits and deposited the ground-up wreckage in thin, convergent streaks stretching into the nearby woodline.

On the other side of a narrow ravine, Stanley and Frances Kireta, 68 and 65 respectively, were in their kitchen when the vortex shifted sharply northward, making a beeline for their home at the southern tip of Water Street. Before they could find shelter, their house was torn from its foundation and dumped into the ravine. First responders later found their bodies strewn among the wreckage.

A few hundred yards to the east, Michael McCabe hunkered down in the cellar with his mother and grandmother. Even above the howl of wind and the pounding of rain and hail, a voice called out from the emergency scanner upstairs: “Albion Base to West County! There’s a tornado coming right through the middle of town!”

The piercing wail of the fire siren briefly cut through the din before the power failed, plunging the cellar into darkness. The only illumination came from the pale, eerie green light spilling through a small casement window. Michael felt short of breath, as if all the air were being drained from the room and pulled from his lungs. His ears popped.

The onrushing mass of wind and debris struck with the sudden force of a tsunami. The entire wall around the casement window seemed to disintegrate before his eyes. An explosion of shattered masonry and timbers knocked him off his feet and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

Michael McCabe awoke to the sound of his mother’s voice. He tried to move, but a tremendous weight pressed down upon him and pinned him to the cold, dank floor. A trickle of water flowed from some unknown source, pooling around his head and nearly rising to meet his nostrils. All at once, he felt certain he was going to die.

John Hosey, a volunteer fireman who lived nearby, was the first to come to the McCabes’ aid. Other neighbors soon joined in. Swinging fire axes and digging with their bare hands, the makeshift rescue crew soon freed Michael from the rubble. He’d been trapped beneath a large section of wall blown into the basement from neighbors Bob and Debbie Gould’s home when it, too, was demolished. The trickle of water had come from the Goulds’ waterbed.

Despite suffering a broken rib and lacerated liver, Michael immediately went to work helping with the ongoing rescue efforts. His mother had been pinned in a hunched position, suffering a spinal fracture that left her unable to stand up under her own power. Just beneath her, his grandmother had sustained numerous bruises, lacerations and other injuries.

A few hundred feet away, Sean McCabe emerged from the wreckage of the family’s own home largely unscathed. Many others in the area were far less fortunate. A next-door neighbor, Earl Rice, was terribly injured when a massive wall collapsed on him and crushed his legs. His wife Ruth, who’d been standing at the window when the storm hit, was blasted by shards of glass and covered in rubble.

One block to the east, 64-year-old William Revak was browsing inside J&A Auto Parts when the store began to crack and crumble. Large sections of the structure gave way, crashing down upon him and crushing him to death. Norman Elliott, 35, was visiting friends in a home next door to the auto parts store. The tornado virtually demolished it, killing him as he sought shelter.

Sandra Stahlsmith watched out the window as two of her young boys, Zakary and Luke, played with the gleaming white hailstones that littered their yard on the southwest corner of Pearl and Thornton. The 35-year-old mother of five — due to be a mother of six in November — was busy cooking a chicken and rice dinner when a neighbor, alarmed by the increasingly dire radio traffic coming across the scanner, warned her of the approaching danger.

Ordering her sons inside, Stahlsmith called upstairs for her daughters, Brook and Bree, and rushed to retrieve one-year-old Bryce from his crib. The bellowing storm filled her ears as Sandra quickly descended the cellar steps and lined her children up along the only cellar wall without a window. Searching for some small measure of protection, the family huddled behind a table and held on tight.

Meanwhile, a block to the north, Pete Stebnisky was sitting on his front porch at 240 East Washington Street with his brother-in-law, Bernard Engle. As the pair chatted, they were distracted by what sounded like a speeding locomotive chugging down the tracks. It was a sound that Bernie had heard before. He leapt quickly to his feet — “That’s a tornado!”

Pete chuckled dismissively until he noticed scraps of paper and insulation and shingles swirling through the street. He dashed inside on the heels of his brother-in-law, stopping only to yell for his wife. Barb Stebnisky, who’d been getting ready to attend a school meeting, dropped everything and hurried downstairs to join him.

Just across the yard, Pete’s sister, 70-year-old Helen Sabovik, was watching after her neighbor’s children while their mother recuperated in the hospital. Seeing the dark, stormy clouds gathering over the far end of town as she prepared dinner, she told the young girls she’d be right back and headed next door to close her windows.

She would never return.

Cruel and capricious in equal measure, the tornado left a chaotic path of destruction as it sped across Albion. Fleeting suction vortices struck with nearly surgical precision, carving narrow, arcing streaks of concentrated violence that cut across neighborhoods. A few yards separated lightly damaged structures from virtually unrecognizable heaps. For some, a few yards separated life from death.

From her cellar on the corner of Pearl and Thornton, Sandra Stahlsmith could hear her neighborhood being torn asunder. She pulled her five children close and tucked in between a heavy table and the concrete wall. The family prayed and shut their eyes as the windows blew in.

All at once, the structure gave way. The walls above them failed, collapsing into the cellar and crashing down over Sandra’s back as she cradled six-year-old Luke in her arms. She resisted with all her strength, but the weight was simply too much. She fell forward, pinning Luke’s neck against the edge of the table. Her young son drew two sharp breaths and fell silent.

Looking SW toward Pearl & Thornton (below and left of center). The Stahlsmiths’ home is just above the intersection.

Unable to move and unable to see her kids as they cried around her, Sandra was convinced they were sharing their last moments on Earth. “Children, I think we’re all going to be with Jesus real soon,” she reassured them. “Just close your eyes and go to sleep.”

Once the storm had passed, nine-year-old Bree Stahlsmith managed to climb from the rubble and get help. Rescuers quickly pulled the other children to safety, but they labored for more than half an hour with jacks and sledgehammers to free Luke and his mother. Despite repeated efforts to revive him, Sandra knew that her son was gone.

Trailing behind his wife and brother-in-law, Pete Stebnisky barely made it to the basement before his home on East Washington Street exploded. The force of the wind knocked him off his feet and sent him tumbling under the cellar steps just as most of the floor above buckled and came crashing down. Across the room, Barb and Bernie took cover under the only section of floor that remained intact.

Within 20 seconds, it was over. Pete, a Korean War veteran, cautiously emerged from the rubble and into “devastation like I’ve never seen before.” The house was virtually gone, as were most of his and his wife’s belongings. Bernie Engle immediately went searching for the Jeep he’d left parked at the curb, eventually finding it smashed more than 100 yards away.

Sprinting across the yard to check on his sister, Pete found her trailer utterly destroyed. It didn’t take long to confirm his worst fear: Helen Sabovik was dead. Her neighbor and best friend, 72-year-old Marie Eagley, was gravely hurt and soon died as well. Several other neighbors also sustained critical injuries when their homes were destroyed.

Fortunately, the children Helen Sabovik had been looking after were not among them. The older girl had seen the tornado coming and crawled under the bed with her young sister. Pieces of lumber smashed through the bedroom and embedded into the walls like darts, but the girls were unharmed.

In the little town of Cranesville, less than a mile’s drive north from Albion on John Williams Avenue, Glen Black was nearly frozen in terror. The Vice President of the Cranesville Volunteer Fire Department had seen more than his share over the years, but the scene in front of him chilled him to the bone. A black pillar of cloud, at least a quarter-mile wide, was ripping through Albion and charging toward Cranesville at tremendous speed.

The tornado mowed down trees in between Albion and Cranesville. (Courtesy of Daniel Wolfe)

The funnel continuously kicked up a heavy shroud of dust and debris as it went. Whole trees broke free from the ground and sailed through the air. Roofs and walls splintered as if struck by artillery shells. Here and there, strips of aluminum flashing caught the light and glittered like tinsel. The noise was “just tremendous, with a roar like 100 freight trains.”

The Albion tornado generated a tremendous cloud of debris as it ripped through town.

Frosty Crane, Cranesville’s volunteer fire chief, didn’t hear the tumult as he toiled away in his garage at Albion Truck Repair. What he did hear was his dogs, whose barking had become unusually sharp and incessant. Stepping outside to see what had so unsettled the dogs, Frosty came face-to-face with “a huge, black funnel cloud” bearing down on him.

Immediately, he yelled for his son Tim and ordered him to get to the fire hall. Tim Crane jumped in his truck and took off. Frosty followed close behind, weaving through traffic and around obstacles as the monstrous twister threatened to chase them down. He watched in stunned silence “large trees became uprooted and circled overhead.”

And then, to his horror, it struck the trailer park.

Tim Crane arrived first at the fire hall in Cranesville and swiftly assembled what equipment he could. With no power and the town ambulance already out on call, there was no doubt about his first destination. He grabbed his gear and set off with a few other volunteers.

Just a few hundred yards south of the station, the crew turned onto a narrow, unpaved road that sprouted from the northbound lane of Route 18. The path was virtually inaccessible, littered with tangled piles of snapped and uprooted trees. Climbing through the shredded foliage, Crane emerged into the flat, roughly oval-shaped clearing of Kennedy’s Trailer Park.

It was like stepping into a nightmare. Sharp, orderly rows of driveways spread out before him, but there were virtually no trailers to be found. Instead, many driveways led only to empty lots where trailers had been picked up and thrown or flipped hundreds of feet end over end. Others terminated in chaotic heaps of splintered wreckage. Fortunate survivors stumbled about in shock like muddy, blood-soaked zombies. Gas spewed from broken meters, muddling with the scent of crisp pine and dank, torn-up earth.

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Tim grabbed a crescent wrench and began shutting off meters as other firefighters searched for victims and tended to the wounded. Boards and doors became makeshift litters to carry the most seriously injured out to waiting pickup trucks. Many of the trailers had been smashed against the treeline or blown into a wooded ravine behind the park, making search and rescue especially difficult.

An aerial video of the damage at Kennedy’s Trailer Court.

At the bottom of the ravine, first responders found the body of 36-year-old Ralph Hecker among the rubble. Continuing to dig through the devastation, they soon stumbled upon another tragic discovery. Jodi Snyder, 24, was found crushed beneath the demolished remains of her trailer. She’d been seven months pregnant. At her feet, firefighters found her three-year-old son Robbie.

Though “barely alive” when he was pulled from the wreckage, Robbie Snyder was hailed as a miracle. Sadly, he remained in a coma and never fully recovered from the terrible injuries he sustained. Though he isn’t included in the official death toll, Robbie Snyder would become the outbreak’s final victim when he died in 1993 at the age of 11.

After devastating Kennedy’s Trailer Park, the tornado veered hard right and narrowly missed downtown Cranesville. It continued its erratic path across the countryside, gradually shrinking as it moved into Elk Creek Township. Several homes and farms suffered damage along parts of Thrasher, Miller and Babbitt roads, injuring at least two people. Shortly thereafter, the whirlwind came to a swift and unceremonious end, dissipating in a grove of trees near Little Elk Creek.

In just under 16 miles, the Albion tornado killed 13 people and seriously injured nearly 100 others. It wiped out a dozen blocks of the town for which it was named, inflicting scars that would never fully heal. It blew away entire lifetimes’ worth of memories and possessions, transporting debris as far as the northern tip of Conesus Lake, some 150 miles to the northeast.

Mesopotamia, OH F3

As the Albion supercell pushed deeper into northwestern Pennsylvania, it was flanked by intense convection on all sides. To the north, multiple rotating thunderstorms drifted over the wind-whipped waters of Lake Erie. To the south, a pair of dynamic supercells rapidly gained strength, casting a pall over northeastern Ohio.

Initially developing near Cleveland — conveniently within view of National Weather Service meteorologist Jack May — the southernmost cell in the sprawling storm complex produced quarter-sized hail and damaging winds as it sped across southern Cuyahoga and Geauga counties. A motorist passing through Auburn Township on U.S. 422 paralleled the storm for several minutes as a “perfect funnel” dropped from the clouds, hanging just above the treetops but stubbornly refusing to touch the ground.

Moments before crossing into the northwestern corner of Trumbull County, the funnel finally touched down in a wooded area southeast of Middlefield. Just across the county line, the embryonic twister swept over a low hill and into a small Amish community along Parkman-Mesopotamia Road.

Melvin Troyer and his family, alerted by “strange sounds and strong winds,” piled into their basement just before the storm pulled the roof off their home. The whirlwind broke windows, leveled chicken coops and tore apart a barn that had stood for 120 years. Several of the Troyers’ neighbors also lost roofs, barns and outbuildings, but no one in the community was seriously injured.

In nearby Mesopotamia, hailstones the size of half dollars fell from a sky that had turned a sickly shade of yellowish-purple. Children raced outside, eager to collect the gleaming stones. Parents soon followed, drawn by a sound like distant booms of thunder melding into a continuous clamor. Just half a mile south of town, the still-strengthening tornado charged across Route 534, kicking up a cloud of debris as it went.

A mile east of Mesopotamia, 16-year-old Nick Fisher was visiting a friend on Route 87 when, without warning, “the house started flying.” The roof sailed away and the structure began tumbling down. Furniture sailed through the air and crashed through walls. Fisher could feel debris pelting his back and legs, but before he could even protect himself, the dizzying experience was over.

Similar scenes unfolded throughout the small neighborhood, as the quarter-mile-wide tornado leveled half a dozen homes and several trailers near Coombs Road. Another nearby house, largely spared by the winds, was struck by lightning and engulfed in flames. Nick Fisher escaped the destruction without a scratch, but several others were injured by falling walls and flying debris.

Continuing on its northeasterly course, the tornado tore through a number of properties near North Bloomfield. The heaviest damage in the area came just north of town, where homes and barns along Route 45 were wrecked. Trees and utility poles were splintered and at least two vehicles were “tossed around and totaled.”

As the storm moved into Ashtabula County, the mesocyclone began to occlude. The funnel slowly shrank as it drifted northward, cutting a wobbly path of damaged trees and downed power lines. It lifted southeast of Colebrook, having destroyed about 40 homes and damaged dozens of others along its 16-mile track.

At the same time, a new mesocyclone formed to the south and traveled along the northern edge of Trumbull County. The circulation quickly tightened and produced what may have been a brief tornado, resulting in considerable tree damage over a narrow, four-mile span. The short damage path was never officially documented, but as the supercell neared the Pennsylvania border, its next act would be impossible to miss.

Linesville, PA F2

At the End of the Road Campground, about two miles west of Linesville, Pennsylvania, the eastern shore of Pymatuning Reservoir was bustling with activity. Some people swam just offshore or relaxed along the beach, soaking in the summery afternoon. Others picked out shady spots for camping and picnics. Here and there, boats pulled out from the marina and plied the wide-open waters.

Though thunderstorms were in the forecast, the splendid weather seemed to suggest any trouble had already passed. Few people noticed the skein of cottony clouds that propagated across the horizon, coalescing into broad towers that loomed darkly over the far side of the lake. Nor did most of them notice the shifting winds, blowing in increasingly erratic and insistent gusts.

Shortly before 5:20 pm, a few of the revelers spotted a “peculiar, turbulent motion” in the clouds, partially obscured by a small, forested spit of land just offshore. As the storm cleared the trees, a silvery wisp of a funnel came into view. Whipping and thrashing about, it churned the surface of the water into mist as it charged across the reservoir.

Suddenly, the wail of Linesville’s emergency sirens interrupted their gawking. Some scurried for cover, while others hurried to tighten down their campsites and secure loose objects. The camp hostess, 73-year-old Ruth Allen, saw the commotion and rushed to her nearby trailer. She reached for the CB and tried to alert park rangers, but her radio suddenly fell silent.

Ruth and her husband fled toward the relative safety of a nearby wash house as the tornado moved ashore, but they were too late. The merciless winds scooped up the travel trailer and flipped it over, instantly crushing her to death. It narrowly missed her husband, who survived with a badly broken ankle.

Elsewhere in End of the Road Campground, some 75 campsites were damaged or destroyed and six people were injured badly enough to require hospitalization. According to unverified news reports, a sign from the camping area was later found 50 miles away. A cluster of frame homes behind the park were battered by wind and debris, with one losing its roof and several walls and another being smashed by a downed tree.

The tornado apparently reached maximum size and intensity as it skirted just a few hundred yards north of Linesville. Gouging a jagged 200-yard path through checkered patches of forest, it swept away two mobile homes, a barn and a garage between Route 6 and Airport Road. It then struck Wallace Avenue Extension at full force, “hovering for a few seconds” as it bulldozed an unoccupied frame home and snapped off dozens of large trees.

The Linesville tornado at the end of its path near Harmonsburg Rd.

Finally, the twister pried the roof off a home on Linesville Road and whirled it into a neighboring field. Traveling about another quarter-mile, it recurved briefly to the north before roping out. Though the brief six-mile track resulted in only moderate damage, Linesville’s near-miss likely spared the community much more substantial destruction.

Atlantic, PA F4

Before the Linesville twister had even dissipated, park rangers received reports of yet another storm moving into the Pymatuning Reservoir area. Starting just yards across the state line in Trumbull County, Ohio, the new tornado quickly crossed into Pennsylvania near the southern border of Crawford County. Slipping by the south end of the reservoir, it began its path of destruction in earnest as it entered the northern side of Jamestown.

The growing tempest destroyed four homes in the Douthett housing development and narrowly missed the Jamestown Elementary School. Along Route 322, it leveled several homes, a beer distributor and a grocery store. It also damaged a tavern and demolished a pair of mobile homes, blowing them across the highway and smashing them against the opposite embankment.

North of town, half a dozen more homes were wrecked along Snake Road and Adamsville Road. A multi-ton swather was snatched up from a farm south of Adamsville and ripped apart, the pieces scattered nearly half a mile. The nearby Rocky Glen Cemetery was heavily damaged as well. By the time it rumbled across Route 18, the path was half a mile wide. Whole stands of trees were flattened, some of them twisted and debarked. The area was left brown and barren according to locals, “as though it had been ravaged by fire.”

The tornado cut a massive path of destruction between Adamsville and Atlantic (top right). (Courtesy of Ipper Collens)

A half-moon strip of hickory, sugar maple and hemlock stretched across the gentle hills east of Route 18, roughly marking the boundary between the communities of Adamsville and Atlantic. In a small clearing on the eastern edge of the woods, 23-year-old Cindy Godwin could see the monstrous storm threatening to swallow up her home in the pleasant little Pinedale Trailer Court.

A friend had just arrived to check on her, but Cindy’s only concern was her infant son. She pleaded: “Save my baby, get the baby out of here! Help me, please!” Reluctantly, her friend did as instructed, racing away to seek shelter with the young child while Cindy stayed behind.

Near the entrance to the trailer court, 81-year-old Frank Talbot lived in a frame house with his wife Wanda. The Talbots, whose son owned the property, adored their home and took pride in helping to manage the park’s day-to-day operations. In fact, the couple often told friends and family that they intended to stay at Pinedale until they died. Tragically, they were soon proved right.

In seconds, the Pinedale Trailer Court quite literally vanished in a blizzard of wood and glass and metal. When it was over, all that remained was tattered possessions and ruined lives. Every single trailer was torn apart and blown away, the mangled frames thrown great distances or wrapped around trees. Despite its sturdier construction, the Talbots’ beloved house fared no better. It was totally dismantled and razed to the ground. Even the bright green fields were scoured in places, leaving them dull and muddy.

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Perhaps fittingly — though no less tragically — Frank and Wanda Talbot died in the wreckage of their home. So, too, did 24-year-old Darla Rigby, a family member who’d traveled from Texas to visit the couple. And though she’d managed to save her infant son, Cindy Godwin found no refuge for herself. She was killed when her trailer was blown away, crushed to death under the swirling mass of debris.

Half a mile to the northeast, on a humble farm cut into the sweeping slope leading to Atlantic, Andy Byler sat on the porch and watched his fate approach. At 77, the Amish lay preacher and woodworker was never one to get rattled. He’d weathered worse storms before, he insisted, even as the rest of his extended family begged him to join them in the relative safety of the basement.

By the time the malevolent heart of the storm came into view, his fate was sealed. The tornado swept away the Byler home and demolished the nearby home of a son, leaving both “splintered like matchsticks.” Andy Byler was blown from his porch with tremendous force, his body landing several hundred yards away in a gully.

The wreckage of Andy Byler’s home.

Andy Byler’s funeral procession.

Elsewhere across the countryside, the properties of nearly a dozen other families, mostly Amish, suffered significant damage. Many homes were badly damaged, some completely torn apart. Barns were destroyed, trees were shorn of their bark and limbs and fields of spring wheat were “plowed up” by the vicious, debris-laden winds.

In the sleepy little hamlet of Atlantic — population 175, give or take — Greenville Fire Chief Hugh Shields was backing out of his driveway on his way to work when he was stopped cold by the most unreal and extraordinary scene he’d ever witnessed. Just to his west, a dark and brooding funnel protruded from the clouds, kicking up plumes of debris as it scoured its way across the landscape. Momentarily dumbfounded, Hugh could do little more than stare slack-jawed at the behemoth closing in on him.

The violent tornado as it approached Atlantic. (Courtesy of Hugh Shields)

As he began to process what he was seeing, he quickly realized there was no time to sprint for the house. Throwing himself to the ground, he shimmied under his Chevy Malibu and held tight to its undercarriage. The piercing screech came first, followed swiftly by the savage and sudden wind. Fragments of houses and trees and cars pummeled his body, tearing his clothes and slicing an ugly, jagged gash in his left forearm. He passed out.

Not far away, Bob Dager and his wife were sitting in their dining room, celebrating the final mortgage payment they’d made just hours earlier. With their home finally paid off, the couple mused about the remodeling projects they’d tackle in the coming months and years. Instead, their home disintegrated around them in the blink of an eye.

Despite the cruel twist of fate, Bob spared no time for reflection or self-pity. After ensuring that his wife was okay, he immediately set out to help neighbors whose homes were similarly demolished. In the ruins of one property, a man was badly hurt when he was pinned beneath a massive fuel drum hurled by the twister. At another house, a woman was nearly buried when the entire structure collapsed in a heap upon her.

While the tornado raced off into the distance, Hugh Shields regained consciousness to find that he was still in his driveway. Against all odds, his Chevy Malibu remained firmly parked in place above him. Pulling himself to his feet, he looked around in stunned silence at a landscape that he knew would never be the same.

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Of the approximately 100 homes and businesses scattered around town, scarcely more than a half-dozen escaped significant damage. Some were missing roofs or walls; many others were simply leveled. The Atlantic Feed and Grain Mill was wiped out. So were the Pennsylvania Dutch general store, the local gas station and the town’s post office, built less than a year earlier.

Acting almost without thinking, Hugh stumbled toward the splintered remains of his house and cautiously made his way to the basement. He rinsed off the caked-on dirt and blood that flowed from the gash in his arm, then he grabbed his shortwave radio and uttered the only words he could manage.

“I’m hurt, and Atlantic is gone.”

Though it had already killed five people and demolished hundreds of structures, the Atlantic tornado’s deadly rampage had only just begun. Speeding along at 45 mph, it clipped a 312-foot AT&T microwave tower east of town. The tower — allegedly designed to withstand winds of 200-300 mph according to some sources — buckled near the base and collapsed onto an empty home.

A mile away, Betty Marsh was sitting in her living room when the sky became “as black as midnight.” She heard a faint noise as she rose to close her front door, but she wasn’t especially concerned. For more than a century, the rustic eight-room farmhouse in which she’d spent nearly all of her 63 years had stood strong through countless storms. A little wind, she consoled herself, was no reason to fret.

But the old farmhouse was no match for a storm of such unrelenting violence. Betty lost consciousness just as the house began to break apart. When she came to, she was lying next to the bathtub with a deep gash in her right hand. The house was gone, its remains strewn across the field along with most of her possessions. Her car, too, was battered and dumped in the field. Even the land itself was scarred, the topsoil “ripped away and carried off.”

Even across the most sparsely populated stretches of southern Crawford County, the path of destruction was unmistakable. The powerful vortex — stretching well over half a mile from edge to edge — felled thousands of trees as it careened wildly through the wilderness. Barreling across Route 19, destroying a motel and a tavern in the process, it seemed on a direct collision course to wipe yet another tiny community off the map.

To call Custards a town would, perhaps, be a little too generous. In truth, the little cluster of houses around seven miles south of Meadville hardly registered as an entity at all. Nonetheless, as Debbie Meister stood in a wind-swept field along Route 285 and watched the enormous twister approach, she felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She grabbed her camera and snapped a few shots, keenly aware that she might be witnessing the last few moments of Custards’ existence.

The Atlantic tornado roaring toward Custards. (Courtesy of Debbie Meister)

Instead, as the tornado cut across Interstate 79, its course again shifted sharply to the south. Custards was spared, but the little community’s good fortune spelled doom for others. The shifting storm swept through the rural farmland southeast of town, causing total devastation and killing 76-year-old Iris Motzing.

On nearby Mallory Road, insurance agent Keith Beveridge arrived at the home of John and Shirley Moore just before 5:30 pm. He’d visited the couple earlier in the week to help them choose a life insurance policy after John, 41, was laid off from his job. He returned with a few final forms to complete the policy and sat at the kitchen table with John to review them. Shirley Moore left to attend a church function with one of the couple’s sons while the other two watched television in the living room.

As John completed the paperwork and signed a check for the first payment, Keith took note of an odd, unsettling rumble in the distance. It continued to grow louder, as if a tremendous torrent of water were thundering through the valley. Suddenly, the orderly progression of time seemed to break down. To Keith, what followed was a series of surreal, disjointed moments that seemed both instantaneous and interminable.

The power went out. Outside the kitchen window, the trees in the yard bent over at implausible angles. The sound of shattering glass was everywhere, but it soon blended into the ghastly, all-encompassing roar of the wind. A mighty gust jolted the Moores’ mobile home and sheared off the front porch, sending it hurtling by the window.

Reflexively, Keith dove under the kitchen table and held on for dear life. John shepherded his boys under the table as well, using his body to shield them from the storm. The whole kitchen seemed to shake around them, and then Keith felt the distinct sensation of weightlessness.

Upon regaining consciousness, Keith found himself on the ground next to a toilet that had nearly struck him. The sound of faint cries in the distance immediately snapped him back to his senses. Scanning the rubble around him, he found the two young boys seriously injured but alive. Further away, he stumbled upon John lying motionless in the grass.

Just moments after finalizing a life insurance policy to provide security for his family, John Moore was dead. The paperwork and the check were nowhere to be found, but the insurance company decided to honor the claim.

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Continuing to speed along at nearly 50 mph, the tornado demolished several homes as it skirted just south of Route 285. One homeowner in the area reported that the field behind their house had been “dug out” and covered in tons of debris. Another was away when the tornado struck and returned to find that both their farmhouse and their most prized possession — a brand-new Ford F-150 purchased less than two weeks earlier — were gone. A neighbor later found the truck in a wooded hollow nearly half a mile away. A week later, a check from their home was found 120 miles to the northeast in Genesee, PA.

The monster Atlantic tornado approaching Cochranton near Rt. 285. (Courtesy of Keith Beveridge)

As it bore down on the town of Cochranton, the tornado again took a last-minute detour to the south. Once again, however, the shift that spared a potential catastrophe instead produced a more personal tragedy. The half-mile-wide monster tore across the steep slope of Steen Hill, shredding the home of 72-year-old Al Longo and killing him instantly.

The twister’s strength began to ebb as it reached the banks of French Creek. Its sprawling wind field contracted, shrinking to about a quarter-mile. Dipping even further to the south, it clipped the outskirts of Cochranton along Old Highway 322. Our Lady of Lourdes Church was heavily damaged, as were Bernarding’s Auto Service and a few surrounding homes.

Following directly along Judson Road as it entered northwestern Venango County, the storm’s trail of destruction became remarkably erratic. A mobile home belonging to W.F. Dolan was flipped over and collapsed while a small shed stood virtually untouched 50 feet away. On another property, massive trees were uprooted and tossed around between structures that suffered minimal damage.

While the randomness of the destruction led to near misses for many, William Deeter and his family weren’t nearly so lucky. William’s home was badly damaged and had to be condemned; two other properties he owned nearby were completely wrecked. His mother Phyllis, 68, died a short distance away, caught by the winds as she and her husband ran for the shelter of their basement.

Betty Zinz didn’t have time to notice the storm brewing over the hill behind her home on Lake Creek Road, about a mile north of Cooperstown. She had her hands full dealing with her two young boys, five-year-old Adam and two-year-old Matthew, while her husband was at work. When the ground began to vibrate, she peered out her window just in time to see a huge tree fly across her neighbor’s property and into her yard.

Betty grabbed her sons and ran to the rear of the family’s double-wide, throwing herself on top of them just as the twister hit. In seconds, it picked up the mobile home and smashed it against the wooded hillside, leaving her dazed on the ground. When she stood up, she realized with horror that young Michael had disappeared. Scanning the debris, she called out “Where is my baby?!”

To her immense relief — and puzzlement — the answer came quickly: “Here I am, Mommy!” The two-year-old boy got to his feet, popping up from a small depression in the ground. Though covered in dirt and completely naked, Michael nonetheless emerged with only a few superficial injuries.

A mile to the east, 13-year-old PJ Bergin was attending a family gathering at his grandfather’s farm along Route 427. When dark, ominous clouds interrupted a spirited game of whiffle ball, nearly a dozen family members piled into a trailer just across from the farmhouse. Even as it began to rain, it seemed little more than a temporary inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the tornado’s chaotic, zig-zag path once more took a dire turn. The vortex banked to the north, zeroing in on PJ and the Robert Wilson farm like a heat-seeking missile. The trailer in which the family had gathered went airborne and disintegrated, leaving only part of the crushed frame tangled up among the trees.

Broken bodies flew in all directions, landing in heaps across the property. Young PJ was killed. Many others were gravely hurt, sustaining terrible injuries that ranged from deep lacerations and puncture wounds to broken vertebrae and compound fractures. PJ’s brother, 17-year-old Mike Moore, likely saved several other family members by running to get emergency help despite his own injuries.

East of Route 427, the twister again ballooned to more than a mile wide as it slithered through the rugged hills northeast of Cooperstown. Following the contours of Sugar Creek, its path shifted even more sharply to the northeast, perhaps sparing nearby Dempseytown a direct hit. Passing along the south side of Creek Road, it destroyed multiple homes and barns and tossed several cars across the countryside.

At the Highbanks Trailer Park, Charles Show and his wife heard the booming storm as it approached. They took their three-year-old foster son, Tim Haggerty, and scampered down to the basement beneath their trailer. The noise was terrific as the huge debris cloud shredded the mobile home to ribbons. As it tore away, the basement walls began to shift and cave in on top of them, crushing the boy’s leg.

Not far away, a mobile home belonging to Conrad Himes was also demolished. Himes, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, was unable to seek shelter before the storm struck. Incredibly, however, rescuers arrived to find him still seated in his wheelchair on the patio, injured but alive.

Another local resident, Tom Birch, woke up from an afternoon nap just in time to see a tornado warning flash across the television. Seizing his dog by the collar, he ran outside and dove underneath his trailer. The trailer “disappeared” in a cloud of debris, but Birch and his dog were spared. When he lifted his head, he saw his pickup truck hurtling through the air and smashing to the ground. He leaped out of the way as it pinwheeled across the yard in his direction, finally coming to a stop in a crumpled ball.

Beyond Creek Road, the tornado resumed a more easterly motion and narrowly brushed past the north side of Dempseytown. Achieving a maximum width of nearly 1.2 miles, the tornado again reached violent intensity, leveling frame homes and “chopping large trees into kindling” as it roared across Route 428 and Gresham Road. The intense low-level winds in the area reportedly stripped asphalt from a section of roadway.

Shortly after 6 pm, David Marshall Sr. pulled into the driveway of a home just off Route 417, about three-quarters of a mile south of Cherrytree. The trailer belonged to 28-year-old Beverly Westfall and her husband William, who’d hired him to build a basement on the property. A professional bricklayer and stone mason by trade, he and his son, Dave Jr., had decided to make the afternoon trip from Erie to check on the worksite after recent heavy rains.

The Westfall home was located just behind McCormick Trailer Court, an 11-unit mobile home park operated by Beverly’s father. Benjamin McCormick, who was out of town on business, lived in a home near the entrance to the park. Beverly’s grandparents, John and Viola McCormick, lived in another frame house next door.

With her husband at work, Beverly turned to doting on her young daughter. A “little bundle of affection,” 11-month-old Pamela was just three days shy of her first birthday. Beverly busied herself making plans for the occasion, unaware of the darkening skies outside her window.

For David Marshall, it wasn’t the brooding clouds that he found unsettling; an eerie stillness had settled over the area like a pregnant pause, suffusing the steamy air with a quiet sense of foreboding. Out of caution, Dave Jr. headed to the truck to check the radio for any news. An urgent warning cut through the static: a large tornado had been spotted in the vicinity. Dave immediately turned and charged toward the trailer, but the Westfalls’ fates were already sealed.

The roiling, wedge-shaped funnel swept across Route 417 from the northwest, laying waste to all that stood before it. With disorienting suddenness, it pulverized the McCormick family’s homes, fatally injuring 80-year-old Viola and seriously wounding her husband. On an adjoining property, Charles and Judy Best’s trailer was blasted into the air and dismantled. The couple, along with their son Brock, 15, were thrown across a field and into a shattered grove of trees. All three were killed instantly.

The Atlantic tornado crossing Rt. 417 as seen from Hamilton Corners Rd.

The paroxysm swallowed up McCormick’s Trailer Court and enveloped the Westfall property in a blizzard of domestic chaff. Dave shouted for Beverly and her daughter, but it was a warning that would never be heard. The wind swiped the trailer from its lot and broke it apart, blowing Dave off his feet and into a sand pile. His father, who’d been standing in the doorway of a detached two-story garage nearby, was buried under crumbling wreckage and pinned to the cement floor.

Amid a sea of jumbled detritus and twisted trees, first responders worked until nightfall to reach the area. Dave Jr. was lucky to walk away with only cuts and bruises. His father was extracted from the rubble and rushed to the hospital, where he’d spend weeks recovering from a badly fractured hip and arm, a broken ankle and serious trauma to his chest. Not long after, rescue crews found the lifeless bodies of Beverly and Pamela Westfall.

Just beyond Route 417 and McCormick’s Trailer Court, Dan and Sandy Hovis were relaxing at home when Sandy’s sister called to warn of the approaching twister. Sandy grabbed her daughter, Jodi, and headed for the basement while her husband dashed to the barn to put the family’s horses in their stalls. With a devastating blow, the storm ripped the Hovis’ home cleanly from its foundation and disintegrated it. A van hurtled through the air and crashed into the basement as Sandy and her daughter huddled in a corner.

The barn was also blown away, carrying Dan along with it as it sailed across the pasture. It finally came to a stop after slamming into a tree. Somehow, aside from cuts and bruises, all three members of the Hovis family escaped serious injury. So, too, did their three horses and 14 boarding dogs.

Nearby, however, an estimated 160,000 birds were killed when Wolfe’s Gamebird Hatchery was wiped out. At least 100,000 eggs were also lost when the hatchery’s giant $65,000 brooders were blown away. Several of the brooders were thrown onto the Hovis property, including one that was found wrapped around the skeleton of a tree.

As it approached Cherrytree, the tornado’s unpredictable movement prevented yet another potential direct hit. It dove abruptly to the south, shrinking quickly and losing steam as it crossed Oil Creek State Park. A trail of moderate damage continued for a further 12 miles before the twister crossed the Allegheny River into Forest County, dissipating south of Tionesta.

The final damage path spanned just over 56 miles and parts of four counties, leaving hundreds of homes in ruins and very nearly wiping the community of Atlantic out of existence. The tornado killed 16 people and injured perhaps 200 others, some of whom never fully recovered. Still, the epic scale of the tragedy was only beginning to unfold across the Northeast.

Corry, PA F4

As the Atlantic tornado was busy terrorizing Crawford and Venango counties, the supercell responsible for the deadly twister in Albion continued marching through southern Erie County. After cycling and developing a new mesocyclone, the storm promptly reintensified. The rotating updraft stretched and contracted, producing a smooth, slender funnel that touched down just southeast of Waterford.

Racing eastward at 40 mph, the storm crossed French Creek and heavily damaged several structures along Middleton, Kimball Hill and Murray Hill roads. Three miles north of Union City, the strengthening drillbit slashed through a cluster of farms along Route 8, carving a narrow but intense path of destruction.

The Corry tornado early in its path near Union City. Taken from Route 8 near Amity Rd. (Courtesy of Lyle Lozier)

Two people were injured and more than 30 head of cattle were killed at one farm that was virtually blown apart. Multi-ton pieces of farm equipment were picked up and tossed hundreds of yards. A gravity wagon weighing several thousand pounds was hurled more than a mile into the woods and destroyed.

The tornado continued its rampage as it swept along nearby Fenno Road. The Richard Fennell and Lyle Bisbee farms were hit hard, resulting in heavy equipment damage and the loss of more than 70 head of cattle. At the corner of Lyons Road, a house was picked up and “sailed through the air” before being dashed to pieces. Every structure on the property was razed to the ground except a single silo.

The Corry tornado as it neared peak intensity. Taken about 1.3 miles south of the path on Rt. 89 north of Elgin. (Courtesy of Michele Carch Bixby)

Several houses along Donation Road were completely smashed, throwing 35-year-old Patricia Bromley from her home and causing serious injuries. Multiple structures in the area were practically swept clean, the wreckage blown away by the ruinous winds. A dump truck was lifted from the driveway of one home and dropped upside down atop a pile of debris in a neighboring yard. Houses, barns and trailers on the north side of Thompson Road were also heavily damaged or destroyed, including one that was blown a hundred yards off its foundation.

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As it climbed the broad sweep of Carter Hill, the tornado’s wind field rapidly grew to nearly three-quarters of a mile in a span of minutes. It plowed through patches of heavily wooded terrain, snapping or uprooting almost every tree in its way. At the same time, it began a slow, subtle curve toward the northeast.

A completely destroyed home on Carter Hill. (Courtesy of Ember Thomas)

In nearby Corry, a former railway town of about 7,000 on the eastern edge of Erie County, Ed Schmitt Jr. was celebrating his 15th birthday with his father and brother. Scattered thunderstorms had put an early end to baseball practice, so the Schmitts stopped at McDonald’s for a quick dinner. Unaware of the severe weather in the area, Ed Sr. and his sons then piled into the family truck and headed a few miles north to Wiggers Canoe Shop.

As a birthday present, Ed planned on buying his oldest son a new life jacket. Ed Jr. was a member of the local Boy Scout troop and was anxiously awaiting an upcoming five-day canoe trip down the Allegheny River. Father and sons listened intently as shop owner Dave Wiggers showed off his wares. Another customer, Sam Hamilton, perused the selection of life vests and paddles nearby.

Suddenly, a heavy thud reverberated off the roof of the barn that housed the shop. And then another. And another. In moments, it sounded like the hooves of a hundred horses stampeding across the roof. Filing outside, the group found hail the size of golf balls scattered across the ground.

After watching his sons throw hailstones around for a few minutes, Ed Sr. returned to the shop with Dave to complete his purchase. Before long, however, an altogether different sound filled the store. “What’s that noise?” Dave asked. “That doesn’t sound right.”

As the noise grew louder, Dave and his patrons rushed back outside and peered toward Carter Hill, about a quarter-mile to the west. They watched in stunned silence as a mass of black, boiling clouds crested the hill and surged down the slope behind the shop like a landslide. Taken aback, Dave quickly grasped the perilous situation. “Oh my God, run for the basement of the house!”

Dave, Sam Hamilton, Ed Schmitt and his sons sprinted for the Wiggers house a short distance away. Rushing down the stairs to the basement, they fumbled desperately in the dark to open the locked door. Once inside, Ed Sr. immediately pushed his boys to the ground and covered them as best he could.

Within seconds, a cacophony of carnage swept over them — glass windows shattered, roof decking and framing timbers splintered apart, furniture and appliances disappeared. The air filled with dust and furnace soot as wind barged through the open basement door, blasting them with dirt and grit.

The core of the tornado passed almost directly overhead, virtually disintegrating the Wiggers home. Light spilled into the basement as the structure above was ripped away. Ed held on with all his strength, resisting the force of the vortex as it tried to pry his children out from underneath him.

When it was over, the five survivors slowly climbed out of the basement in a daze. Both the house and the canoe shop were gone, their shattered remnants blown clear across the highway and deposited in streaks by the extreme winds. Items from the shop were later found as far away as the north shore of Chautauqua Lake, some 20 miles to the northeast. Trees of all sizes were snapped off in a swath nearly a mile wide. According to Sam Hamilton, “It looked like someone with a great big mower came and sheared off all the trees.”

Glancing at the parking lot, Sam realized that his truck had disappeared. So, too, had Ed Schmitt’s. It didn’t take long to find them. Looking out over the freshly denuded valley, they could see vehicles scattered across the countryside in barely recognizable heaps. Ed’s truck had been thrown over half a mile and crushed like a ball of aluminum foil. Not far away, Sam’s truck had been twisted and dumped into a shallow swamp.

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To the younger Ed’s dismay, there wasn’t a life jacket in sight.

Moving into the hilly farmland north of Corry, the giant tornado continued on its long northeastward arc, bulldozing several homes on Crosscut and Sciota roads. On neighboring Spirit Hill Road, 16-year-old Chris Phillips and his family were just settling in to share a pizza when hail started clattering off the roof. Venturing outside a few minutes later to toss the slick, pearlescent stones around, Phillips was surprised by the stillness of the air. The only movement came from the flurry of leaves falling from the leaden sky.

When he returned to his meal, Chris kept an eye on the heavy clouds to the west through a large bay window overlooking Sciota Road. Moments later, an oddly shaped object streaked across the sky. Standing up and approaching the window to get a better look, he witnessed what seemed to be a cow flying through the air. Seeing the commotion, his father shouted for the family to run to the basement.

There they waited, pressed tightly to the wall as the fearful voice of the tornado rose up and slowly fell away. Once it was safe to leave the basement, Chris and his family found every window in their house shattered. Outside, his father’s Ford Bronco had been tossed 50 yards to the south and his mother’s car had been flipped over on its side. All around the property, stands of trees were laid down like matchsticks.

The Phillips’ neighbors fared even worse. Their home was gone, with only the below-grade basement walls left in place. Chris and his family ran down to help, shutting off the leaking gas line and searching for survivors. To their immense relief, they found that no one in the family was home.

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As the twister rolled on, it smashed through multiple farms and completely destroyed at least two homes on Plank Road. In the northwestern corner of Warren County, it reached a peak width of one mile. Fortunately, it struck few houses in the county and primarily damaged vast tracts of forest.

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The funnel began to gradually narrow as it entered New York, crossing into rural Chautauqua County about three miles southeast of Clymer. It remained powerful, however, blowing down thousands of trees and taking out miles of power lines. Farms on Nazareth, Phelps and Goshen roads suffered heavy damage, causing several injuries and killing cattle on multiple properties.

Finally, the tornado curved sharply northward and lifted about a mile northwest of Watts Flats. The damage path, often exceeding three-quarters of a mile wide between Corry and Clymer, covered 28 miles in all. Miraculously, despite the size and intensity of the tornado, it resulted in zero human fatalities and only a few serious injuries.

Saegertown, PA F3

South and west of the Corry tornado, the storm moving out of Linesville was gearing up for its second act. Beneath the cloud deck, motorists on Interstate 79 had a front-row view of the developing whirlwind. A swarm of wispy, tightly coiled vortices spun up just east of the highway, shredding foliage as they wriggled and whirled about a common center. The circulation traveled the north side of Black Road, damaging homes and destroying at least two garages.

Moving into lightly populated areas south of Saegertown, the multivortex tornado skipped through the Fountain House Mobile Home Park near the intersection of Highway 86 and Route 198. Most of the trailers in the figure-eight-shaped park were barely touched, but some were spun around or pushed off their lots. One woman was seriously injured when a lone trailer near the back, possibly hit by a small subvortex, was flipped over and destroyed.

The random, hit-or-miss damage pattern continued on the north shore of Woodcock Creek Lake, a flood control dam and recreation area operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The growing vortex spared the Project Office building but picked up a car belonging to the father of the on-duty ranger inside. The car was tumbled out into the yard and crumpled into a ball.

Not far from where the car came to rest, Ed Schwindt had been taking a nap on his couch when a friend called to warn him about tornadoes in the area. He made a hasty retreat to the lowest level of his three-story home and took cover. The wind raked Schwindt’s residence, shearing off much of the top floor of the house and showering debris onto the couch where he’d been resting.

In the next building, the park manager and his family huddled together as the windows began blowing out all around them. Every window was shattered and part of the roof was peeled away, but the building remained intact and no one was hurt. In the nearby Overlook Recreation Area, the roof of the restroom facility was torn off.

As it exited Woodcock Creek Lake, the tornado quickly ramped up in intensity and grew into a large stovepipe. It ripped a quarter-mile scar through a wooded area north of the lake before taking out a small cabin on Theuret Hill. Smashing into a neighboring farmstead, it destroyed barns and outbuildings, wrecked machinery and flattened large hardwood trees. One car was sucked into the funnel and eventually spit out into a denuded apple orchard.

Just beyond Theuret Hill, about a mile north of Blooming Valley, Jim and Janet Hunter were busy getting ready for the evening milking on their family dairy farm. As Janet rounded up the cows, she was surprised to find them unsettled and agitated. For the first time that she could remember, they balked at the normally simple and painless routine. Exasperated, she brought in the heavy milking cows and left the others outside.

The Hunters had hardly got the cows settled in before the power started to flicker. Though it seemed perfectly calm outside, the barn soon lapsed into darkness. Frustrated, Jim went to the telephone to report the outage while Janet and her daughter Janyelle, 11, finished the milking.

She wasn’t quite sure why, but as she went about her work, Janet felt increasingly apprehensive. She sent Janyelle to the house to fetch her two siblings, nine-year-old Jarrett and six-year-old Jonathan, who were playing together upstairs. Just in case something were to happen, she reasoned, at least the family would be together.

Jim returned moments later, his face showing a hint of concern. Not only had he been unable to reach the power company, he couldn’t seem to get through to anyone. Unsure of what was happening, he suggested that Janet go inside with the kids while he finished up in the barn.

Outside, the wind had suddenly come to life as thick clouds moved in, casting a strange pall over the area. A loud rumble resonated across the farm as if from some approaching locomotive. As Janet pressed her shoulder into the wind and fought her way toward the house, the troubling clues — the unruly cows, the loss of power, the ugly sky, the train that was nowhere to be seen — suddenly clicked into place.

Her children appeared at the front door and she screamed at them to run for the basement. Together, they bolted down the steps and pushed inside, unable to pull the heavy metal door closed behind them in the stiffening gale. Janet gathered her children in her arms and shut her eyes — but not before looking up to see the entire house beginning to separate from the foundation.

The noise and vibration were overwhelming, but the tumult lasted only seconds. As the tempest receded and silence settled over the Hunter farmstead, Janet quickly checked her children. Aside from a scratch on nine-year-old Jarrett’s chest, everyone in the basement appeared to be okay. Their home, however, was not.

A neighbor had watched the entire disaster unfold from less than a mile away. After crossing Theuret Hill, the tornado had banked sharply south and slammed into the Hunter farm. It effortlessly cleaved the house from its foundation, lifting it 60 feet in the air before dashing it apart in a swath of jagged debris. The force of the shock broke loose heavy stones from the basement walls, dropping one of them onto a chest freezer just a foot from where the family sought shelter.

Climbing out of the basement, Janet took in the full scale of the disaster for the first time. Virtually the entire farm — the barn, the garage, the machine shed, the two silos erected just a few years before — was gone. Immediately, her thoughts turned to her husband and she ran in the direction of the milkhouse, followed closely by her children.

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Aside from the foundation, all that remained of the structure was a collapsed four-by-five section of wall made from core-filled CMU blocks. Jim Hunter lay beneath it, his head and upper body trapped under the weight of the rubble. With a surge of adrenaline, Janet and the children propped up the wall enough to carefully pull him loose.

Dirt caked his eyes and penetrated into the pores of his skin. His pelvis had been shattered in multiple places, along with his collarbone and ribs. His foot had been badly damaged by a falling compressor. Doctors weren’t optimistic upon his arrival at the hospital, but he underwent emergency surgery and his condition gradually stabilized. Though it took a full year, Jim Hunter ultimately made a nearly full recovery.

Though they were fortunate to come away with their lives, the Hunters lost nearly everything else. Two dozen of their cattle were killed and many others suffered from shock or physical injuries. Most of their possessions were blown far and wide across the countryside.

The red Ford F250 pickup Jim had purchased just months before was hurled 500 yards into a field and mangled. The engine block was ripped away, the body torn up and partly twisted off the frame. Inexplicably, a tractor parked directly between the pickup and the leveled milkhouse didn’t budge an inch, suffering only a smashed steering wheel from flying debris.

A few miles east of the Hunter farm, Gabe Leonhard was — as usual — in the middle of a daydream. He’d started mowing lawns to earn some extra money in his spare time, but he also found the work strangely meditative. When the first drops of rain interrupted his reverie, he was surprised to find the sky-blue canopy above him had curdled into a vaguely threatening shade of gray.

Shutting off his mower, the next thing he noticed was a sound that he couldn’t quite place; an indistinct, slightly sibilant sound like a creek swollen to bursting with rainwater. From his elevated perch at the top of a small knoll, he was afforded a mostly unimpeded view of the area. It didn’t take him long to spot the source of the commotion.

Barely a mile away, a sturdy cylinder of a vortex was chewing up the pastoral landscape, looking more like an upside-down nuclear cooling tower than a stereotypical funnel. Leonhard’s pulse pounded in his ears, but the fact that he was in danger hardly registered. He was entranced.

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As the twister dipped into the valley to his west, it began kicking up plumes of debris. Bits of houses and barns circled the funnel and spread out like confetti. An entire roof — from what, Leonhard could not tell — seemed to glide through the air as if no longer bound by the force of gravity. Scraps of paper fluttered around him and settled gently on the fresh-cut grass.

Suddenly, he snapped back to his senses.

Propelled by an overwhelming urge to flee, Leonhard turned and sprinted full-speed for his car. The snarling cacophony of destruction rose in his ears as the funnel swiftly closed in. He fumbled for the key, turned the ignition and buried the accelerator, spraying a rooster tail of dirt and gravel as he raced back to the main road.

He turned east on Route 77 with nothing but falling trees in his rearview mirror; some broken off and blown over, others plucked from the ground by their roots and dropped a quarter-mile away. Erratic winds pelted his car with a spray of pebbles and branches. He kept the accelerator pinned and sped northeast, practically paralleling the tornado.

Daring to steal a few quick glances, Leonhard could see the twister evolving as it moved eastward into the heavily wooded countryside. The formerly stout, well-defined stovepipe seemed to shed its outer layers as if being sheared apart by its own rotation. Partially hidden by gauzy curtains of rain, it continued on for perhaps another five miles, its turbulent circulation likely dropping multiple spin-ups and inflicting spotty, light-to-moderate damage.

The following day, Gabe Leonhard returned to find that far more than his customer’s lawn had been mowed. Most of the handsome, mature shade trees lining the property were gone, either uprooted or “smashed to toothpicks.” The house and garage on the property had been spared save for a few missing shingles, but several neighboring homes were in ruins.

In the valley below, the tornado had done some mowing of its own, leaving a streak of torn-out grass and spattered mud in a field behind one heavily damaged home. A few hundred yards away, a small sedan was sitting near the banks of a creek, its paint mostly obscured by mud and its body crushed down to nearly half its normal width.

After a quick cruise through the area to see if anyone needed a hand, Leonhard returned to his customer’s property to look for the equipment he’d left behind during his hasty exit. A small cooler containing water bottles and cans of soda was oddly unharmed except for a few small dents. Everything else had disappeared.

Although both he and the property owner continued to search periodically for more than a week, Leonhard never saw his lawnmower or string trimmer again.

Centerville, PA F3

In the sleepy little borough of Hydetown, about 14 miles southeast of Gabe Leonhard and his vanishing lawnmower, 21-year-old Chris Sterling was unwinding after a day’s work at his father’s gas station. He’d just settled in for dinner when the silence was shattered by a series of frantic, staticky transmissions squawking from his emergency scanner. The muddled barrage of voices was nearly unintelligible, but amid the garbled traffic, it was clear something urgent was going on.

As a member of the nearby Centerville Volunteer Fire Department, Sterling sprang into action, jumping into his vehicle and racing north on Route 8. Arriving at the fire hall on the north side of Centerville, he and his fellow first responders worked to make sense of the chaotic situation. Reports began trickling in, slowly revealing the scale of the unfolding emergency.

A tornado had struck the heart of Albion, about 30 miles to the northwest. Atlantic, around the same distance to the southwest, was said to be simply “gone.” Multiple other communities on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border were calling for assistance. Within minutes, another update came from Crawford County Emergency Management: Centerville, too, was under the gun.

Curious, Sterling and another volunteer stepped outside for a better look. The skies were a dusky, swirling sea of yellowish-gray. Almost immediately, the other man began gesturing toward the horizon. “Right there’s our troublemaker!” he exclaimed, his excitement belying an undercurrent of fear.

A slim, tapered funnel — perhaps the same one that had ripped through parts of Saegertown and Blooming Valley; more likely, a new vortex produced as the parent storm cycled — hung over the rolling hills southwest of Centerville. Even from a distance, its sylphlike form was deceiving. It spun itself up with increasing speed, gaining in size as it spooled in sheets of rain and condensation. In less than a minute, its transformation into an imposing wedge was complete.

When the horizon began to fill with flying trees, Sterling and his colleagues knew there was no time to wait around. They grabbed their gear, dashed to their fire truck and clambered aboard. Within moments, the crew was fully equipped and pulling out of the station.

As they turned onto Route 8, a volley of debris sprayed across the two-lane highway in front of them. Less than half a mile away, a PennDOT facility valued at more than $500,000 suddenly exploded in a shower of shredded sheet metal. Multi-ton service trucks flew through the air and tumbled into a field across the road. From such close range, the half-mile-wide vortex looked more like a wall of sooty smoke bubbling in the heat of a wildfire.

But there was no time to watch, to marvel at the awesome power of nature. Before the tornado was even out of sight, the first responders proceeded into the damage path to begin rescue operations. At the corner of Route 8 and Station Road, a large propane tank rested amid the broken remains of a home, venting intense jets of flame high into the air. The firefighters quickly picked their way through the debris, closing the tank’s valve and extinguishing the flames.

As Sterling and his crew continued working their way down Station Road, sifting through an ocean of domestic detritus for injuries and entrapments, the destruction seemed to become more complete with every step. Trailers and frame homes alike were torn apart, reduced to scraps and strewn through fields and prostrated, denuded woods.

Half a mile to the south, where the blacktop surface of Station Road transitions into loosely packed dirt, Sterling and his team encountered a pair of homes that were completely demolished. Combing through the shredded remnants, they made the discovery they’d been dreading: the body of 61-year-old Steve Petrisko. Oscar Gray, 48, was soon found nearby.

The neighbors had been visiting near the Petrisko home when the storm struck, killing them instantly. Petrisko’s wife, Gertrude, was blown 150 yards into the woods and gravely wounded. At least two other neighbors were also seriously injured. As the first responders waited for ambulances to reach the storm-torn area, a bolt of lightning struck so close that its impact sprayed them with mud. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

After blasting through the south side of Centerville, the tornado cut a sinuous path to the east, flattening several more homes and dismantling a number of barns. One woman was reportedly badly hurt on White Road and may have eventually succumbed to her injuries, but her death remains unconfirmed. The circulation recurved northward as it occluded near the end of its 8.8 mile path, finishing just east of Buells Corners.

Wagner Lake, ON F2

Despite having produced the longest tornado track in Canadian history, the supercell that had sown death and destruction from Grand Valley to the Holland Marsh was not yet finished. Soon after the Grand Valley tornado dissipated outside of Mount Albert, another funnel cloud appeared to the east. Drifting over checkerboard patches of rolling farmland, it slowly coalesced and spun itself up into a “slender gray tube.”

The first reported damage occurred a few miles southwest of Leaskdale, where the twister wrecked a barn and another small outbuilding along Concession Road 6. Moving east-northeast, it blew down trees and caused light structural damage before crossing Concession Road 7 and Foster Drive.

A damaged structure near Wagner Lake.

Shifting slightly to the east, the tornado skipped across the quarter-mile span of Wagner Lake, smashing through thick stands of cedar on either side. Beyond the lake, the storm continued east-northeast, following just south of Concession Road 2. It rolled through long stretches of virtually empty, featureless farmland, narrowly avoiding the tiny settlements of Layton and Sonya.

The whirlwind continued on for another eight miles beyond Sonya, traveling directly between Zion and Ramsey roads before lifting north of Valentia. It destroyed several isolated stands of trees and caused moderate damage to at least three barns, but it encountered little else on its journey. Despite a total path length of nearly 21 miles, the near-complete absence of structural damage makes it impossible to assess the tornado’s true intensity.

Reaboro, ON F2

Within a few minutes, the long-lived supercell was cycling once again. Its third and final tornado touched down near the western bank of the Scugog River, just a mile and a half from the end of the previous track. Churning through a grove of trees, the whirlwind left a 250-yard path of twisted limbs and toppled trunks on either side of the river near O’Donnell Landing.

Following River Road toward Highway 35, the tornado completely destroyed two relatively well-built barns and uprooted or snapped off large numbers of trees. It struck multiple properties on the south side of Highway 7 as it narrowly snuck past the town of Reaboro, mostly damaging various outbuildings. A truck camper was rolled over on one property, causing extensive damage.

Moving into the Kawartha Lakes region, the cyclone approached the southern tip of Pigeon Lake and hacked through dense stands of trees on both sides of Cowans Bay. After tearing through Emily Provincial Park, it raced across several miles of open land and crossed the shore of Chemong Lake just south of Youngstown. The fading vortex pushed a mile out onto the lake before falling apart just yards from a narrow causeway.

Alma, ON F3

Just six miles south of where the long-tracked Grand Valley tornado had touched down two hours earlier, another vortex was taking shape over rural Wellington County. The large, cone-shaped funnel formed in a pasture two miles northwest of Alma, quickly reaching a width of 350 yards as it moved north of the small farming community. The violent circulation destroyed several farms, tearing one house from its slab foundation and scattering its remains over hundreds of yards “like bits of confetti.”

At the intersection of Highway 6 and County Road 17, the twister swept through the tiny outpost of Cumnock. Jim Hall, who was visiting relatives at the time the storm struck, returned home shortly after the tornado to find only his refrigerator and toilet left intact. His house, barn and garage had all been ripped apart and swallowed up by the spiraling debris cloud. According to one neighbor, “it would be hard to believe a home was ever there at all.”

Two more farms were partially destroyed about a mile to the east. A short distance away, Phyllis Carr was in her mobile home when it was carried 50 yards and dashed to bits. She was rushed to the hospital with multiple broken bones and lacerations. A brand new car that she’d brought home just hours earlier was thrown across a field and crushed.

Marching east-northeastward into Centre Wellington Township, the tornado continued to tear up houses, flatten barns and blow away machine sheds and other outbuildings. Farm machinery and vehicles were tossed through the air and wrecked. Strips of trees were cut down or carried away.

On the western shore of Lake Belwood, a number of people watched from Highland Pines Campground as the tornado marched over the rolling hills and unpopulated farmlands in the distance. As it grew nearer, a small change in the path sent the onlookers suddenly scurrying for cover. Many turned to run just as the winds arrived.

Trailers tumbled across the ground and crumpled. The roof of the camp office pulled away and broke apart, followed by most of its heavy walls. Large trees were shorn of leaves and branches and wrapped in scraps of metal. Several vehicles were flipped over and battered with debris.

One family was just pulling into the campground for the weekend when their car was tossed on its side and rolled repeatedly across the driveway. The car was badly damaged and all four family members were hurt. A total of two dozen injuries, mostly minor, were reported throughout the park.

As it exited the campground and crossed Lake Belwood’s quarter-mile stretch of water, the vortex began to steadily contract. It weaved its way through several properties north of Simpson Corners, damaging houses and destroying at least two workshops. The home of Norm and Bernice Lindsay was almost entirely leveled, but their two young daughters — staying home alone at the time — survived by flattening themselves up against the kitchen cupboards.

The path became more sporadic as the tornado sped off to the east-northeast, shrinking to less than 50 yards in width. Winding its way south of Craigsholme and north of Orton, it mostly uprooted trees, broke out windows and pried up shingles from roofs. It crossed County Road 24 near Hillsburgh and lifted a mile north of town.

Ida, ON F2

While the Alma tornado smashed its way through Wellington County, additional tornadic supercells began sprouting up more than a hundred miles to the east-northeast. The cluster of supercells spit out its first twister in Victoria County, near the tiny farming outpost of Lifford. Traveling through the sparse farmland north of Highway 7A, it encountered little more than trees and shrubs through the first several miles of its path.

Entering the southern tip of Peterborough County, the tornado crossed a stretch of County Road 10 between Ida and Cavan. It clipped St. John’s Anglican Church, ripping up most of the roof and knocking over many of the gravestones in the church cemetery. Across the road, it pounced on an adjacent community hall and “flattened” the concrete block building.

The path, just under 200 yards wide, continued along the south side of Sharpe Line. At least three farms suffered heavy damage. A well-constructed barn and a steel outbuilding were razed to the ground on one property, while a farmhouse was unroofed and a barn was splintered on another. Vehicles and farm implements were overturned and occasionally rolled into fields.

Passing south of Springville and the much larger Peterborough, the twister blew down trees along both sides of the Otonabee River. It continued across the rural countryside for another eight miles, causing moderate damage on a few farms as it weaved its way south of Assumption and north of Drummond. The 24-mile path came to an end north of Lang, its terminus marked by a stand of snapped trees along the banks of the Indian River.

Rice Lake, ON F3

Almost simultaneously, another tornadic supercell was spinning to life over the southernmost reaches of Peterborough County. The placid waters of Rice Lake reflected heavy, ink-black storm clouds as they swirled and sagged toward the earth. The incipient cyclone took shape two miles south of Keene, moving out over McGregor Bay and skirting along the lake’s north shore.

Sticking close to the shoreline as it curved eastward, the tornado first encountered the tranquil Elmhirst’s Resort, where it caused damage to several structures. The storm again moved out over the lake, driving a “wall of water” before it as it bore down on Sunnymead Cottages. Throughout the resort, vehicles were rolled, cottages were wrecked and trees were felled by the dozens. Witnesses reported a roar of such ear-splitting volume that it was physically painful.

Similar damage continued at nearby Birdsall Beach Resort, where the twister ventured ashore for a final time. Multiple cabins were reportedly razed to the ground and the resort’s onsite amenities were trashed. As it passed east of Birdsalls, following just north of the Trent River, the tornado also blasted through a string of farms. It leveled barns, toppled silos, totaled heavy machinery and downed thousands of trees, but only one person was injured. The 11-mile path came to an end just west of Hastings.

The Spark Arrives

As the intense storms over Southern Ontario raced northeastward, moving away from the warm sector and encountering cooler, more stable air, they slowly began to sputter out. Further south, however, conditions across Ohio and Pennsylvania were going from bad to worse. As the initial line of storms traveled deeper into north-central Pennsylvania, the airmass behind it rapidly recovered. Temperatures remained in the upper 70s, with low-70s dewpoints still blanketing much of the region.

To make matters worse, a potent low-level jet had begun pushing in from the west-southwest at 45 knots. Winds at the surface backed to the south-southwest, while upper-level winds screamed overhead from the west. Like a tinder-dry forest awaiting a spark, the resulting combination of simmering instability and impressive wind shear created a volatile situation.

An animation showing the atmospheric winds at various heights at 8pm on May 31.

Late in the afternoon, the spark arrived in the form of a trailing cold front, sharpening and accelerating as it swept in from the west. The leading edge of the colder, denser airmass plowed into the unstable air pooled over central Ohio, shunting it upward and providing the final impetus for convection.

From north to south, volcanic updrafts erupted in sequence and anchored all along the boundary. Half a dozen supercells soon took shape, marching in close formation across the heart of the Buckeye State. Plumes of moisture evaporated from the previous day’s rain-soaked soil, adding even more buoyant energy and keeping cloud bases low.

What had already been one of the region’s worst tornado outbreaks proved to be only the first wave of the assault. If the initial round was a disaster, its sequel would be a catastrophe.

Niles, OH-Wheatland, PA F5

Tucked into the northeast corner of Ohio, about 35 miles southeast of Cleveland, the Ravenna Arsenal sprawls across more than 20,000 acres between the towns of Ravenna and Newton Falls. In World War II, when the United States rose to become the great Arsenal of Democracy, the Ravenna Arsenal was one of its driving forces. Between 1942 and 1945, the nondescript site was responsible for producing more weaponry than any other plant in America.

On the afternoon of May 31, however, the plant served as the birthplace of something altogether more powerful and destructive. At 6:30 pm, employees looked on in astonishment as a wispy funnel materialized from the sickly, olive-tinged clouds. Gracefully spiraling toward the earth, the funnel touched down in the far southeastern corner of the arsenal. It quickly crossed Route 5 and passed over a raised embankment carrying twin railroad tracks, snapping trees on both sides.

Speeding to the east at over 45 mph, the fledgling twister tracked along the south side of Holcomb Road. One of the first structures it encountered belonged to Barbara and Joseph Panak, a mobile home perched on a small rise in a clearing near the meandering Mahoning River. It effortlessly ripped the trailer from its steel anchoring cables, shredded it and left the tattered wreckage strewn hundreds of yards downstream. Fortunately, there was no one inside.

Less than two miles to the east, Barbara was just finishing a shopping trip at Sparkle Market in downtown Newton Falls. She had no idea that her home had just been torn to shreds as she paid for her groceries and loaded them into her car. She also had no idea that the tornado was still racing eastward, causing significant damage as it followed the south side of Broad Street toward downtown.

Just to the west, Dale and Doris Fowler were also unaware of the powerful storm bearing down on their home along 5th Street. As they sat down to check the news, they heard a sound like a supersized freight train rolling in from the distance. Dale yelled for his wife and daughter to get to the basement, where they piled onto a couch resting against the wall.

Dale spread his body over his family as the terrible noise surrounded them. Suddenly, light spilled in from above and wind rushed into the basement, pelting them with swirling debris. As soon as it began, however, it was over. After checking that everyone was okay, the family emerged to find that their attractive two-story house had been leveled and blown into the driveway.

Around the same time, Barbara Panak — still not aware of the unfolding disaster — was pulling out of the Sparkle Market parking lot and turning west on Broad Street. Before she could even process what was happening, her vision went dark and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she found herself lying in the middle of the street. Blood ran down her face from multiple lacerations, including a cut running along her nose. Her car was nowhere to be seen.

A rescue squad from the Newton Falls Fire Department quickly took Barbara to a local hospital. The car she’d been driving, and from which she’d apparently been pulled by the twister, was found across the street in a yard near the market. It was destroyed. Remarkably, however, only a few structures in the immediate area suffered significant damage. The destructive core of the tornado sliced through the Sparkle Market plaza like a scalpel, producing a path no more than 200 feet wide.

Clayton Reakes watching from his rooftop perch.

For some in Newton Falls, the tornado seemed to strike like a bolt from the blue. For many others, however, the vigilance of one man likely made the difference between life and death. Clayton Reakes, a captain in the city’s Public Safety Reserve, had been a volunteer storm spotter for nearly two decades. When storm clouds began to fill the horizon, he’d promptly ascended to his lookout perch atop the city municipal building.

As the undulating funnel came into view, Reakes quickly sprang into action. He raised the alarm, ordering the sounding of the sirens and providing residents about a minute’s warning. Among those who received the alert were more than a hundred bingo players in the hall below, allowing them to seek some measure of shelter.

The sirens continued to wail as the twister crossed both branches of the Mahoning River, badly damaging several homes and businesses between Canal and River streets. Some of the worst destruction in the city took place in the area of Medley, Morrison and Riverview avenues, where more than a half-dozen homes were completely leveled and multiple people were injured.

Drifting slightly to the north and expanding in size, the tornado also wrecked poorly constructed homes along Columbia Avenue. By the time it crossed the railroad tracks out of town, tossing around rail cars along the way, it had damaged or destroyed an estimated 400 homes and businesses. Most importantly, however, it had caused no fatalities — yet.

From her home on Selkirk Bush Road, Evie Lemasters could see the disaster unfolding. She watched through the viewfinder of her camera as a giant vortex — more than a third of a mile wide — churned relentlessly through the rural area east of Newton Falls. Even as her husband tried to pull her back inside, she continued to snap photos of the violent whirlwind as it raced past.

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At intervals, bursts of debris around the base of the dusky funnel signaled the destruction of homes and the sudden upending of lives. As it crossed Interstate 80 into the northern reaches of Lordstown, the tornado became even more ferocious. It snatched frame houses from their foundations and chewed them up, depositing what remained of them in long, irregular windrows. Large trees within the path were stripped down or snapped like toothpicks.

Two miles northwest of Lordstown, the tornado took a brief jog to the north as it neared Leavitt Road. The subtle wobble sent it smashing through a small cluster of homes on the west side of the street, completely wiping them out and killing 50-year-old Marie Sofranik. It was the storm’s first fatality, but it would be far from the last. As it raced through southern Trumbull County toward the Pennsylvania state line, its true destructive potential was about to be revealed.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the little city of Niles was a thriving center of manufacturing in Ohio. It served as an important hub in the production of iron, steel and glass in the Mahoning Valley. The second half of the century was far less kind. Manufacturing in the Rust Belt slowly dried up and withered away, spurred on by a global steel crisis to close out the ‘70s.

By 1985, only a few visible remnants of Niles’ powerhouse industrial past were left, squeezed between the Mahoning River and the B&O Railroad on the northwest side of the city. On one side of the tracks, the sprawling storage barns of the Republic Steel complex. On the other, an Ashland Oil & Refining Company terminal that once supplied fuel to insatiable local industries.

Shortly after 6:45 pm on Friday afternoon, the old industrial site erupted in a shower of chaff. Strips of metal glinted and fluttered through the air as the tornado crossed the Mahoning River and slashed through the Republic Steel facility. Though still a quarter-mile wide, the vaporous funnel concealed a narrow, focused core of ultra-destructive winds at its heart. It demolished the ends of two long-span warehouses, leaving the rest of the structures largely intact.

The violent core scored a more direct strike on the neighboring Ashland Oil & Refining Company terminal, flattening warehouses and sending equipment flying. Massive petroleum storage tanks, some up to 30 feet tall and weighing 40 tons, were ripped from their anchored bases and “twirled around in the air.” One tank was thrown over 60 yards into the middle of Warren Avenue, crushing its half-inch steel hull like a soda can.

A home belonging to the facility’s longtime manager was annihilated, its roof ripped off and carried a mile away. Grass was scoured from an adjoining field and a stand of trees across the road was blown away by a shotgun blast of debris. Incredibly, given the constricted core and rapid forward speed of the vortex, most of the destruction at the Ashland Oil facility likely occurred in just three to four seconds.

A mile east of Warren Avenue, Toni Bonanno was working late in her office at the United Steelworkers Home Association. Passing by a window, she saw what looked like a plume of smoke rising in the distance. As it came into closer view, the smoky column scraped by another cluster of industrial buildings across the street belonging to LTV Steel.

Sheets of metal flashed through the air, filling the funnel like bits of glittering confetti. Bonanno darted for a doorway and braced herself. Her entire body shook as the howling funnel slipped by just to the north, passing close enough to peel the roof off the building, shatter the windows and flip over several cars.

Moments later, the tornado began moving into Niles’ northern residential neighborhoods. It slashed diagonally across Woodglen Avenue, heavily damaging several homes and causing nearly a dozen injuries. Much of the wreckage was strung out and blown into nearby Mosquito Creek.

At the same time, 23-year-old Pamela Lynn was just arriving in Niles to pick up a friend for a night out. As she turned onto Vienna Avenue, absentmindedly mulling over the evening’s plans, she suddenly slammed on the brakes. A towering funnel cloud loomed less than a mile to her north, racing across the sky at a tremendous speed.

A former Nebraska transplant, Lynn had seen two tornadoes a few years apart as a teen. Those were small, short-lived spin-ups, knocking over utility poles and uprooting a few trees. This was something altogether different. Clouds seemed to erupt continually within the lowest portion of the funnel, merging into the whole as they whirled like some demented merry-go-round. Entire trees seemed to defy gravity, gliding through the air like dandelion seeds wafting on a gentle breeze.

However, Pamela’s sense of wonder quickly turned to panic when a cloud of debris suddenly exploded in all directions. Just beyond Mosquito Creek, the tornado had hacked its way through a thicket of homes along Cynthia Court and Nancy Street. About a dozen homes lost roofs and some exterior walls, but an unfortunate few — whether because of construction differences or perhaps powerful, short-lived subvortices — were scraped clean from their foundations. Emma Yanucci, 67, suffered a heart attack after seeing her demolished home and later died, though she isn’t included in the official toll.

At the Convenient Food Mart on Route 46, the sky had taken on a strange, unsettling tone. Almost like a bruise, pallid gray faded into the sort of jaundiced yellow-green that casts the world in a vaguely surreal hue. Marie Gregorich couldn’t help but notice the change, but she shook it off and returned to her duties as the nighttime clerk.

Shortly before 7 pm, a customer suddenly stopped at the front door and excitedly called her over. Stepping outside, Marie confronted “a giant tornado, whirling and spinning and tossing debris in every direction.” She shouted to the store’s night manager; together, they scrambled to get a closer look. By the time they reached the back door, the storm was already brushing past Niles Primary School and bearing down upon them.

The tornado first struck Eastwood Arms Apartments immediately to the north, dealing a glancing blow to the complex before smashing into the Convenient Food Mart. Marie lunged for a large beer cooler and held on for dear life as the store came apart. The windows exploded, followed by the front door. Within seconds, the entire market caved in upon itself.

With some difficulty, Marie freed herself from the rubble. Despite suffering cuts and contusions, she quickly went to work searching her surroundings. Several of the store’s customers uncovered themselves and struggled to their feet, but others were badly hurt. Helen Thomas, 84, died when the collapsing wreckage buried her and pinned her to the ground.

Across the road from the convenience store, Niles Union Cemetery spread out over a rolling hill in neat, orderly rows. Hundreds of beautiful, mature trees shaded its quiet walkways, making the cemetery a source of pride for the community. In the blink of an eye, everything changed.

The cemetery was virtually shorn of trees, leaving behind gnarled stumps and tangled root balls. Heavy granite gravestones were pulled up and thrown through the air with such force that one marker penetrated halfway into the trunk of a tree. The roof of a large mausoleum at the heart of the cemetery was torn away. Crumpled cars from a repair shop hundreds of yards away — some stripped of paint “like they were sandblasted” — littered the grounds.

Just up the hill from Niles Union Cemetery, 36-year-old Diane Jamieson pulled out of her driveway on Lantern Lane in the busy little development of Shadow Ridge. While she ran out to do a few errands, her husband Dennis agreed to stay home with their two sons. As she turned east onto Niles Vienna Road and headed for Route 422, she noticed that dark, billowing clouds had started spreading across the sky.

Pulling up to the traffic light on the corner of Niles Vienna Road, Diane watched in confusion as a crowd of people gathered in the parking lot of a nearby gas station. Some stood silent with mouths agape. Others pointed and gestured wildly, as if warning of some approaching monster. All faced to the west, the direction from which she had just come.

Alarmed, Diane quickly turned north onto Route 422 and glanced out over the assembled onlookers. Instead of the familiar landmarks of her neighborhood, it was like gazing into the void. A roiling, featureless wall of blackness filled her vision, broken up only by occasional flashes of flittering shapes and colors, the significance of which took a second to register: debris. In an instant, she had found herself directly in the path of a ravenous tornado.

She was hardly the only one. Just behind her, 39-year-old Elaine Italiano and her husband Joe were on their way to Chieffo’s Restaurant. Both well-liked schoolteachers in the Youngstown area, they’d planned to meet some colleagues for an annual spring faculty dinner that evening. When the sky grew dark and it began to rain, Joe pulled off into the parking lot of the Niles Park Plaza to let the storm pass through.

Not far away, 21-year-old Denise Mazza was just pulling into the parking lot and heading for the gas station. She and her mother, 42-year-old Evelyn Simmons, had come to the plaza for a bit of shopping to start the weekend. She’d planned to bring along her eight-month-old son, but since he was sleeping peacefully, she left him home with her husband instead. As she noticed the storm clouds moving in, she was glad that she did.

It didn’t take long for Diane Jamieson to realize the gravity of her situation. With the tornado quickly approaching, she knew that staying in her car would be a death sentence. She sped past the storefronts of the Niles Park Plaza in search of a ditch or culvert, but all she saw was concrete. Just past the plaza, she spotted the sign for the YMCA, which she knew was surrounded by a grass field.

As if on autopilot, she flew into the parking lot, grabbed her purse and bolted for the field. The earth trembled beneath her as the deafening roar filled her ears. She threw herself to the ground just behind the building and covered her head, contemplating what she feared could be her last moments of life.

Less than a mile to the northwest, Mike Zahurak was running a small carnival in the parking lot of the Village Center Plaza when the towering funnel emerged from behind the low-slung roofs of the plaza shops. He immediately reached for his camera, but there were only four shots remaining on his film roll. Determined to make them count, he focused in and fired away.

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Violent tornadoes often operate at scales that defy ordinary perception. They grow to a mile in width and leave trails of destruction that span a half-dozen counties. They toss heavy objects for miles and carry scraps of paper clear into other states. And yet, for those who find themselves in the path, the smallest of details can mean the difference between life and death.

The tornado crossing Rt. 46 near Niles Union Cemetery. (Courtesy of Don Bloom/Shawn Bryant)

In Niles, that difference was less than the length of a football field. As the tornado climbed the hill behind Niles Union Cemetery — intensifying with startling suddenness in the process — it abruptly jogged about a hundred yards to the north. The movement was hardly noticeable, but it was enough to put the compact, annihilating core of the storm on a path of heartrending tragedy and almost incomprehensible violence.

Small shifts in the tornado’s path produced tragic and destructive results.

The tidy Shadow Ridge subdivision was first to feel the storm’s renewed wrath. Though the circulation stretched nearly a quarter of a mile, the most intense damage was confined to a swath no more than 75 yards wide. Within this ultra-violent core, multiple homes were obliterated and swept completely away. One well-constructed home, belonging to Gerald and Candy Trudell, was reportedly ripped from its foundation with such force that it broke off pieces of the concrete slab.

The Trudells stand on the bare foundation of their swept-away home.

The tornado chewed through Shadow Ridge “like a giant wood chipper,” grinding up debris and spraying it across the adjacent field in long streaks. In some spots, it stripped trees bare and scoured grass from the ground. A check belonging to George and Mary Herlinger, whose house was among those blown away, was later found more than 190 miles away in a field near Tioga, Pennsylvania.

The tornado inflicted astonishing violence upon Shadow Ridge. (Courtesy of Tornado Memory Project/Warren-Trumbull County Public Library)

Less than half a mile to the northeast, 79-year-old Anna Miller and her sister, 69-year-old Margaret Palkovich, huddled together in the bedroom of Anna’s home on the west side of Route 422. Though they’d heard warnings about a bad storm, they had no intention of leaving Anna’s husband. Ernest Miller, 87, was bedridden and had no way of making it to the basement. After many decades of marriage, Anna refused to leave Ernie’s side. Likewise, Margaret could not bring herself to leave her sister. They resolved that they would face whatever came the same way they always had: together.

And so they did. At 6:55 pm — according to a stopped clock on a neighbor’s kitchen wall — the house in which the Millers had shared their lives for nearly half a century simply exploded. All three were carried off by the wind and blown hundreds of yards across the highway. Where their home had stood moments earlier, all that remained was a jagged hole marking the outline of the basement.

The Miller’s home (far right) was cleanly swept away. (Courtesy of Tornado Memory Project/Warren-Trumbull County Public Library)

Across Route 422, Joe and Elaine Italiano were still parked outside of the Niles Park Plaza waiting for the storm to pass. They didn’t have time to see the Millers’ house disintegrate a few hundred yards to their west, nor did they have a chance to see the deadly funnel through the rain and the gloom. Instead, they were suddenly seized by a disorienting sense of weightlessness as their car was plucked off the ground and spun through the air. As he clutched the steering wheel, Joe could feel himself being pulled into the raging storm.

A few agonizing seconds later, the car landed with a heavy thud atop a rubble pile nearly 15 feet high. Instinctively, Joe glanced toward the passenger’s seat and reached out for his wife. She wasn’t there. He lifted himself out of the car and struggled to descend the pile of debris, but broken vertebrae and other injuries prevented him from searching further.

Denise Mazza and Evelyn Simmons were also caught unaware. They’d just finished getting gas at the nearby gas station when the swirling clouds emerged over the trees and swept through the parking lot. Without warning, the powerful blow lofted their car high into the air and sent it sailing across the site.

In the karate studio inside the plaza, Trumbull County Sheriff Sgt. Dan D’Annunzio was attending a weekly Friday night self-defense class with some friends when everything went haywire. The power went out, plunging the studio into darkness. A peculiar “rushing” sound filled the room, followed by a terrified scream: “tornado!”

In seconds, the tornado virtually disintegrated Niles Park Plaza, dismantling its shops and businesses with ruthless efficiency. Gorging itself on crumbled concrete and splintered lumber, the barrage of swirling shrapnel also mangled and tore apart the heavy steel frame of the neighboring Top o’ the Strip Roller Rink. Large roof girders were snapped off and heaved like javelins. Vehicles were tossed hundreds of yards and torn to pieces. One was “literally torn in half,” while another was skewered onto the debarked trunk of a tree “like an olive on a toothpick.”

Mercifully, no one was inside the Top o’ the Strip when it was demolished. Half an hour later, however, the popular local hangout spot was set to open for a free pass night to celebrate the end of the school year. More than 300 children and teenagers were expected to turn out and pack the roller rink, in addition to staff members and parents.

Behind the plaza, construction had recently wrapped at the Autumn Hills Nursing Home, a complex of two separate buildings designed to accommodate up to 125 elderly residents. Just weeks from opening, the facility was heavily damaged and partially leveled. A multi-ton semi-trailer, believed to have originated from Route 422, was hurled 250 yards and deposited among the rubble.

By the time Sgt. Dan D’Annunzio regained consciousness, bystanders were already working to free him from the devastated remnants of the karate studio. Though he was banged up and bleeding from cuts on his face, he fell back on his training and began trying to assist his fellow survivors. He discovered a woman lying among the ruins who wasn’t breathing and rendered what aid he could until ambulances began to arrive.

When he later returned to the plaza to look for his car, he found it many hundreds of yards from its original parking spot. The 1979 Buick had been rendered nearly unrecognizable, its entire body crushed “flat as a pancake.” Even the engine had been ripped from its mounts and carried away.

A few hundred yards to the north, Diane Jamieson waited until the storm had passed to pick herself up out of the field in which she’d sought shelter. Muddied and unsure of what had just unfolded, she rose just in time to witness the infernal whirlwind racing off to the south and east. In the moment, it didn’t occur to her that she’d had such a clear and unobstructed view because virtually nothing in the area remained standing.

Immediately, her thoughts turned to her family. She’d seen the tornado approach from the direction of her neighborhood and knew that she had to get home. Recognizing that her normal route would be impassible, she attempted to circle back from the opposite direction. With traffic signals down across the area, she made little progress before the flow of cars slowed to a crawl.

Driven by a mixture of desperation and determination, Diane pulled off behind the local Baptist church and walked swiftly toward the Shadow Ridge development. Reaching the far end of the neighborhood, she was relieved to see only relatively light, sporadic damage. As she drew closer to her destination, however, her heart began to pound in her chest. The neat rows of middle-class homes and manicured lawns disappeared, replaced by piles of rubble that eventually fused together into a jagged, jumbled sea of devastation.