Chris Sterling, who was a 21-year-old firefighter when the outbreak hit, recounts those overwhelming hours of chaos, fear and awe
“Earlier in the day, it was very hot and humid. It was a beautiful day. Blue skies and really big, white cumulous clouds,” recalled Hydetown Volunteer Fire Department C2 Chris Sterling of the early afternoon of May 31, 1985 — the day of the biggest tornado outbreak in Pennsylvania’s long history.
Sterling, of Hydetown, was a C4 with the Centerville Volunteer Fire Department when the muggy day turned to one of utter horror for residents and first responders all across the region.
After working at his father’s gas station, in Hydetown, the then-21-year-old Sterling had just returned to his home next to the station for dinner when he heard his emergency monitor exploding with frantic voices, that afternoon.
“The monitor was going nuts,” he recalled, “I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were saying. I went out onto the porch, and my dad was changing tires at the gas station next door,” when another gas station employee said the scanner traffic sounded as if there was a barn fire somewhere nearby.
After the monitor tripped his response, the young volunteer firefighter jumped in his vehicle and headed up state Route 8, toward Centerville, when he noticed his assistant fire chief, Pete Hackett, pulling out of his own home ahead of him, going the same direction.
Both were headed to the fire hall, and unknowingly toward the path of a mile-wide monster.
At the fire hall, Hackett told Sterling the call they were responding to was of a tornado warning.
“I started putting two-and-two together,” said Sterling, recounting the earlier scanner chatter and the new warning. “I started thinking, maybe there actually was a tornado somewhere. I’m assuming the traffic I’d heard was a tornado touching down to our west. Some of the departments over there were already experiencing this.”
Unfortunately for first responders, the communication system in 1985 is nothing like what we’ve grown accustomed to in 2015.
“Communication wasn’t that good, at that point,” said Sterling. “Everybody was talking over everybody. You couldn’t understand what was going on.”
One of the other firefighters managed to get through to Crawford County emergency services, and was told tornadoes had touched down in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
He was also told that Centerville “was in the path of a possible tornado,” Sterling said.
Sterling and another man went outside of the fire hall, and looked toward the southwest.
The situation rapidly plunged into chaos.
The man told Sterling, as he pointed toward the horizon, “Right there’s our troublemaker.”
“I looked at it, and, sure enough, there was a small funnel. There was no doubt. There was a lot of rotation,” Sterling said. “And, I don’t know that I even got a chance to say anything, and that thing was on the ground, that quick. Of course, I was froze for a moment, just in awe of watching this.”
Touchdown occurred at 6:12 p.m., according to the National Weather Service, in Cleveland.
The two turned to head back into the fire hall, and, as they approached the door, the new tornado had developed into “a large wedge tornado,” Sterling recalled. “You could see, what appeared to be sticks flying, were whole trees. It really appeared like it was going to come right at the fire station.”
As Sterling’s fire truck left the station to help anyone in the path of the tornado, “We watched the PennDOT barn get hit. As we turned onto [Route] 8, it was crossing the highway, and you could literally see PennDOT trucks being thrown and tossed across the road.
“We watched that tornado go pretty much out of sight as we got down to the first destroyed residence… on the corner of Station Road and Route 8.”
After crawling through debris to shut a valve off on a large propane tank that was jetting flames 20-plus feet into the air, Sterling and his crew continued along Station Road.
There, they would find the bodies of the two Centerville residents killed by the storm.
While waiting for an ambulance to work its way through town toward the house where the bodies were discovered, “lightning struck so close to us that it threw mud at us,” Sterling said.
“For a young firefighter, it was just a whole different ball of wax. Something you don’t think you’ll ever see.”
Sterling said the damage path of the F-3 tornado stretched from Gina’s Restaurant to the bridge, on Route 8.
Meanwhile, as Sterling and his crew, along with several other departments, scoured the Centerville area for injuries or entrapments through the night, more tornadoes were dropping from the sky and wreaking havoc on communities all across the region.
The first five Pennsylvania tornadoes of the huge system had already touched down — the first was an F-4, and had wrecked Albion, from 4:59 to 5:17 p.m., killing 12; the second killed one person in Linesville, between 5:10 and 5:15; the third killed 16 people in Atlantic, which was “practically totaled,” according to the National Weather Service.
The Atlantic tornado’s path would go on for an incredible stretch of 56 miles, through Cherrytree, narrowly missing Rouseville and Oil City, finally lifting in Forest County. It was on the ground for 1 hour and 13 destructive minutes.
Next, an F-3 dropped near Saegertown, from 5:23 to 5:55 p.m., sparing the lives of that town’s residents.
Just before the Centerville twister, north of Corry, an F-4 dropped from the severely active atmosphere, which was on the ground from 5:25 to 5:55. This, too, spared the lives of that area’s people.
But, not before an extremely close call for those shopping at Wigger’s Canoe Sales, on state Route 426, north of Corry.
“I was just looking for a life vest and paddles,” said Sam Hamilton, of Mageetown Road.
He said two young boys were ahead of him with their father, asking questions about vests.
Suddenly, heavy rains, then large hail, pounded the barn that housed the store and the area around it.
As suddenly as it began, it stopped.
“The kids went back outside and were looking at the hail and picking it up.
Then came the sound.
The store’s owner, Dave Wigger, asked, “What’s that noise? That doesn’t sound right,” Hamilton recounted.
“We went outside and the funnel cloud was coming down right on top of the hill. It was so close, it looked like a huge bank of fog. By the time we noticed it, it was right there.”
Hamilton, Wigger and the two kids and their dad ran the 50 yards across a driveway to Wigger’s home. They crawled up onto a porch that had access to the basement.
“I looked up and saw nobody had closed the door behind us. I went to go close it, but probably only got one step toward the door when it hit.
“It was like you were inside 100 locomotive engines. It just roared, and roared and roared.”
After the twister had passed directly overhead, all five survivors climbed back up from their subterranean shelter.
At first, they thought the porch had been ripped off.
Then, they realized the only part of the home that was spared was the subfloor above the basement.
Hamilton said every tree in the tornado’s path was chopped down to the base.
“It looked like someone with a great big mower came and sheared off all the trees. All our vehicles were gone. You could look down across the valley, and you could just see vehicles thrown all through the brush.”
At 6:30 p.m., an F-4 touched down just east of Oil Creek State Park, south of Pleasantville, and ripped into Forest County, through Tionesta.
In Tionesta, seven people were killed before the tornado ultimately roped out in Elk County.
A small tornado, F-0, touched down near Kane, from 7:56 to 8:03 p.m.
A monster F-4 dropped just south of Sheffield, in Warren County, at 8 p.m., before tearing through Kane, in McKean County. This one traveled 29 miles, killing four, before lifting in Elk County at 8:40 p.m.
The massive outbreak lasted until 11 p.m., when the final of the 43 tornadoes lifted after an 11-mile track through Holleback Township, in Luzerne County.
The largest of the tornadoes to touch down that day killed no one.
According to the National Weather Service, an F-4 touched down south of Saint Marys, and grew to a staggering 3,330 yards in width, or about 1.9 miles.
This tornado also stayed on the ground the longest — 1 hour and 25 minutes — and had the longest track, at 75 miles.
Fortunately, for almost its entire life, the tornado shredded trees through the large Moshannon State Park, west of Williamsport.
About 88,000 trees were destroyed in the state forest, according to the National Weather Service, along with a metal fire tower and at least one cabin.
Only one injury was reported from this tornado.
WJET-TV Meteorologist Tom Atkins called the atmosphere on May 31, 1985, “the perfect situation,” for a bad tornado day.
“The sun heated up everything. Then, you had a strong cold front from the west,” he said. “That created what are called supercell thunderstorms… capable of rotating and producing tornadoes.”
Atkins said 21 of the 43 tornadoes that day were rated at an F-3 or higher.
“That’s just crazy. You wouldn’t think almost half of the tornadoes in a system would be high-end tornadoes.”
The tornado outbreak that dropped 43 twisters across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, remains the third deadliest tornado day in U.S. history, according to the National Weather Service.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the May 31, 1985, tornado outbreak, the National Weather Service will be ‘live’ tweeting the tornado outbreak on Sunday, as if it were happening at the moment.
To follow along on Sunday, from 4 to 11 p.m., follow the NWS Cleveland Twitter account, @NWSCLE.
The tornado outbreak was the deadliest outbreak of the 1980s, killing 89 people and injuring more than 1,000.
The day of explosive storms caused more than $600 million in property damage.