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Funnel cloud rips Westmoreland County

| Thursday, March 24, 2011

Robin Aaron thought it was the end.

A ferocious storm ripped through Westmoreland County on Wednesday afternoon, leveling some houses and peeling roofs off others, tearing tops off trees and gouging the auditorium and athletic field at Hempfield Area Senior High School.

As chunks of hail rained down, a churning funnel cloud screamed through Sewickley Township, leveling six homes on General Braddock Road.

"I was outside taking my dogs in. I looked at the sky. It was getting real bad," Aaron said. "I grabbed my daughter and called to my son. ... We were all curled into a ball (in the family room). My whole home is gone.

"It took everything," Aaron said. "I'm surprised I'm not dead."

In Hempfield, Corey Ansell gathered his wife and sons to hunker down in a hallway on the lower level of their Fort Allen home as the storm roared through.

They heard the sound of breaking glass, then nothing.

When they walked back upstairs, the Ansells looked up, and all they could see was sky. The roof of their Mohawk Drive home was gone.

"Twenty seconds," Corey Ansell said. "You blinked, and it was gone."

Dan Stevens, a spokesman for Westmoreland County Emergency Management, said the hardest-hit areas were Hempfield and Sewickley townships, where dozens of homes were heavily damaged. There were only minor injuries, most caused by flying debris.

"(Westmoreland) got clocked. It was really some wild weather," said Accuweather meteorologist Mike Pigott in State College. "It's associated with a cold front. We had a series of several storms, 12 or 13 storms actually going through the Midwest, and one particular storm developed a hook after it passed by Pittsburgh. ... We had reports of 2-inch-diameter hail falling in Greensburg, and that's pretty big."

The National Weather Service will assess damage, probably today, to determine if the area was hit by a tornado, meteorologist Rich Kane said.

State Sen. Kim Ward said Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who heads the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, "is prepared to come out as soon as possible to assess the damage and provide guidance for help."

Allegheny Energy and West Penn reported almost 13,000 customers in Westmoreland County were without power, as were thousands in Washington and Fayette counties. An emergency shelter opened in the Hempfield municipal building on Woodward Drive.

In Sewickley Township, shell-shocked neighbors hugged each other as others tried to pick household items from piles of debris.

"I'll have to spend the night in the Holiday Inn. My house is destroyed. There's probably $350,000 worth of damage," said John Seczko.

John and Kathy Plantan escaped with only damage to the roof of their home on General Braddock Road.

"I could see the swirl of the clouds and was watching it come lower and lower," said John Plantan. "I thought to myself, 'I hope it doesn't come this way.' I no sooner said that than everything came flying through here."

Plantan, who was standing in his driveway, was struck by a piece of an airborne shed.

"I feel lucky because we're alive," Kathy Plantan said.

Plantan's ham radio tower in his backyard -- built to withstand winds of 85 mph -- broke off.

Tyler Mains, 19, escaped injury when two huge pine trees fell onto his car just moments before he climbed into the vehicle to drive to UPS in New Stanton.

"It came through like a freight train. My son just walked through the driveway as the trees fell," said his mother, Donna Mains.

Dennis Tepke, whose Mohawk Drive yard now overlooks the exposed kitchen of a nearby home, watched his anemometer, a device that measures wind speed, during the storm.

"I looked at it when the storm first started, and it said 2 (mph), then it said 10, then a couple minutes later it read 72," he said.

Don Rose of Beaver Road, 2 miles from Hempfield High, saw a swirling gray cloud come up behind his home and head toward the Fort Allen neighborhood in the township.

"We seen it when it was this bubbling mass going over my house. You could see little birds getting sucked in. You could see the funnel clouds. You can actually feel the suction of it. You can see the debris going all around us," Rose said.

No one was injured at the high school, where winds tore through the stadium, peeled off portions of the auditorium roof, and left the parking lot and both sides of Route 136 strewn with debris.

"The sky started to turn green," said freshman Caitlyn Comm.

"Everyone was screaming," said athletic trainer Lisa Brose. "We just saw debris everywhere. We were trying to get the kids inside."

About 200 students were at the school for sports practice and a play, said Assistant Superintendent Andrew Leopold. Athletes were sheltered in the fieldhouse, and actors took refuge in the basement.

School director Joe Lutz noted that it was fortunate the storm had not hit when the school was full of students. "An hour earlier, this would have been devastating," he said.

Tilting power lines and downed trees caused detours around the Edna Road intersection with Route 136 in Hempfield. Trees were snapped in half.

Anthony Cancro, who lives nearby, took video of the storm on his cell phone. Students at the high school posted videos of the approaching funnel cloud on YouTube and Facebook about an hour after the storm struck.

"I've never seen anything like it," Cancro said.

— Reporting by Amy Crawford, Stacey Federoff, Chris Foreman, Cody Francis, Richard Gazarik, Mary Pickels, Paul Peirce and Jennifer Reeger

Photo Galleries

Tornado skips across Westmoreland County

Tornado skips across Westmoreland County

A tornado swept through Sewickley and Hempfield townships on March 23, 2011, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

Additional Information:

Tornadoes in the area

Since 2002, tornadoes have touched down in Southwestern Pennsylvania on seven dates:

April 28, 2002 -- A tornado starting 1 mile south of Spring Church in Armstrong County caused $150,000 in damage. Another tornado that began 10 miles west of Butler caused $200,000 in damage. Three tornadoes starting near Iselin, Indiana and Deckers Point in Indiana County injured two people and caused more than $1 million in damage.

June 12, 2003 -- A tornado started 1 mile east of Carnegie, causing $30,000 in damage.

Aug. 4, 2004 -- A tornado started 3 miles southeast of Greensburg, causing $1,000 in damage.

Dec. 1, 2006 -- A tornado started 1 mile northeast of Greensburg, causing $75,000 in damage.

Aug. 9, 2007 -- A tornado started in the West End in Pittsburgh, causing $100,000 in damage.

July 22, 2008 -- A tornado started 1 mile northwest of Butler. No damages were reported.

July 30, 2008 -- A tornado started 2 miles southwest of Fiketown in Fayette County, causing $5,000 in damage.

Source: National Climatic Data Center

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