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‘99 tornado still seems ‘a freaky thing’

A reoccurence is always possible, Eubank says

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Five years and countless "Where were you when it happened?" personal stories later, the headline from the Aug. 11, 1999, afternoon edition of the Deseret News still reads as strangely as it did then:

"Tornado rips into Salt Lake City."

Considering Mother Nature rarely gives birth to freaks like powerful twisters in the Rocky Mountains, the fact this bizarre phenomenon really happened downtown on this date five summers ago doesn't make it any less unbelievable to Utahns.

"That," recalled Salt Lake resident Tim Bair, "was a freaky thing."

Bair was golfing when the storm hit and was called in to be part of the clean-up crew. His job was to "tear down what the tornado didn't." And the wreckage from the F2 tornado (winds from 113-157 mph) was plentiful.

It tore down large chunks of the Delta Center roof, a huge tent at the summer Outdoor Retailers Show at the Salt Palace, parts of more than 300 homes, thousands of windows, power lines and 700 trees. .

At the time, Katherine Bradway said what most Utahns were feeling: "It's Utah. We can't be a having a tornado."

That's what Beehive State native Mark Arcolio mistakenly thought when he witnessed a dark, swirling cloud of dust zip toward him while he was preparing for the show at the Salt Palace.

Seconds later, though, he realized, "I better not be standing here. We better get inside."

The most terrible part of the twister's toll was the death of Allen Crandy, a 38-year-old father of three from Las Vegas who was visiting for the outdoor show. Dozens of others unfortunate to be in the storm's zig-zagging path between 1000 West and Memory Grove were injured, including more than 80 people who were treated in area hospitals with injuries ranging from life-threatening to minor cuts and chest pains.

The tornado put a lifelong twist in the lives of Pat and Larry Schmidt. The Colorado couple was in town to sell sunglasses and found themselves sucked into the storm. Pat ended up being the longest-hospitalized tornado victim after she was slammed by an airborne trailer. Larry was scraped up, but Pat suffered severe head trauma and was left in a coma for weeks. Pat's recovery has been both ongoing and inspiring. She still suffers from a speaking condition called "aphasia." She completely understands what people are saying, she just can't always find the words to respond back.

But thanks to therapy, hard work and a positive attitude, Pat has made significant strides. She can now walk, ride a bike and ski. Last year, she even hiked up Pikes Peak in Colorado with friends and family. One of the biggest highlights from the past couple of years was getting the chance to carry the Olympic torch.

In a brief conversation, Pat said she is "happy, oh yes" and that "many things (are) good, much better." "She's doing fine for what she had gone through," her husband said. "It's a slow process, but the good news is that we have the time and she has the energy and desire to want to work on it and try to regain her speech." The Schmidts have maintained an admirable positive attitude throughout the ordeal. — in large part because they still have each other after coming so close to death.

"Life is good," Larry said. "It's too often taken for granted. It seems as though you need something to slow you down and shake things up before you realize you don't have to be in such a rush to get something done because tomorrow might not come."

The frightening part is It could have been much worse. The tornado hit a day before the opening of the Outdoor Retailers Show, and it happened during lunchtime when many employees were not inside the tents.

The tornado first hit the ground about 12:50 p.m. a couple of blocks southwest of where The Gateway now stands. After slamming into power poles and abandoned Union Pacific warehouses, it inflicted more damage to the Delta Center than Michael Jordan before pulverizing a quarter-mile wide path around and through the city in a northeasterly direction for about three miles.

It toppled a heavy crane onto the roof of the LDS Conference Center, busted up the Wyndham Hotel, wreaked havoc with grounds at the State Capitol and scattered tons of debris from heaven to highwater.

An overall damage assessment was reported at $170 million, but that dollar amount cannot be verified because many claims were done through private insurance and those numbers are not reported publicly.

The tornado even elicited a sympathetic message from the White House and a state-of-emergency declaration, which led to a half million dollars in federal aid. The day it happened, President Bill Clinton expressed his "concern for the people of Salt Lake City. . . . The burden of recovery will be heavy, but it is a burden that the people of Salt Lake City need not carry alone. As they begin the difficult process of mourning, healing, and rebuilding, our Nation stands steadfastly behind them."

In the aftermath, Utahns were praised for their emergency response and recovery efforts. About five homes and several businesses were totaled, but stories of community courage, faith, humor and hope were abundant. Tornadoes in Utah really aren't really as unusual as people might think. The state averages about two a year, said Mark Eubank, KSL's chief meteorologist. Manti was hit by one in 2002, in fact.

But city twisters are a different matter, although Eubank does remember one hitting Salt Lake in 1968 that touched down in Pioneer Park, picked up a car en route to the First Security Bank building and then lifted over the old Hotel Utah, making the flag on top of the hotel stand "straight up in the air."

But that didn't prepare him for the twister of 1999.

"I never thought one would touch down and for that much damage to happen," Eubank said. "It exploded. It happened so fast."

What probably happened, he said, was the result of a couple of gusting thunderstorms that collided and created "tremendous upward movement" and "caused it to go crazy" in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, if you will).

"Almost anywhere can have a tornado," Eubank said, referring to places like mountain cities, as well as Los Angeles, Portland and Las Vegas. "They're rare and unusual, but (those places) are not immune. People in Utah should not be complacent."

A warning, of course, that many Utahns five years and one day ago might not have believed.

E-mail: jody@desnews.com