SCHENECTADY COUNTY Brian Pedersen felt like he was punched in the chest and then pushed from behind.
In an instant, his feet were dangling in mid-air. All around was a dark, relentless maelstrom sweeping him into the sky.
“I can remember kicking my feet,” said the 46-year-old union electrician, lying back in his bed at Ellis Hospital on Thursday. “But there was nothing I could do.”
Story from Wednesday night: "Storm wreaks havoc across area."
Amateur video on the Capital Region Scene blog
Funnel cloud seen: "It came right through here, about 20-30 feet off the ground,” says witness.
Video of damage in Rotterdam.
Schenectady and Rotterdam hit hard by Wednesday storms.
Wind and tornado damage should be covered by a standard homeowner's policy.
Then everything went black. Pedersen doesn’t know how long he was unconscious or even where he landed when the wind let go of him, but it was somewhere amid the devastation extending from his sprawling horse stable and home off South Shore Road near Mariaville Lake in Duanesburg.
“The only thing I remember is I saw my truck,” he said of the sleek black Ford pickup he purchased almost new last summer. “I saw it was trashed. I couldn’t tell you how it was trashed, but I knew it was trashed.”
Kacey Bradt was inside the barn in the seconds before the tornado effortlessly grabbed Pedersen shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday. He only avoided the same fate by lunging toward a staircase inside the barn and clutching a thick beam.
“It picked him up,” recalled Bradt, the 25-year-old boyfriend of Pedersen’s daughter. “He was probably six feet off the ground and out the door.”
Metrologists with the National Weather Service in Albany later classified what struck the Pedersen horse farm as an EF2 tornado, a medium-strength twister with estimated wind speeds of 125 mph and a width of about a mile. The tornado touched down somewhere in the Montgomery County town of Florida and carved a 17-mile-long path through Duanesburg in Schenectady County before stopping shortly before the state Thruway in Rotterdam.
The weather service also determined that an EF1 tornado with a maximum wind speed of 100 miles per hour struck the Summit and East Jefferson areas in Schoharie County shortly after the EF2 hit toward the northeast. The Schoharie County tornado, however, was less wide, at about 200 yards, traveled about 2 miles and only resulted in downed trees.
The larger tornado’s power was clear by the havoc it wreaked along its trajectory. About three miles away from the Pedersen farm, the tornado ripped down five massive steel towers carrying a 345-kilovolt National Grid power transmission line through Rotterdam.
Fred Drischler, a construction manager with National Grid’s eastern division, was awestruck by how the lattice towers — all ranging between 90 feet and 120 feet — seemed to be plucked from the ground with ease. He said one of the towers was folded and then lifted, tearing the others out in succession.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve seen a lot,” he said, as numerous workers toiled around him. “I’ve never seen winds do this.”
The tornado snapped tree trunks and telephone poles like twigs. And in the case of Hunter Way — the Pedersen farm — it brought ruin.
The large indoor equestrian ring Pedersen built with Bradt and his brother Kevin was gone, as was roughly 14 feet of the roof of the adjoining stable. Entire sections of the roof were later found hundreds of yards away in a pasture.
The tornado also demolished a garage the group completed last year — a place Pedersen affectionately called “the man cave.” Part of the family’s home was picked up and shifted several inches; branches and debris were propelled so fast that they became embedded in parts of the home as the tornado whipped by.
Bradt was nearly speechless as he surveyed the damage, unable to find words to describe the ruin laid by the storm. He was working with Pedersen in the moments before it struck, and the two men had an idea that a bad storm was coming when his cellphone began chirping with warnings from the National Weather Service.
They were in the garage when the sky became ominously dark. They walked into the barn to check on a door at the end of the equestrian ring that had been flapping violently in the wind. They got about 50 feet into the enclosure when both realized something was dramatically wrong.
“Next thing you know, you could see the roof coming off,” he said, “just lifting up in the air and starting to swirl.”
Pedersen and Bradt ran back into the barn. As they did, they could see the massive beams from the equestrian ring being plucked from the ground one by one.
Bradt dove toward a solid wood staircase inside the barn. Pedersen never got a chance.
“I could feel the wind blow me,” Pedersen said. “My whole body went backwards. My arms went back. It just blew me and I went right through the door and outside.”
Bradt estimated the whole episode lasted about 25 seconds — maybe less. Then it was gone.
He emerged from the barn to find Pedersen staggering between the house and barn, covered in blood and dazed. He loaded the injured man in his truck and tried to navigate the dirt path down to South Shore Road, but the tornado had piled trees and debris in his way.
The two men then made their way on foot to Mariaville Road, nearly a half-mile away. There they flagged down an EMT from the nearby Mariaville Fire Department, who was heading to the station to help with the storm’s aftermath.
Remarkably, Pedersen suffered no broken bones from his brush with the tornado. Something smashed him in the back of the head, likely causing his concussion and tearing up a palm-sized piece of his scalp; other debris left his face covered with deep cuts and his body littered with bruises.
Pehaps even more amazing was that the storm didn’t leave a scratch on any of the 13 horses at the farm Wednesday evening. One, a spunky pony named Starkist but affectionately known as Tuna, remained inside a small metal gate area in the equestrian ring as the tornado passed by.
Nor did the tornado bother the family’s four dogs. Even their two cats managed to escape unharmed.
“The animals fared better than me,” Pedersen said.
Meteorologist Steve DiRienzo said the tornado might have caused more damage were it not for another storm system that collided with it somewhere in Rotterdam. He said the tornado was trailed by a bow echo system — a strong-wind weather pattern shaped like an archer’s bow.
“This storm was out ahead of what we call a wall of wind that was coming down the Mohawk Valley from a cluster of thunderstorms,” he said. “It kind of absorbed [the tornado], really, and just pushed it out of the way. It kind of interrupted the storm.”