Editor's Note: It was 22 years ago on June 2, 1998, that an F-4 tornado touched down in Frostburg. The following story by retired Times-News Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers was published on June 2, 2008.
If tri-state residents were shocked on May 31, 1998, that a tornado disrupted a bucolic, springtime, Sunday evening, tearing through Salisbury and Pocahontas, Pa., and killing a 13-year-old girl, the feeling changed to disbelief two days later when a second twister, rated at F-4, tore up portions of all three states, directing the worst of its windy malevolence at Frostburg.
It was June 2, a Tuesday night. Mountain City residents had just finished casting their votes in a municipal election at which they returned Mayor John Bambacus for a third term.
On television sets throughout the region, including the screen in the newsroom at the Times-News, anybody watching The Weather Channel could track the storm every eight minutes when the station displayed radar images.
There they were, reds and oranges, the channel’s way of exhibiting nasty storms. The colored splatter was positioned just east and a little south of Pittsburgh. Every eight minutes the position of the storm event changed substantially, an indicator that it was moving quickly eastward.
There was no hint, either verbally or visually, that a tornado was hiding somewhere on the television screen, stuck within an amoeba-like and morphing mass of orange and red and green and yellow. The storm seemed to have gotten a ticket to use the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling eastward above the oldest of our nation’s modern dual-lane highways.
“It’s going to miss our circulation area,” we said in the newsroom. Obviously, we were wrong.
There is a standing joke in the newsroom that when I am on the police and fire beat that all bets are off and there is likely to be some major event about which we will report.
Over the years, there has been basis for such concern.
In addition to the tornado, I have been in that particular newsroom barrel when a massive and stationary rain storm hit Cumberland’s West Side on Sept. 11, 2000, badly flooding the city.
In 1985, I was the first reporter into Petersburg, W.Va., after that devastating November flood.
In the 1980s, I was the police beat guy when two local desperadoes robbed a Mister Softee truck, killed Pop Snyder at his grocery store in Wiley Ford, attempted to rob the Continental Motel in LaVale and were eventually apprehended at Frostburg.
Most recently, in October 2007, I was in that editorial role when a tragic airplane crash killed four people in Mineral County, W.Va., and a large fire broke on Lee Street.
There have been enough such events that our photographers wonder where they will have to scurry on the nights I am penciled in.
On June 2, 1998, those of us in the newsroom watched as the storm passed turnpike exits at Irwin, New Stanton and Donegal. “Harrisburg better watch out,” we thought.
Then when it reached Somerset, just like the family Ford or a Chevrolet that was headed back to Meyersdale or Corriganville after a Pittsburgh Pirates game, it punched its toll ticket and turned right.
It was 8 p.m. The action was about to begin.
Because bad weather surrounded the tornado cells, three waves of turbulence came through Allegany County from 7:30 to 11 p.m.
Sightings of funnel clouds began near Eckhart about 8 p.m., 20 minutes after a tornado warning had been broadcast by the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Following that report, funnel clouds were seen in LaVale and on Haystack Mountain.
At the Times-News, the editorial staff retreated briefly to the pressroom, believing that asylum could be had among the massive and sturdy press structures. Fortunately, shelter wasn’t needed.
After a while, we opened the door to our parking lot and watched as an extremely wide funnel cloud drifted slowly eastward across the Potomac River. We speculated it was between South Cumberland and Mexico Farms. The air was as still as any of us had ever experienced. The vision easily ranked as eerie.
Earlier, marble-sized hail had pelted downtown Cumberland.
The twister banged hard into Frostburg near Frost Elementary School, destroying or damaging homes on streets such as Armstrong, Rynex, James, Jones, Victoria and Crestview.
Like a rock skipping across water, the tornado bounced skyward, only to land with force near Eckhart, a couple of ridges and hollows away.
From there, the twister hugged Piney Mountain before blasting up from Braddock Run and crossing Interstate 68 at Clarysville. The storm then climbed Dan’s Mountain and returned to the sky, finally expiring somewhere above Bowling Green.
As residents of Frostburg were attempting to survive, those who lived in Rawlings and in Keyser, W.Va., reported that skies were blue and clear. Although later, it was learned that a tornado touched down near the Knobley Mountain Subdivision on U.S. Route 220 south of Keyser near New Creek.
At 9:40 p.m., we called the Eastern Garrett Volunteer Fire Department in Finzel. Someone answered the phone, but before we could ask a question, we heard him yell to others in the fire hall to take cover because a tornado was hitting. The phone went dead.
Lance White, the newspaper’s managing editor at the time, told us to forget the deadline. Off-duty reporters had been filtering into the newsroom to help. We were to get as much information as we could as fast as we could. We would be told later when it was time to go to press.
Our stories carried quotes obtained after midnight. One of those quotes came from then Frankfort High School Principal Ron King, who had to stop graduation ceremonies there and evacuate 1,200 people.
We found out a little after 11 p.m. that nobody had been treated for storm-related injuries at Memorial Hospital’s emergency room.
Tim Thomas, who is an official weather junkie for the National Weather Service, said conditions were ideal for a tornado. “If conditions are right, a tornado can sit down in any of the 50 states at any time,” he said. A tornado forms when hot, humid weather combines with a strong jet stream packing cooler temperatures.
Gov. Parris Glendening flew via state police helicopter to Frostburg the next morning. “The most reassuring thing to me is that there are no deaths or injuries. That’s a miracle to me,” he said.
The governor was correct, considering that the tornado was the strongest to ever strike Maryland.
The path of the tornado was determined to be 15 miles long and a half-mile wide. The winds had reached 210 mph. There were 29 homes destroyed in Frostburg. Another 29 had damage of more than $10,000. More than 65 homes sustained damages up to $5,000. The property damage throughout Allegany County reached $4.5 million.
The memories of June 2, 1998, reach deep, especially for those upon whom the tornado literally touched down.
Contact Michael A. Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.