Facebook Twitter

Salt Lake City’s ‘tornado baby’ celebrates her 20th birthday

Two decades ago a rare F2 twister struck Utah’s capital city, leaving a chaotic mess

SHARE Salt Lake City’s ‘tornado baby’ celebrates her 20th birthday

SALT LAKE CITY — The wind thrashed violently outside LDS Hospital, sending branches and debris flying past the windows and plunging the facility into darkness.

The extremely rare Salt Lake tornado would damage at least 300 buildings, injure 81 people, and kill one, Angie and David Marshall would learn in the days to come.

But inside the hospital that afternoon, the Marshalls had a more immediate concern: the birth of their daughter.

Megan Marshall, known in local news reports as the "tornado baby," was born at 12:55 p.m. on Aug. 11, 1999, just as the twister hit Salt Lake City. The tornado touched down about two blocks southwest of the Delta Center — now the Vivint Smart Home Arena — about 12:45 p.m. and proceeded to tear its way northeast through the Avenues, the neighborhood where the hospital is located.

b1bc045981

Twenty years later, Megan will celebrate her birthday in the Philippines, where she is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the past two decades, she’s grown into a lively outdoorswoman, a talented softball player, and an occasionally picky — but increasingly adventurous — eater, her parents say.

At birth, Megan measured 21.5 inches long. Today, she’s nearly 6 feet tall.

Driving to the hospital that morning 20 years ago, the Marshalls didn’t know what was about to hit Salt Lake City. By David Marshall’s account, there was nothing particularly unusual about the weather.

"We showed up in the morning, all nice and casual," he recalled.

After spending time in Kansas and Nebraska, he was familiar with tornadoes. But such events are rare in the Salt Lake City area.

Utah experiences an average of about two tornadoes per year, though they very rarely affect cities. But storms as large and powerful as the F2-level tornado of 1999, with wind speeds between 113 and 157 mph, are much rarer, occurring about once every seven years.

"I was certainly not expecting a tornado," Angie Marshall recalled with a laugh. "I think I was more concerned about giving birth."

As the morning went on and the wind picked up, rumors of a tornado began to make their way around the hospital.

And then the power went out.

A power substation explodes as a tornado rips through downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

A power substation explodes as a tornado rips through downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

National Weather Service

Angie Marshall was, as she remembers, "a little bit panicked."

"Are the machines going to work?" she wondered. "What’s going to happen?"

Shortly after, Megan was born by the dim light of a backup generator.

"She came into the world kind of in the dark," her mother said. "And then everything was fine."

Though the hospital windows rattled through the birth and lightning struck the hospital's roof, the Marshalls "didn’t know just how big the storm was outside" at the time.

"It wasn’t until after that we realized it was a full-on tornado," David Marshall said.

Outside the hospital, the storm had wreaked havoc on the Avenues neighborhood, damaging about 121 homes, tearing the roofs off some, and leaving more than 40 with severe damage. The tornado had also torn part of the roof off the Delta Center downtown, collapsed the tents of an Outdoor Retailers Summer Market — trapping people inside — and smashed the windows of the Wyndham Hotel on South Temple, where bed linens and other items were sucked out into the street.

A house in the upper Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City lost its entire roof as a rare and sudden tornado swept through the city on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

A house in the upper Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City lost its entire roof as a rare and sudden tornado swept through the city on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

Gary McKellar, Deseret News

The construction site of the yet-to-be-named Conference Center north of Temple Square was hit hard, particularly when the wind snapped off the arm of a large yellow crane. The storm ripped trees up by their roots, damaged and disabled power lines and transformers.

In all, the damages totaled an estimated $170 million.

The tornado also killed one man: Allen Crandy, 38, of Las Vegas, who was hit with debris at the retailers convention. It was the first recorded tornado-related death in Utah's history.

More than 80 people were hospitalized with injuries and as many as 150 people were treated for minor injuries at various scenes. About 500 police and emergency crews responded to help.

When Megan was a toddler, the Marshall family moved to Thornton, Colorado, where they still reside today. But the story of her birth has followed her everywhere she goes.

Temporary exhibition space at the Salt Palace Convention Center set up to host the Outdoor Retailers Show was destroyed by a rare and sudden tornado in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

Temporary exhibition space at the Salt Palace Convention Center set up to host the Outdoor Retailers Show was destroyed by a rare and sudden tornado in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999.

Gary McKellar, Deseret News

"The big joke, of course, was everyone wanted us to change her name from Megan to Dorothy," Angie Marshall said.

The Marshalls opted to keep their daughter's name. But Megan is the proud owner of a set of Wizard of Oz figurines, gifted to her by her grandmother. She also dressed up as Dorothy one year for Halloween.

And thanks to the tornado, Megan is never without a fun fact to share during icebreaker activities, or a "truth" during games of "Two Truths and a Lie."

"No one ever thinks that it’s going to be true," her mother said.

Of the Marshalls' three children, David described Megan, the middle child, as "the lively one" and "the energy of the family." She's also a nature lover, pursuing a degree in recreation management at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

"I think her dream job would be to live in the mountains in her car and run a zip-lining tour," her dad said. "She's adventurous."

Megan's parents see their daughter's energetic, outdoors-loving personality as befitting the circumstances of her birth.

"I do think it’s funny, the fact that she was born during a tornado," her mother said.