Mushroom clouds and tornado skies

For anyone who grew up from the early 1970s through the mid 1990s, there were few more potent sources of terror than an unexpected interjection of the Emergency Broadcast System into your TV viewing.

Even if preceded by an announcement that it was “only a test,” that unmistakable blast of 853+960 Hz tones, combined with the ominous EBS logo across the television screen, never failed to send chills up my young spine. I knew, just knew, that the Soviets had finally gone and launched a volley of ICBMs that would turn Youngstown into a radioactive barbecue pit. (ABC first aired “The Day After” when I was 7 years old, so I knew the score.)

Either that, or – almost as bad – it meant that a killer tornado was on the way. Although the differences between nuclear war and a tornado are plainly obvious, my child’s brain only knew that each caused death and utter destruction wherever they occurred. My precocious tendency to watch adult programming on scary subjects like tornadoes and nuclear war (both very popular subjects during the ’80s) armed me with just enough information to be scared witless of them both.

I’ve never encountered the destruction of a nuclear detonation in person – thankfully. Few people who are alive today ever have. Although my grown-up journalist’s sensibilities make me stupidly curious about such things, let’s all be glad that we haven’t, and pray that we never will.

Tornadoes, however, are another matter.

This past May 31 marked the 28th anniversary of the massive tornado outbreak of 1985, regarded by meteorologists as one of the worst in history. According to the National Weather Service, this storm system spawned 41 separate tornadoes in the U.S. and Canada. On this side of the border alone, 76 people were killed and hundreds more were injured by the twisters, which caused $600 million in damage.

The most severe of these was a monstrous funnel that mowed a 41-mile path of ruin starting in Ravenna, Ohio. It had gained F4 strength in Trumbull County, with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph, destroying numerous buildings in Niles, where nine people were killed, and in Newton Falls and Hubbard. By the time it reached Wheatland, Pa., the twister had built up to a 300 mph, F5 leviathan that claimed seven more lives and nearly scrubbed the town off the face of the Earth.

It just so happened that my late grandmother lived in a small nursing home in Sharpsville, Pa., at the time. In order to get there from my family’s Youngstown home, we would drive through Hubbard and nearby Masury, Ohio, which borders Wheatland. And it just so happened that (like this year) May 31, 1985, was a Friday, which is when we paid her our weekly visits.

It had been a hot and sticky day, and while eating dinner just before we left the house, my mother looked out the window. “That’s a tornado sky,” she said. Mom was the only one amongst my father, older sister or I who had ever actually been through a tornado. The conditions – very humid, greenish-tinted clouds, deathly quiet and still – were exactly what she remembered.

Still, we piled into the car, and my father drove the usual northeasterly route into Trumbull County. With no Twitter, Facebook, Internet or even cable TV, we were completely unaware of what we were about to drive into.

In Hubbard on Warner Road, which is thickly populated with tall trees, we began to notice numerous downed branches and limbs on the ground. This is not uncommon following a powerful thunderstorm. Then we came around the sharp left bend in the road, a quarter-mile before our turn right onto Chestnut Ridge Road.

Chestnut Ridge was so dominated by towering old-growth trees that most of the homes scattered along its first mile were obscured from view. It was like driving through a two-lane cathedral of green, where even on the brightest days, sunlight only broke through in small, random patches on the road.

But that evening, as we rounded the bend toward Chestnut Ridge, we saw it. Or rather, we didn’t see it: The cathedral was gone.

With the exception of an, “Oh my God,” the car fell quiet. We knew exactly where we were, but suddenly, we were lost. On a 45 mph road, my father crawled along at about 20, both to creep over the debris that littered the asphalt, and to take in the surreal devastation.

Out of the hundreds of trees that had carpeted both sides of the road, only a few remained standing. But they didn’t look like trees anymore. All but one or two limbs had been torn off the trunks, and no leaves remained. Also, they had been completely stripped of their bark. What was left looked like dementedly-misshapen giant toothpicks randomly sticking of the ground.

We drove more than three miles down the arrow-straight road, where there were more open fields to begin with. The damage seemed to diminish as we went along, but at the intersection with U.S 62, we turned left toward the state line and saw where it picked up again. Split-level ranch houses appeared to have been ripped open by an angry child, with furniture and other contents scattered everywhere. Our progress down the freeway was soon blocked by a roof that had been peeled off the top of one home and unceremoniously dropped onto the road.

There were people walking around asking one another how they were. One of them wandered about in daze clutching what appeared to be a Bible. We then realized who wasn’t there: Police, firefighters, ambulance crews. The tornado had only just ripped through the area. Had we left home five minutes earlier, we might have become participants rather than just the shell-shocked spectators we were.

The rest of the night was a blur that I can only remember in snippets. The high points are that the tornado didn’t get close enough to where my grandmother stayed, and though the electricity was out, everyone was fine. What was normally a round-trip-plus-visit of little more than two hours turned into a six-hour ordeal. There were police detours around decimated neighborhoods and instances where Dad had to pull off the road so ambulances could get by.

I’m not sure what time it was when we finally returned home, but NBC’s “Friday Night Videos” was on when we switched on the TV to get an idea of what had happened. The video for Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” was on at the time. Hearing that catchy song always takes me back to that strange night of fear and destruction.

The (Youngstown) Vindicator that arrived on our front porch the following day carried a headline like I’d never seen before, with bold capital letters in 144-point type: “TWISTERS SMASH AREA; MANY DIE.” It was filled with photos of the devastation from the ground and the air. For the first time, I saw the newspaper as more than just a source of comic strips. I actually read a news story.

While I can’t say that the experience got me hooked on newspapers, it certainly raised their profile in my 8-year-old mind. Oddly enough, it also made me less afraid of tornadoes. I saw the terrible destruction firsthand, and I saw people who had survived it. Today, I’m far more likely to run for my camera than for the basement when I hear the emergency sirens go off.

Unless it’s for a nuclear attack. In that case, all bets are off.

(Richard Sberna is a reporter with The Review. Reach him at