A rare and deadly cell of tornadoes ripped through northwest Ohio yesterday, killing at least five people, striking two hospitals, flattening scores of buildings, and derailing two trains.
Winds reaching as strong as 200 mph first thrashed Van Wert County about 3:30 p.m., where two people were confirmed dead and a third was critically injured. Gov. Bob Taft last night declared the area a state of emergency. His order included Ottawa County.
For two hours - often pitch black, marked by howling gusts, and broken only by brilliant slits of lightning - the storms battered the region, killing two more in Putnam County and a fifth in Seneca County before drifting over Lake Erie.
Scores of casualties were reported throughout the region. The storm ravaged countless homes, barns, a township hall, a church, and other buildings.
“It was huge,” said Jeff Nicholson of Dupont in Putnam County. “I have never seen anything that big move that quickly.”
“Tornadoes in November? That's an oddity. A scary, awful one,” Paulding County Commissioner Ronald Lane said.
Among those confirmed dead were Denver Branham and his wife, Cretie, who were in their mobile home outside Continental when a tornado hit. Their northwest Putnam County residence was flattened; their daughter, Margie, was injured critically.
The “super cell” thunderstorm was the kind that spins off powerful tornadoes and was characterized by large hail and strong winds of 60 to 70 miles per hour - potent and “of the kind that occur in Texas and Oklahoma,” said Sam Lashley, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Webster, Ind.
The storms that struck Ohio were part of a system that moved through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
“[The Van Wert tornado] could easily be over 100 miles per hour - possibly as high as 200 miles per hour,” Mr. Lashley said.
November tornadoes in Ohio are rare. They occur less frequently in only two other months, December and February.
Despite witnesses' statements, the weather service has only confirmed the Van Wert tornado. The others will be evaluated today by the weather service, Mr. Lashley said.
Two hours after it began, the storm was replaced with a dark, eerie calm.
Indeed, for many, all they could do was wait until daybreak to assess the damage.
“It's so dark out there,” said emergency medical technician Stephanie Priest in Grover Hill in Paulding County, where one twister had smashed the southeast corner of the county. “The only lights we have are from vehicles. We have a lot of leveled homes, and we just hope no one was inside.”
Toledo Edison officials said 15,000 customers were without power at 9:30 last night.
“The biggest problem is in Weston,” said Chuck Krueger, a spokesman for the utility. The community, west of Bowling Green, had 1,100 customers without power and 26 power poles down.
“The bulk of the system damage was in the Norwalk, Bellevue, and Port Clinton areas where we have 11,000 customers out and we have scattered small outages in a lot of places,” he said.
School has been canceled today for Van Wert city, Crestview, Lincoln View, Thomas Edison, and Vantage Vocational in Van Wert County as well as for the Fostoria City Schools and Port Clinton City Schools.
The storm played out its wrath first in Ohio in Van Wert, where at least one tornado struck the west side of the town, slamming into a movie theater and killing at least one person in the yard, said a police dispatcher. “It hit fast, and it hit hard,” she said. “The town is torn up. People are trapped in their homes.”
Van Wert County officials would not say last night where the other fatality occurred in the county.
Buildings were damaged in an industrial park west of town, cutting off access to Van Wert. The city went dark. Because of the damage, the Ohio National Guard will be deployed today to help clean up.
Ratcheting up the fury, a different line of storms overtook the slower-moving super cell in the Continental area in northwest Putnam County.
Just before 4 p.m. the two systems converged on Continental, where Mr. and Mrs. Branham and their daughter were in their mobile home that sits on a small plot. The funnel picked up the home and flipped it end over end several times.
“There was almost nothing left of it,” said Lt. Bill Blank of the Allen County Sheriff's Department, which assisted in the neighboring county.
The couple were killed; their daughter was taken to Saint Rita's Medical Center in Lima, where she was in critical condition last night.
“We had several other house trailers that were damaged,” Sgt. Brad Nelson of the Putnam County Sheriff's Department said. About a dozen more homes were damaged by the tornado throughout the county, he said.
Homes in Miller City also were damaged, the sergeant said. He said numerous trees and power lines were damaged, as was the Wagner sawmill on Road X.
Mr. Nicholson, a computer systems analyst who lives about five miles southwest of Continental, saw the twister as it approached the neighboring town.
“I was four or five miles away and I could still see it,” he said. “My heart was pumping, the adrenaline was rushing.”
Sweeping down State Rt. 114, the storm flattened the Washington Township hall and Roselms Church in Roselms.
“There was debris in the fields, some of the poles over, some were busted in half,” resident Liz Simindinger said. “The church was just a pile of wood.”
The fire station was opened for those seeking shelter as emergency broadcasts blared: “Large, destructive tornado is on the ground. Abandon vehicles and mobile homes for safer structures.”
It next peeled part of a 22-car train off the rails at 4:35 p.m. near Hamler in Henry County. Its force lifted up the flat car carrying a tractor-trailer, but there were no injuries, said Gary Sease, spokesman for CSX.
There were no injuries aboard the train, which was powered by two locomotives and headed from Cleveland to Chicago.
In Weston in Wood County a straight-line wind “took down every power pole from Euler Road to Route 6” on the northwest side of town, said resident Frank Baumbarger.
Though it ripped out power, there “was lots of lightning to see it by,” he said.
Then, about 5 p.m., the storms slammed into Jerry City, wiping out a couple of houses.
“It's like they're sawed in half,” Chris Heinze said “The front half is there, but there was nothing standing behind them.”
The town's new equipment storage building, a brand-new pole building, is flattened, he said.
The building is made of gray sheet metal, he said. “Or it was.”
Minutes later, along I-75 in Middleton Township just south of State Rt. 582, a tractor-trailer rolled over onto another vehicle.
Driver John Macintosh told police that wind blew his rig off the road and turned it onto its side. He was not hurt.
The storm moved on to Sandusky and Seneca counties, where it killed one and ravaged a school, two hospitals, and a senior citizen community.
In Fostoria, lightning or wind struck the chimney at Fostoria Community Hospital, pitching it into the heavy air handler on the roof. Hospital officials decided late last night to evacuate all patients from the hospital.
The air handler plunged through the roof to the third floor, smashing through the hospital's surgery and obstetrics area. No one was injured, said Evelyn Marker, director of marketing for Fostoria Community Hospital, but the hospital was forced to run on a back-up generator.
A handful of local residents were treated for minor injuries related to the storm, she said.
About a block away, the storm peeled back part of the roof at St. Wendelin Catholic School.
“We have a lot of people over there just now moving things out,” said the Rev. Dan Ring, pastor at St. Wendelin, which is a junior high and high school. “The damage is pretty significant.”
“There's an old superstition that Fostoria doesn't get hit by tornadoes because it's an old Indian burial ground,” he added. “So much for superstition, eh?”
A CSX train derailed nearby about 5 p.m. when one of its cars loaded with vehicles jumped the track, Mr. Sease said.
Laurie Kinn, a Findlay resident, was waiting in her minivan for a passing freight train on Tiffin Avenue in Fostoria when a tornado lifted four train cars off the track in front of her and flung them up the street beside her van.
“We thought it was smoke, a big house fire on the other side of the tracks,” she said.
“I threw my kids down on the floor of the car, and the noise was so incredible. The van was shaking so hard, and things were hitting it and sparks were flying.”
When she raised her head from the floor, the entire scene outside was changed, she said.
“On the left was a train car, lying sideways about eight feet away. On the right was a huge uprooted tree blocking one side. And out the front? Trains, roofs, just debris. And rain. I'm amazed the van didn't take off or flip over,” she said.
The storm's fury skirted the south end of Tiffin, ripping past the Sisters of St. Francis convent and heavily damaging villas for senior citizens, said Tiffin Mayor Bernard Hohman
A shelter was set up at Tiffin Columbian High School, where nearly two dozen people stopped, said Dean Henry, disaster services volunteer, with the Sandusky River Chapter of the Red Cross.
In Ottawa County, witnesses said a tornado cut through the east side of the city, striking first near 12th and Jefferson streets near Port Clinton High School and going northeast across Magruder Memorial Hospital, where it struck the building, knocking out windows and damaging rooms.
All patients had been evacuated prior to the storm's arrival.
Julie Sebastiano was at home with her husband and 9-year-old son at 519 Short St. when the warning sirens sounded. The family cleared out some room and jumped into the crawl space just in time. Their home was not damaged. “It was over as quick as it hit,” she said.
But her parents' home, just a few blocks away, was destroyed. No one was hurt.
“They are all OK,” she said last night. “That is all we care about.”
As the tornadoes raged across the state, many, like the Bryant family of Fostoria, were trapped in their homes.
“The roof went flying off and we were spinning around,” said Tina Bryant, who clutched her 6-year-old daughter as their house twisted around them, lurching several feet off its foundation. “Glass and everything in the living room was flying around all over the place.
“And then,” she said, “it stopped.”
But not before spreading fear and destruction to the next town and county.
Staff writers Jack Baessler, Robin Erb, Christina Hall, Joe Mahr, Mark Reiter, Jane Schmucker, Rebekah Scott, Fritz Wenzel, and Mike Wilkinson contributed to this story.