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May 31, 1985 - The Day of the Pennsylvania Killer Tornadoes

Hot and Humid

It was late afternoon on Friday, May 31, 1985. The day was becoming increasingly hot and humid, and I stripped my 3-year old down to underwear and a t-shirt and my baby (then 8 months old) was in nothing but a cloth diaper and rubber pants. Our mobile home was sweltering without air conditioning and we were finding little relief. I was 2 months pregnant with our third child and just recovering from a very rough patch in my life. But at 23 years old with renewed faith, I was feeling much better and spring brought with it a newfound appreciation for living and the new life inside of me.

The afternoon was strangely calm. It was getting close to supper time when the wind began to blow hard. I rescued a hanging planter from my awning as it swung like a reckless pendulum. Once back inside, I started getting a strange feeling. Somewhere deep within the maternal part of me, I began to contemplate taking the girls to the bathroom and getting in the bathtub. I had surmised that this was the safest room because it had no windows. I was in this thought pattern and still not consciously thinking tornado when I heard my neighbor shouting.

Running for our Lives

I ran to my kitchen window which faced west and looked up. The sky was strangely rolled back and an odd color. It almost looked like it was boiling. Although I didn’t see the typical funnel, what I was seeing was monstrous and I knew it was a tornado. Just then, like a scene from a Godzilla movie, a crowd of trailer dwellers began running past my window, because every mobile home dweller knows – you stay in a trailer during a tornado, you are as good as dead.

I grabbed my children and just as I got to my front steps, I saw Steve and Pat - neighbors I had befriended who had girls the same ages as mine. Steve was carrying the oldest, and Pat was following him carrying their youngest when I called for them. Steve met me halfway and took Nikki, my oldest, and Pat and I ran after him carrying our babies. Seeing Steve with Nikki kept me going despite the fact that I had no shoes on and we were running on gravel. I do not remember feeling or hearing a thing – it was pure terror mixed with adrenaline. Then just a few trailers up, we came to the home of my sister-in-law. She and her husband lived there with my 4-year old niece. I wanted to alert them, but I didn’t want to leave Nikki. I was in this moral dilemma when they burst out of their trailer and joined the crowd. Somewhere along the line, Steve, who was leading the pack, announced that he was taking us to an old farm on the edge of the trailer park. There in the side of hill, was a half-buried milk house. He hoped to get us all crowded in there, but we were exhausted and scared and when we got as far as an abandoned barn someone suggested we stay. This could have been fatal decision had the tornado stayed to its path, but it didn’t.

An Abrupt Turn

Less than a mile away, my father-in-law, Carl, stood on his porch and shook his fist in defiance at the beast while his wife and some greenhouse workers scurried to the basement. He watched the funnel, heading straight for town, make an abrupt turn to the left and travel up over a hill where it would roll a mobile home on top of and kill a teenage boy before hitting a friend’s barn collapsing the roof and crushing the cattle inside. Further up the hill, this friend would lose most of his house - the top half blowing away while his wife clung to an inside wall. She would later seek me out looking for diapers her face frozen in shock.

It would then hit the town of Cherry Tree and completely annihilate a small mobile home park there leaving nothing standing but a shower stall and bathtub. When I would see this a short time later, I would think about how that was the only place in my mobile home that I thought to take refuge. Further up the road from the Cherry Tree trailer park, a co-worker would find her relatives hanging dead in a tree, their under clothes pulled up around their necks.

In Oil City, where my husband at the time worked at a local Agway, someone would mistakenly tell him that the tornado leveled the Cooperstown trailer park instead of the Cherry Tree trailer park. Fearing we were dead, he would still have to go through the process of clearing the store of customers and locking the doors. In Franklin, my parents would drive to my sister-in-laws house, the only relative I was able to reach by phone as many lines were down. They would hear that we were safe and sit down on her front steps and cry together. My brother-in-law, a nurse at the Franklin Hospital would watch ambulances line up at the emergency room door, some pulling away before unloading, their victims already dead.

A killer is a killer and those in it's path had little time to prepare.

Map of tornado tracks in the May 31, 1985 tornado outbreak.

Map of tornado tracks in the May 31, 1985 tornado outbreak.

Killer Tornadoes

According to The Pennsylvania Weather Book, May 31, 1985 would prove to be the deadliest tornado outbreak in Pennsylvania's history! Sixty-three Pennsylvanians would lose their lives. Right after an F4 tornado ripped through Albion in Erie County, another F4 storm formed just west of the Ohio border in Kinsman Ohio. This is the storm that eventually traveled to our location in Cooperstown before dying out in Tionesta. This killer storm traveled 56 miles killing 16 people and injuring 125.

All toll, a former tornado history website showed that 33 tornadoes touched down May 31st in Pennsylvania causing 796 injuries and 75 deaths.

Aftermath

After the storms passed, PA tried to recover. As communities always do, many pulled together to help the injured and those who suffered loss. As houses and lives were rebuilt, memories of the day lingered on.

Every time a storm kicked up that year and years that followed, panic would take over and many in the our little community would run for shelter. For a long time after May 31st, every time it would storm, Nikki's (my oldest) knees would knock with fear and I could not calm her. Eventually, we would buy a house with a basement which provided us with great security. She is 30 years old now and still texts me if there is a watch or warning to make sure I'm safe.

And it does appear we are safer than we were in 1985 thanks to advances in technology and the strides made by the National Weather Service (NWS). From a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) original survey report we garner these afterthoughts, "...perhaps the lesson to be learned from the 1985 outbreak is that under the proper atmospheric conditions, major tornadoes can occur irrespective of the location or terrain". The site goes onto say that NWS now has the, "... ability to track and diagnose severe and tornadic storms via Doppler radar...The current national Doppler radar network allows forecasters to get a far more detailed view of these dangerous thunderstorms..."

Although there will always be natural disasters, a better equipped NWS has made improvements that will, according to the NOAA site, "help mitigate loss of life and property.

(The full report is worth reading and can be found at the link below under "References".)

Addendum

Since its publishing a few years ago, tens of thousands have read this article and some have shared their experiences from this day (see comments). Some lost friends, family and pets. Some were injured. Many were traumatized by the event, but lived to tell their story. In memory of those Pennsylvanians who lost their lives and in honor of those who survived, I have approved their comments and encourage you to read them. For many, May 31, 1985 will live in their memories for the rest of their lives. May the love and comfort of those who surround you and the support from the community give the survivors the hope they need to carry on. I know for me and many readers, the long blast of the tornado siren from local fire departments each tornado season is a grim, but necessary reminder that nature can be unpredictable and dangerous.

The sky looked like it was boiling...

  • Visible satellite loop May 31 1985
    Visible satellite image showing storms which produced a violent tornado outbreak. From National Weather Service website: The Tornado Outbreak of May 31, 1985 - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Tornadoes - Everything you Need to Know and More

REFERENCE

Gelber, B. (2002). The Pennsylvania weather book. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

May 31, 1985 Tornado - The 25th Anniversary. (n.d.). noaa.gov. Retrieved May 2, 2013, from http://www.erh.noaa.gov/ctp/features/TornadoOutbreak_May1985/TornadoOutbreak_May1985_Summary.pdf

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