May 31, 1985 Tornado Outbreak…Thirty Years Later

Well, here is my recollection of Friday, May 31, 1985, the day of the Eastern Ohio-Western Pennsylvania tornado outbreak, probably the biggest event to happen in my lifetime. It was this event that really sparked my interest in weather, especially thunderstorms and tornadoes. I remember that day vividly, and was eight years old at the time. There were about forty-three tornadoes that day, give or take a couple tornadoes, mainly affecting Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, along with parts of Western New York and Ontario, Canada. The strongest tornado of the day, an F5(top of the scale), started its destructive journey in Ohio around the area of Ravenna Arsenal, and it moved eastward and tore through Newton Falls and Niles(places I have been to), before crossing the border into Pennsylvania and pretty much wiping out Wheatland, just south of Sharon. This tornado continued through Hermitage before dying out right before entering Mercer. The tornado carried an airplane wing ten miles before dropping it. This was the strongest tornado in PA recorded history. Other communities in PA that were hit very hard by F4 tornadoes were Albion and Atlantic. It seems like places along PA Route 18 were really targeted that day. Other places hit by tornadoes were Tionesta and Kane, both in PA. The F4 tornado that tore through Moshannon State Forest in Central PA was at times TWO MILES WIDE!! And that wasn’t even the strongest tornado!! This particular tornado moved along Interstate 80 for a distance in the Moshannon vicinity, knocking down signs along that road. Could you imagine being on 80 at that time and seeing a tornado that big?? Fortunately, that tornado went through unpopulated areas around Moshannon, but it destroyed a large portion of the forest. A lot of tornadoes that day were of monstrous sizes.

Now, I’m going to talk about the tornado that affected my area, that being the F3 tornado that went across northern portions of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and my recollection of that meteorologically amazing day, so here it goes…The weather was beautiful for much of that Friday, bright sunshine and clear blue skies, which was a VERY bad thing. The sun just makes the atmosphere more unstable, and GREATLY increases the chance for thunderstorms, so just keep that in mind in the future when thunderstorms are forecasted for a seemingly beautiful day. I always lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was away on a business trip in California. I had spent the morning and better part of the afternoon up in New Castle with my grandmother and my aunt(my grandparents’ daughter). The weather was clear and sunny that whole time. After dropping my aunt off at her old house in Frisco(just outside of Ellwood City) in the late afternoon, my grandmother and I headed for home. The weather had gotten cloudy by that time, but it didn’t look like anything ominous or threatening. It just looked like a gray, overcast day. We arrived back at our house in a good sized neighborhood, which is about a mile south of the intersection of PA Routes 65 and 588. My uncle(my grandparents’ son and my aunt’s brother)was up in his room watching “Smokey And The Bandit Part 3”. During this time, a Tornado Watch had been issued for our area. After the movie was over, my uncle was getting ready to go out with a high school friend of his. I turned on the radio to a then very popular Pittsburgh rock station(I’m not sure how popular it is now, as I don’t listen to it anymore). They played Don Henley’s “All She Wants To Do Is Dance”. I had to turn the radio off after that song, because my grandmother and I were getting ready to go back over to my aunt’s in Frisco. My grandmother and aunt were making ceramic coffee mugs that night(my aunt used to hold ceramic classes every week). My aunt came to pick us up, because my uncle was taking my grandmother’s car out to pick up his friend and go about their plans. My grandmother told him to be careful, because she knew about the Tornado Watch. Many years later, my grandmother told me that she had a funny feeling about that night. The weather was still cloudy when we arrived back at my aunt’s house, but after we got settled in, the sun came back out and the sky became clear again as I was watching my faithful cartoons. This was during the very early evening. After a while, I went with my other uncle(my aunt’s husband)into Ellwood City to pick up pizza at the local and still to this day very popular pizza shop. The weather had gotten cloudy again, but still nothing menacing looking. After we arrived back at my aunt’s house, a thunderstorm came in, but even then it wasn’t anything major. It was more like a little thundershower. The storm had been going on for a while when we got the phone call. My first uncle(the one who went out with his friend)called and told my grandmother that him and his friend was in a tornado. My grandmother didn’t believe him at all, because I guess he didn’t sound serious. He was actually laughing about it. My grandmother hung up(I’ll get back to my uncle and his friend)and just a short time later we started hearing about the tornado on my second uncle’s(the one married to my aunt)scanner. The storm outside quickly and dramatically intensified, as it became VERY severe. The sky looked like the end of the world was coming. I became petrified. I was never as scared as I was that night. I said to my grandmother “I thought we couldn’t get tornadoes. You told me tornadoes can’t happen here”. Looking back on it, I guess my grandmother thought that she was telling the truth. I think everyone in the region thought the same thing up until this happened. The funny thing was, my grandmother told me that tornadoes couldn’t happen here just a few weeks before this happened, as I was learning about these sort of things in school. I saw hail for the very first time that night. I saw these big balls of ice come crashing down on my aunt’s front porch. They were the size of golfballs. I asked my grandmother what were these strange things hitting the ground, and she told me it was hail. For years afterward, I got very nervous everytime I saw hail. I went out on the front porch and picked up a handful of the hailstones. I rubbed the stones all over my face. I even ate one. It tasted just like an ice cube. I guess I was fascinated by this newfound thing. Reports of the tornado came steadily over the scanner the rest of that evening. My aunt’s and second uncle’s three month old daughter was oblivious to what was going on. She was just sitting there smiling. My aunt and grandmother actually went about making those mugs at the kitchen table while this nightmare was going on. The mugs were very funny looking and uneven(but usable), as they were very nervous while making them. The raging storm outside finally moved on out right before dark. Before I go on, I’ll tell you what happened with my first uncle and his friend. They happened to be riding by the Big Beaver Plaza(just north of Beaver Falls) on PA Route 18 when the tornado struck there. The plaza sat on a high hillside above the Beaver River, with another high hill across Route 18 from the plaza above railroad tracks. My uncle and his friend were coming out of Koppel and going south towards Beaver Falls. My uncle was driving along in the car with his friend when they saw what they thought was train smoke up on the hillside, and then they quickly realized that this “smoke” was racing down the hillside towards them and the plaza. All of a sudden, the plaza roof came flying towards the car. My uncle and his friend ducked underneath the car seats right before the roof came smashing through the front windshield. Good thing for their quick thinking!! While the roof was smashing into the car, the tornado was spinning the car around like a blurred top (with them still inside!!)before slamming the car into a ditch off the side of the road. The tornado tore through the plaza. My uncle and his friend somehow got out of the demolished car and ditch as the tornado was crossing the river. My uncle said that the river actually parted like the Red Sea. AMAZINGLY, my uncle and his friend got out of it with bruises and embedded glass in their skin, which really felt itchy and jaggy, I was told. It’s AMAZING that they survived, AND without major injury!! As I said, the car was demolished. The plaza was destroyed. Two people died at the plaza, along with many injuries. It was 8:19 PM when the tornado struck the plaza. That’s the time a clock in an unscathed restaurant beside the plaza showed before it went dead. My uncle and his friend fled the scene. They were actually howling and laughing about it. My uncle found a phone and that’s when he called us at my aunt’s. My grandmother did not believe him until we started hearing about the tornado on the scanner, as I said before. Now, getting back to what was going on…As I said before, the storm finally ended right before dark. My grandfather was just arriving back at the old Pittsburgh Airport right after this happened. He had no clue as to what was happening. He saw all these ambulances and emergency vehicles racing towards our direction as he was getting into his car. He was wondering what that was all about. The aforementioned intersection right up the road from our neighborhood was hit very hard. Destruction everywhere you looked. An additional death and many injuries up in that vicinity. The tornado was visible from our neighborhood, but of course, we didn’t see it, because we weren’t there. The neighbors said it was huge. It could have been a multiple vortex tornado, because a neighbor told me that there were two smaller, skinnier funnels on either side of the tornado. All our neighbors said that they heard a very loud roar and they looked outside and there it was moving on by. Our next door neighbor tried to take pictures of it, but they came out fuzzy. Our poor little Yorkshire Terrier was home all alone when the tornado went roaring by. The poor thing was scared out of its mind. We always kept that dog in a playpen. It was so scared that it jumped out of the playpen, which was a very high jump. Had the tornado been just a little further south, our neighborhood would have been in bad shape!! It JUST missed us!! Of course, we were all VERY thankful that we were spared. It was bad enough seeing the devastation just up the road. Getting back to my grandfather, he still didn’t know what was going on as he approached our neighborhood, but he knew something happened. The police was out directing traffic. My grandfather asked them what happened. They told him that there was a tornado. The police allowed him to proceed into our neighborhood. The whole neighborhood was pitch dark(as our power was out for many days after). He came into our black house with our petrified dog running around panicked. My grandfather saw that nobody was home, and he quickly became worried sick about us. He was afraid that we were in it. He called over to my aunt’s to see if we were there. He was VERY relieved. Since my grandmother’s car was demolished, my grandfather had to come and pick us up. He eventually arrived. The sky was crystal clear by that time. The full moon was out shining brightly. It was as if nothing ever happened. We had to go on a pretty good detour to get home, because the road was blocked going to the hard hit intersection up the road from our neighborhood. Anybody who didn’t live in the immediate area of the intersection wasn’t allowed through. We were on a back road going up a hill with the Pennsylvania Turnpike running parallel down below it for a distance. While we were riding along this little road, we came across a house that was laying on its side. It was as though giant hands pushed the house over. We finally made it back home after clearing it with the police. My first uncle(the one who was out with his friend)was back home by that time. His friend’s(the one he was out with)mother brought him home. We all just sat there in the darkness and silence and talked about what happened that nightmarish night. We could hear the police talking on their walkie-talkies. That’s all anybody really talked about over the next few days. We went around and looked at all the damage for many days after. Miraculously, we were somehow able to get my grandmother’s demolished car back into shape and fixed. And right after the fixed car was picked up, it hit a deer and was totaled, and that was the end of the car.

My first uncle has since been in another tornado. On Tuesday, May 24, 1994, he was driving along in a severe thunderstorm on PA Route 8 going south right up above the Butler-Allegheny County line when a small tornado crossed the road right behind his car. The car really shook as the tornado passed by, but fortunately, my uncle and the car were left unharmed.

Getting back to ’85, we were one of the very last places to be hit that day. Most other places in Eastern Ohio and Northwestern Pennsylvania were already hit by the time it got here. I still have the newspaper of that event. I look through it from time to time. I also have the excellent book “Tornado Watch Number 211”, which is about this particular tornado outbreak. The book goes into great detail describing the events of that day. Very interesting and very sad at the same time. I used this book as a guide as I went through Atlantic and Albion on the way to Lake Erie(I go up there as much as I can during the summer months. The Lake is my favorite place in the whole world)two years ago. Of particular interest was Albion. I went through the hardest hit areas of that town, and where one of the most heartbreaking tragedies occurred that day. I’ve gone through there several times over the last two years, as I like to go the long way(PA Route 18)to the Lake and back when time allows.

I used to be scared to death of thunderstorms, but I’ve grown to love them. Personally, I don’t worry about the possibility of that happening again. Conditions were EXTREMELY rare that day. The frequency of something like that happening here is once every million years. It just so happened to occur during our lifetime. You still occasionally hear of tornadoes in Western Pennsylvania, but NOTHING of the magnitude of ’85. That was an unprecedented event, as far as the number and severity of the tornadoes are concerned. It was PA’s deadliest storms.

I think about that day all the time, as it will always be with me. It’s hard to believe that it will be thirty years(!!!!)coming up. Where did the time go?? I’ll close by saying that was LITERALLY one heck of a night!!

I am adding a link to the aforementioned newspaper…

Included in this newspaper are a couple pictures of the actual Beaver County F3 tornado. You have to go quite a ways into the paper to see the tornado pictures, but if you go far enough, you will come across the pictures.

Additionally, here are five-year anniversary stories in the newspaper…

One more thing from the newspaper, this being ten-year anniversary stories that includes a picture of the Beaver County tornado on the front page…

Also, here is a link to my Facebook group page about the outbreak…

On this group page, there are all sorts of pictures and videos relating to the outbreak, along with extensive coverage from several newspapers from back then. These are the actual newspapers from that time. Also, it’s a place for people to share and talk about their experiences.

In addition, here is a link to the also previously mentioned book “Tornado Watch Number 211″…

Here is  a link to a map where you can actually trace the actual tornado tracks from that day… However, I do question the accuracy of the tornado tracks depicted on this map, at least for the Beaver County tornado, as that particular tornado’s track was a little further south than what is shown on the map.

Also, here is a link to a map illustrating all the storm reports from that day…

Here is a link that really details the meteorological aspect of that day… Included in this are a list of the tornadoes, and the time duration for each tornado. In addition, there is also a simulation of what the radar would have looked like when the storms came through Western Pennsylvania that evening.

More blogs about my storm experiences will be coming soon, including the most incredible thunderstorm that I have ever seen, the time I was struck by lightning, and a very rare weather observation, along with other storm stories. Until next time.

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9 Responses to “May 31, 1985 Tornado Outbreak…Thirty Years Later”

  1. mary franks Says:

    hi! i was 27 at the time and i remember that day so vividly! i live in wheatland now saw it form out of the sky!! it was pure white at the time of formation before it dropped! also grew up in wheatland and my brother played at the wheatland ballfield1 always excited to talk about that day.

  2. Stormcsr Says:

    Ms. Franks, that was indeed quite a day. I was looking for the tornado memorial in Wheatland a couple years ago, but couldn’t find it. None of the locals that were asked seemed to know where it was at. I know that there is a memorial there, because I saw a picture of it in the newspaper.

    • Flo Says:

      It isn’t easy to find–it’s literally in the middle of the industrial park, hidden by a bunch of buildings. If you can find Main St., you will find it. There is a grove of trees and the area where it is they keep very well manicured. Finding Main St isn’t easy unless you have a GPS because most of the street signs are missing. I understand part of why they put it there because it is near where so much was destroyed, but it definitely is a strange place for it, I would have thought they would have put it on a main road.

      I can’t believe it will be 30 years this weekend. It’s certainly a date I will never forget.

  3. Deb Rampolla Says:

    My sister and brother-in-law were killed that day. They lived on Knoch Road in Saxonburg Pa. Butler County PA. The tornado hit there at 9:06 p.m. Their collie lived through it, and we took him in. That’s all we had left. At my sister’s neighbor’s, an 18 month old died along with his 18 year old baby sitter. Thank you for remembering. Deb Rampolla. Whitehall.

    • Stormcsr Says:

      Deb…Thank you too. So sorry about that. That had to be horrible. That was the same tornado that first started out in my area, and I’ve seen somewhere a picture of the tornado when it was in Saxonburg, and it looked gigantic.

  4. MikeyW Says:

    I was 5 years old… Camping in Tionesta, PA with my grandparents. That was an amazing event. We were in a camper trailer and my grandparents were running from one side to the other. It was an amazing evnt

  5. Bill W. Says:

    I was a FT park police officer and reserve PA state trooper when this event unfolded. No warning was given due toi the Jamestown, PA power station being leveled from the main tornado as it crossed the OH/PA border and headed northwesterly toward Crawford County and the Amish/Mennonite community of Atlanitc. I heard the firstr reports of “a train accident” with major devastation in Atlantic over the Crawford County police/fire radio and was later phoned to report for disaster duty at 07:00 the following morning in Atlantic. Later that evening, the information was updated to a massive tornado strike throughout Ohio and PA. What followed was 7 days of 14 on/14 off shifts in tandem with the PA Nat’l Guard. I had never imagained such devastation to which I was exposed over the next week and months. The strangest thiing about Atlantic was every house and building was destroyed except the small, one-storie brick church next to the post office. Everything on either side of this church was leveled but the church remained untouched, even the weathervane on the coupola on the roof was still intact. The 400-ft AT&T communication tower one mile East was reduced to an erector set…God works in mysterious ways for sure! It was a time that tested and prepared me for the rest of my life.

  6. Chuck H Says:

    I remember that day well. I was working up in troy hill Pittsburgh looking down the valley of the ohio river towards Sewickley the sky became a cooper green color. we never got hit but just a light rain, I found that evening watching the news how bad it really was chuck h.

  7. Allison Hunter Says:

    I was 10 years-old when this happened. My father was a band director at Beaver Falls High School, and we took a band trip to Ontario, Canada for a band festival for that weekend. We left very early that Friday morning, and I can remember the excitement that day. It was absolutely beautiful, not a cloud in the sky that I saw or could remember, but I remember it was pretty hot at the rest stops. Even as a kid it felt unsettling, but I was still pretty excited.

    When we got to our hotel rooms, we settled in, got our bathing suits on so we could swim in the indoor pool, but I can remember all of a sudden there was a knock on our door. It was a chaperone that had got a phone call from her sister. Then I remember my dad called our next door neighbor and asked if our neighborhood got hit. From the look on my dad’s face, I knew it was bad. He told the chaperone to spread the word to gather up the band students.

    I can remember standing in this conference room with my parents, sisters, other band parents, and the students. My younger sister was holding my hand tightly, as my father was holding the other, trembling. I looked up at my dad, and he had tears in his eyes. Then I looked at everybody else in the room…they all looked scared. Then I can remember my dad said in this weak voice, “A tragedy has hit back home. A tornado hit very close to the downtown Beaver Falls area. There’s no word on if anybody was seriously hurt or killed”. Gasps and cries filled the room, and I remember having this sinking feeling in my stomach. Students were hugging each other crying, the chaperones did what they could do to calm everybody down, my mother was crying, my older sister looked sick, it was terrible.

    My dad regained his composure, and then he said, “Now we have two options…one is to load the bus and go home, or we could try to reach our families to see if everything is all right, but we may not be able to. We can stay for the festival for the whole weekend, or leave Sunday morning”. Some students just wanted to leave that night, but most decided to stay and make the best of it.

    We tried to enjoy ourselves, but when there’s a lot of tension in the air, it seemed like nobody was having a good time. For a child that tension felt terrible. I believe everybody’s minds were set to get home. Even attending Canada’s Wonderland (an amusement park) didn’t sound thrilling to some. However, the band played on, and we did have fun. There was another meeting in that conference room at the hotel that night. My dad asked if anybody reached their families and for the most part they did. But he asked if anybody would like to go home the next morning, and one chaperone said that Jamesway (a department store) was completely leveled while they were still open. I didn’t know as a kid how everybody felt, but now that I think about it, I don’t think anybody was really ready to come home to that destruction.

    That Sunday we toured the city, but my dad made it a point to be back at the hotel early so we could leave Toronto very early the next day.

    The ride back was mostly quiet…even I didn’t say much. When we got closer to home, I felt that tension again. As we got closer, it was like everybody had their eyes fixed looking out the bus windows. When we exited to get off the turnpike it was dead silent. We traveled up Route 18, and all I could remember was gasps. Clearly I could see a total path of destruction in the trees from across the river and through the wooded hills when there was destruction at Homewood Roller Rink, a few other places, and finally Jamesway. As a kid I didn’t understand much, but to this day I STILL have that image burned in my memory.

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