‘It’s a true story’
Residents recall tornado that ripped through region 15 years ago today
MECHANICVILLE Steaks, sandwiches and salads were on the menu at Hildreth’s in Mechanicville on May 31, 1998.
The special of the day was a tornado.
“It was a busy Sunday afternoon,” said Ed Hildreth, who operates the landmark restaurant on North Main Street with his brother Pat. “Our steak broiler is on the back part of the kitchen, it’s all enclosed in glass.
“As the storm was coming, I thought, ‘We’re really going to get a good storm here.’ I wasn’t expecting a tornado.”
Fifteen years ago today, fierce, freak weather ripped through parts of north Mechanicville and Stillwater. Trees were uprooted, cars and trucks were tipped over and at least 70 homes and businesses were either demolished or severely damaged. Power poles and electric wires were blown down, and people lived without electricity for several days.
But nobody was killed when the tornado, moving at 185 mph, arrived around 4:30 p.m.
On the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates the strength of tornadoes based on damage caused, the tornado was classified “EF3.”
“That’s pretty serious. That’s enough to destroy homes or at least damage homes, and of course, a lot of homes were damaged and destroyed,” said Hugh Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany. “We usually average a tornado or so a year, but the really big ones, just once a decade. In fact, we haven’t had any EF3s since then.”
Johnson added the Capital Region doesn’t get more tornadoes partly because of its northerly location and partly because of New York’s hilly terrain. Humid, soupy air — which can precede thunderstorm and tornado conditions — is often knocked to the south.
“The longer you have a warm, humid air mass and a strong jet stream, that’s the best chance of getting these things,” Johnson said.
Ed Hildreth has vivid memories of the Mechanicville tornado. From his vantage point near the broiler, he saw houses start to splinter.
“I ran out front here,” he said, gesturing in the front room of the family-style restaurant. “I had a steak on the tongs and I’m telling everyone to hit the floor. With that, the power went out and everybody’s laying on the floor and everything’s shaking, and you can hear the metal tearing.”
Rushing winds sounded like a mechanical roar.
“I tell you, the train noise — it’s a true story,” Hildreth said. “When I say it sounds like a locomotive, it’s just what it sounds like, a running engine.”
About 60 customers were inside the building. When they walked outside, they saw that large air-conditioning machines that had been on the top of nearby DeCrescente Distributing had been thrown through the vacant, former mill building across the street. Shopping carts from the neighboring Price Chopper supermarket had rolled or flown into the Hildreth property.
“At the time, there was a 25-foot maple at the end of our bakery,” Hildreth said. “It picked it up and put it over 20 feet, right in the middle of the parking lot. It landed on peoples’ cars.”
Power surges ruined other equipment. The Hildreths also lost an old freezer — in the literal sense. “We still don’t know where it went,” said Pat Hildreth.
People could also see the devastation on Viall Avenue Hill. “All those homes that you see on the top of the hill, it was like they blew the back walls out of them,” Hildreth said. “There was nothing there. It was like, gone.”
Local residents described their experiences in the tornado.
Mike Gilbert was driving from Clifton Park to his apartment on Fourth Avenue in Mechanicville just before 4:30 p.m.
“The streetlights, they were almost perfectly parallel to the ground,” said Gilbert, a longtime sales representative for DeCrescente Distributing. “The wind was almost blowing them off their hooks. … Gas grills and garbage pails were just taking off down the street and just disappearing.”
Gilbert remembers a greenish-purple sky. And heavy rains.
“It was so bad it was like a firehose spraying you,” Gilbert said. “Then it would change direction horizontally.”
Like others, Gilbert saw Viall Avenue Hill. He walked up to see how bad damages were.
“It looked like Colonie town landfill — debris, dolls, guns lying on the ground,” Gilbert said. “It was really quiet, like you were in a cemetery. Nobody screaming, but people crying. Once in a while somebody would shout somebody’s name.”
One house at Viall Avenue and Osgood Street was lifted off its foundation and moved 2 feet forward. During the tornado, people huddled on floors and held each other as windows shattered and winds moved through homes.
Dave DeCelle, then a patrolman for the Mechanicville Police Department, was on the day watch. He knew extraordinary weather was coming.
“When I saw the sky, how dark it was, I realized there was something going on. It was different,” said DeCelle, now an investigator. “I was in the Navy and I was on an aircraft carrier so I know what weather looks like coming at us. I knew something was coming — I didn’t know what was coming, but I knew something was coming.”
Theresa Moore, who lives 12 miles east of Mechanicville in Valley Falls, watched the storm from a distance.
“For us, it looked like a bad storm blowing through,” said Moore, who now works as a clerk at the Mechanicville District Public Library. “You could see all this pink stuff floating down. … We later found out it was insulation.”
She found a film negative on her lawn, a family portrait. She had the picture printed and displayed in Mechanicville, and eventually found the family.
The day after the tornado, Gov. George E. Pataki toured the Viall neighborhood. At the same time, more than 200 people stood outside the W.L. Holland fire station in Mechanicville and wondered when they could return to their homes.
“People lost a lot of sentimental things that day,” Ed Hildreth said. “But the main thing, there was no loss of life. Material things can be replaced.”