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Sunday, May 31, 2015

30 Years Ago Today...

May 31, 1985 is a day that I will never forget, and I know many others who live in Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Southwestern NY and parts of Canada won't either.  The significance of that date:  the 1985 United-States-Canada tornado outbreak. 

Tornadoes aren't particularly common in this area.  We have one here and there, but not very often, primarily because of the hilly terrain.  They don't seem to get much momentum before they dissipate, and usually the damage is minimal.  That's partially why this particular outbreak killed and injured so many people.  Not only were those at the National Weather Service hesitant to post watches and warnings too soon, but when they did, they were somewhat ignored.  There had been so many watches and warnings that never turned into anything over the years that most everyone just dismissed it, a classic case of "boy who cried wolf".  Unfortunately, this was no wolf.  This was so much worse.

I worked in a discount retail store at the time running the front desk.  It was a weird day, sunny, but very humid, I remember feeling like I was going to melt.  As the evening progressed, the weather turned bad, but all I could see were some typical spring thunderstorms from where I was at.  We all went through our normal activities within the store.  I was somewhat engrossed in counting out drawers and doing my usual steps leading up to closing, so I wasn't paying close attention to the crowd of people collecting around the television recently put at the front of the store for display.  When I finally did look up, not only was I shocked at all of these people, but when I looked at the TV screen, I was concerned.  It was a weather map unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Not long after that, the phone rang, it was my mom.  I knew something was seriously wrong because she rarely ever called me at work, we had a "no personal calls" policy and she didn't want to jeopardize my job.  She told me to be careful on my way home because there was a lot of debris scattered and so forth.  I certainly wasn't prepared for what I was going to see.

One of the girls who worked with me needed a ride home, so I offered to take her.  When we pulled into the driveway of her apartment, we both noticed the smashed car next door to her, and we were immediately concerned because we both knew the owner.  We wondered if perhaps it was related to the storms.  At this point neither of us knew the gravity of what all had been going on in the areas around us.  After dropping her off, I headed home.  I saw a lot of tree branches down, pine needles, etc, but nothing alarming.  Until I pulled into my driveway.  There, lying in our front yard was a huge hunk of someone's roof. 

The next morning the news reports had started to come out-major devastation all over the county and this whole section of the state as well as Eastern Ohio, Southwestern New York and Ontario, Canada.  We were actually quite fortunate.  Our biggest issue was debris dumped all over the neighborhood.  I decided to venture out to see what I could find.  I found mostly pieces of pink insulation, some vinyl and aluminum siding, and a bunch of those plastic pots that nurseries put plants in.  The neighbor kids found a bunch of cancelled checks from someone in Ohio and a pair of pants still on a hanger.  As I drove to work that morning, I was stunned at how much building debris was scattered everywhere the whole way to work and I had a 7 mile drive! 

After mentally recreating some of the things that occurred that day, residents where I lived realized that they were incredibly fortunate, one (or more) of the tornadoes had actually bounced over our area which is why we had all of this debris scattered in our yards.  My mom recalled looking out the window and seeing birds "falling from the sky".  More like being thrown.  At the moment it was a bit scary, but upon realization of what could have happened, it was terrifying.  I remember weeks later a story about a teddy bear that was found not far from us being reunited with it's owner from Ohio. 

As fortunate as we were, there were other areas that had experienced complete devastation.  Newton Falls, Hubbard  and Niles, Ohio and Wheatland, PA were the worst as the tornado that swept through there was an F5, the highest rating on the scale.  I suspect that some of the debris we had in our neighborhood may have been from that particular twister, years later I met someone from Newton Falls and he told me that one of the businesses that was destroyed was a gardening center!  That tornado still holds the record as the only F5 to ever touch down in the state of Pennsylvania.  The area hit in Wheatland was almost completely destroyed.   

So many areas were affected with severe injuries, loss of life and homes and businesses destroyed in counties north, south and east of here.  For days the radio and television reported on where to go for help, lists of missing persons, emergency information, etc.  There was nothing else on the TV to watch, all efforts went to getting through this crisis.  Phone service was sporadic in many areas due to damage and destruction of poles, ham radio operators and cb users assisted in communications.  Thinking back on it, it was quite impressive to see how so many people came together to get through this awful time. 

As for the friend with the damaged car:  he was fine, but the car was totaled.  He had been in Hermitage, PA shopping and was heading home when he saw the storm heading towards him.  He tried to outrun it and darned near succeeded.  He didn't get caught up in the tornado itself but in one of the side winds which threw his car onto it's roof.  The crazy part is right after it happened, my niece, her boyfriend and several of their friends came upon the car and recognized it, scared half to death at what they were going to find. 

There were so many stories of what went on that night, I could write forever, but this blog isn't big enough for that.  Instead, I will tell you the story of the one person that made the biggest impression on me.  That night there was a little league baseball game going on in Wheatland.  As the game ended, the umpire, Dave Kostka realized that they were all in danger, and urged everyone to go to their cars or the dugout and get out of the area.  Two kids were there alone, still waiting for their rides, so he grabbed them, put them in his car and started to drive away.  The tornado caught up to them and tossed the car in the air.  When the vehicle hit the ground, he immediately got out, taking the kids with him and headed for a ditch.  The car became airborne again as he threw the two kids into the ditch, and then he laid on them to protect them.  Unfortunately for Kosta, he was pulled out of the ditch by the storm and thrown across the road, not surviving.  But because of him, emergency workers found the kids in the ditch, dazed, but still alive. 

I can say that this series of events will always stay with me, and one that I will always find interesting as well.  About two years after these storms, an article was published in Readers Digest, documenting the events of the day leading up to all of these storms as well as stories of the personal struggles.  It was one of the best accounts of this disaster, detailing many of the stories of those who survived as well as those who perished.  It was later turned into a book called "Tornado Watch Number 211".  It's hard to find, but it is an excellent read. 

A couple of years ago after my mom had passed away, my brother and my eldest sister were going through a box of her things that we had originally thought was only photos.  You can imagine my surprise when I found a copy of the local newspaper published just after these storms had hit the area.  I kept it as it didn't mean anything to either of them as my brother lived in an area that managed to escape damage and my sister lived completely out of the area.  The following photos are shots I took from that newspaper, as well as photos I took of the two memorials not far from here, one remembering Dave Kosta and the other remembering all of the victims and the businesses that were lost to that storm in Wheatland.  While 30 years have passed since that day, it has not only left some emotional scars for those affected, but it's made the area stronger.  I know that now when I see weather warnings posted, I'm much more aware of what is going on, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Sawhill/Tornado Memorial, Corner of Main & Clinton Streets, Wheatland, PA


S. David Kosta Memorial, Roemer Blvd, Farrell, PA

Cover Of Sharon Herald, June 1, 1985

 Headline of Sharon Herald, June 1, 1985
 Photos from the Sharon Herald, June 1, 1985


For additional reading:
http://www.weather.gov/ctp/TornadoOutbreak_May311985
http://www.pahighways.com/features/may31tornadoes.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985_United_States%E2%80%93Canada_tornado_outbreak

This outbreak as of May 2015 still stands as the worst outbreak in Pennsylvania.  It did over 600 Million dollars in property damage which if converted to todays standards is over $1 Billion. 


1 comment:

dan said...

Being involved in a tornado must be really frightening! I can only imagine your feelings....