A tornado ripped through northern Washington County Thursday night, destroying multiple buildings including a Hopewell Township farm market.
The tornado’s path of destruction was evident, as it seemed to cut a straight path through Hopewell and Mount Pleasant townships, first ripping the roof off a barn at the Cecchetti Farm at 292 Willow Road, Hopewell, before tearing through a home at 350 Willow, owned by Mount Pleasant Township Fire Chief Adam Lohr. It moved next door to 356 Willow where it leveled a garage before destroying the barn and bee farm at Swope’s Berries & Bees, 366 Willow.
From there, the tornado pushed into Mount Pleasant Township, to Dairy Road, where it damaged Lowry Farm and destroyed a home at 127 Vanzin Lane, where homeowner Stephen Vanzin escaped with only seconds to spare.
After hearing news of a tornado in the area on TV, he hurried his wife and son into the basement. When the power went out, Vanzin headed to his garage to start up a generator.
“By the time I had the generator up and was heading up the steps of the garage, it hit, and I turned around and slammed the garage door closed and ran into the house,” Vanzin said.
“My son saved his life,” said Doris Vanzin, Stephen’s wife. “Yelling at him, ‘Get out! Let’s go, now!’”
The tornado leveled their garage and tore the roof off their home. The wind carried the garage door and pieces of the roof to trees behind the house. Two sheds near the Vanzins’ pool were also destroyed.
For all the destruction it caused, the Vanzins said it was over in a matter of seconds.
“It wasn’t loud. It was like a bang. There was no whistle or anything. We thought, “Oh, wow, the front porch just got ruined,” Doris Vanzin recalled.
Insulation and debris from Lohr’s home at 350 Willow was carried to Swope’s Berries & Bees in Hopewell Township, where thousands of bees were still clinging to their hives on Friday morning. The farm also sustained damage to raspberry and blueberry plants.
Owner Ron Swope said he had finished closing the barn door and putting away equipment when he and his wife got alerts on their cellphones about the tornado.
“I know very little about tornadoes, but I know enough,” Swope said.
They took shelter in the basement, and shortly after, the tornado hit.
“We were there probably five minutes, and the house creaked, and then all the air in the basement was sucked out. The doors went the other way ... And then, that was it. I didn’t hear anything else for another five minutes.”
Swope said they had 30 to 40 hives on their bee farm, noting that the cold, wet weather is not ideal for the bees.
“We were feeding them to get them ready for winter, to make sure they had enough winter storage, enough honey to get through the winter,” Swope said. “So now we’re going to have to go through and look for queens and try to salvage what we can.
“I’m not very optimistic that we’re going to be able to save them, but we’re going to try,” he added.
The tornado missed the Swopes’ home, leaving only minor exterior damage. Swope said they plan to rebuild their barn and bee farm.
Between the home at 350 Willow, owned by Lohr, who declined to be interviewed, and the Swope farm is the home of Danny Lucas. Lucas and his wife also took shelter in their basement. The tornado destroyed their garage but missed their house.
The wind shattered glass in a bay window in the front of their house. Lucas said shards of glass blew through his home, but he and his wife suffered only minor scratches.
“Other than me losing a lot of trees up here and trees over on the far side, I think we were very fortunate we didn’t lose the house,” Lucas said.
Stephanie Kiray lives at the house on Lowry Farm on Dairy Road. A large tree in front of the house landed on the front porch, but spared the rest of the structure from any significant damage. The siding was ripped off a barn, and debris was strewn about the property.
Kiray said no one was home when the tornado passed through, and her family was at a volleyball game between Fort Cherry and California at Fort Cherry Junior-Senior High School.
“The tones kept going off and everything, and they put everyone in the basement due to the warnings,” Kiray said. “My cousin called me, probably about 8:30, 9 o’clock, and said, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’”
Tom Scarpone, Fort Cherry athletic director, said senior night festivities had just concluded and the starting lineups were announced when he received a tornado warning about 7:30 p.m.
“I grabbed the officials, and I grabbed security and we told everyone we needed to evacuate the gym,” Scarpone said. “All of the people in attendance went into the safest place of the building and took shelter in an area away from windows.”
Scarpone said the warning was lifted about 8 p.m. and everyone returned to the gym, only for another warning to come about five minutes later, resulting in another evacuation.
“It wasn’t safe to bring anyone back into the gym until about 8:45,” Scarpone said.
The officials inquired about postponing the game to another date, but Scarpone said Thursday was the last night a regular season game could be played this season.
So, the game was played Thursday and needed all five matches, with California winning 3-2.
“We did not get out until 11 p.m.,” Scarpone said.
Scarpone said no one among the 100 to 120 in attendance was injured.
Peters Township also saw damage from Thursday night’s storm, with Venetia receiving the brunt of that storm cell.
“We’re still in the process of doing our damage assessment,” Peters Township Fire Chief Michael McLaughlin Jr. said Friday morning. “There’s widespread damage throughout the township, but nothing as substantial as Hill Place and Springdale (roads).”
McLaughlin said the department requested a representative from the National Weather Service to assist with the damage assessment.
“There definitely does show evidence of circular winds instead of winds in one direction,” said McLaughlin. “We put the notification into the National Weather Service last night. They told us they would get back to us today.”
While the department waits to hear from the NWS, crews worked with a local tree removal service to clear roads. Many residents remained without power.
Hill Place Road and Springdale Road remained closed.
North Strabane Township also sustained damage Thursday night.
“Most of the damage was on private property,” said Assistant Fire Chief Rich Yosi. “We had a couple locations that were damaged. A couple of the trees did land on some houses.”
Yosi said crews assisted in cleanup in the Strabane section of the township and along Canterbury Drive, and were back at the station by Friday afternoon.
Staff writers Katherine Mansfield and Paul Paterra contributed to this story.