FREMONT — Severe thunderstorms that moved across northwest Ohio on Wednesday derailed a train in Williams County, flipped tractor-trailers on I-75 in Wood County, ripped roofs off buildings, and knocked out power to thousands across the region.
A succession of tornado warnings was issued starting at 2:20 p.m. for a broad swath of northwest and north-central Ohio storms that were described as severe and capable of producing tornadoes.
No tornadoes were confirmed as of late Wednesday, but officials from the National Weather Service Cleveland office said they were still compiling data.
No injuries were reported.
Some of the heaviest damage occurred in Seneca and Sandusky counties. The cities of Fremont and Bellevue sustained heavy damage.
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The Church on 53 on County Road 41 southwest of Fremont was in the storm’s path.
Part of its roof was torn off during the height of the storm, rendering lead Pastor Craig Howard’s office unusable.
He said his cell phone alerted him of the storm just as it hit.
Although nothing was confirmed, Pastor Howard was certain a tornado came through.
“We literally just went and looked out the door,” he said. “By the time we turned around, we heard a big boom.”
Afterward, he walked a few feet over into his office and noticed air rushing in through the ceiling.
“It was just raining in here. It’s just open sky,” he said. The church lost power and had to use generators to keep the basement from flooding. About 40 church members showed up after the storm to help pick up debris.
Mark Larrick, a Fremont resident and church member, said he was compelled to help after seeing the damage on the evening news. He said it was one of the worst storms he has seen in the area.
“We lost some nice trees. Everybody’s out looking at damage. We just reroofed that too, five or six years ago,” he said.
The Sandusky County Courthouse, 100 N. Park Ave., sustained roof damage, with several copper roof pieces hanging from the side.
Streets were littered with tree branches; a giant tree in the 1100 block of Hayes Avenue was lying across a yard.
The storm sent drivers scattering for shelter.
Mike Prephan and his wife, Michelle, were driving on State Rt. 53 south from Port Clinton at about 3:30 p.m., heading home to South Toledo after spending the day in Marblehead, when his phone alerted him to pull over and take shelter.
The couple hunkered down inside a Sunoco station with another man they recognized — State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) — as the storm blew through.
“We watched the sign from the gas station fall down. As we headed down the road [after the storm] a metal roof had fallen off an old pole barn and landed in the road. [The barn] kind of disintegrated,” he said.
In Seneca County, downed trees and power lines cut off traffic on some sections of State Rt. 18 east of Tiffin, while damage throughout the county prompted a rare summer Level 3 emergency.
Between Republic and Bloomville, County Road 43 was littered with leaves and small branches.
Several large trees blocked the roadway in places, while power lines hung from bent power poles or fell across the road, making driving precarious.
‘We were lucky’
Nancy Frankart spoke above the roar of the chainsaw as her husband, Randy, and some friends removed a huge maple tree that had fallen across the front porch of their farm house on County Road 43.
Nearby, their entire cornfield — that just hours before stood lush and tall — was flattened.
“We were lucky,” she said as she glanced toward the remnants of the tree on the porch roof. “I think my husband is more upset about the corn crop.”
Ms. Frankart’s neighbors, Wayne and Denise Pfaff, are convinced the storm was a tornado.
Many of the trees at the end of their wooded property were snapped off.
“We lost power about a half hour before we heard the roaring sound,” Ms. Pfaff said, recalling how they heard the same sound in November, 2002, when they experienced the tornado that devastated much of Tiffin’s south end.
On Wednesday afternoon, when Mr. Pfaff saw the trees moving in a circular motion, the couple sought shelter in the basement of their log home until the storm passed.
The emergency was downgraded to Level 2 at about 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Thousands remained without power across northwest Ohio late Wednesday.
In Hancock County, 3,376 customers served by American Electric Power remained without electricity.
Nearly half of AEP’s customer base in Sandusky County, amounting to about 6,052 customers, were without power. And in Seneca County, 6,158 remained without electricity.
American Electric Power spokesman Vikki Michalski said crews were out late into Wednesday night and she would not know new details about when power might be restored until this morning.
She said customers should still remain aware of downed power lines, avoid them, and continue to report any hazardous conditions to the electric company by using the online system at www.aepohio.com.
The Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative reported that about 85 customers were without power in Hancock County late Wednesday.
About 620 customers lost power in Wood County, as were more than 400 customers in Hardin, Henry and Putnam counties in the area served by the cooperative.
A statement from the cooperative said that crews planned to work through the night to repair damage and restore power to area homes.
Flash-flood warnings were posted across the area.
The National Weather Service issued a flood warning in Huron and Seneca counties after up to 4 inches of rain fell. The warning was in effect until 7:45 a.m. today.
A flood warning also was issued in Hancock County for small streams and urban areas.
Officials said the Blanchard River in Findlay was expected to crest today at 12.5 feet but was expected to move back below flood level (11 feet) by early Friday.
Trains and trucks
A Norfolk Southern intermodal train, hauling freight containers and trailers derailed between Bryan and Edgerton, Ohio, during the storm, and the Williams County Sheriff's Office said it was may have been weather-related.
The accident on the Toledo-Chicago main line between Williams County Roads 8 and 9 was reported at 2:26 p.m. No one was injured.
Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said 10 rail cars carrying a total of 31 containers on a train headed from Harrisburg, Pa., to St. Louis jumped the tracks, blocking the railroad’s Toledo-Chicago main line.
Cleanup crews were en route to the scene by 4:30 p.m., and the cause officially remained under investigation, he said.
Mr. Pidgeon declined to blame the weather for a 13-car derailment in Seneca County north of Attica, Ohio.
A train of empty coal cars was stopped north of the State Rt. 4 crossing when its crew was informed that its 13 rear cars were overturned off the side of the track, Mr. Pidgeon said.
No one was hurt and no roads were blocked.
Amtrak service between Toledo and Chicago was likely to be disrupted by the Williams County derailment. No passenger trains operate on the other lines.
Multiple tractor-trailers overturned along I-75 just south of Bowling Green, thought to be from high winds.
One motorist reported six trucks overturned in between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-75 south of Bowling Green. No injuries were reported.
At the zoo
Toledo Zoo patrons who were outside when the storm hit were escorted to the nearest building at about 2:45 p.m.
Some visitors were escorted to the museum basement, in an area of the zoo called Nature's Neighborhood.
Once guests were enclosed in safe areas, zoo spokesman Andi Norman said the zoo’s educational team brought out books and games to keep children occupied.
“The kids seemed great,” Ms. Norman said. “They were having a blast with the games, the puzzles, and the books.”
After about 30 minutes of being in the basement, Ms. Norman said visitors were cleared to go back outside.
The Toledo Museum of Art also had to move visitors from its second floor.
“We have safety areas within the museum and our visitors were asked to go on the lower levels in the safety hallways, where there are no windows,” spokesman Teri Sharp said.
Staff writers David Patch and Roberta Gedert, and Blade correspondent Lisa Swickard contributed to this report.