June 1, 1997 in Nation/World

Storm Howls Through Region Cars Smashed, Houses Impaled By Falling Trees

Ward Sanderson And Virginia De Leon S Staff writer
 

The Haley residence was a crush of metal, wood and scraps from a fallen lace curtain.

Pushed by a sudden storm, a 50-foot tree fell diagonally Saturday on the family’s trailer home in the Spokane County town of Elk - ripping it in half, pinning Georgia Haley to a living room chair.

“I kept thinking, ‘We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,”’ said Kristin Robles, one of seven people inside. “I was crying so hard.”

An onslaught of powerful winds and a fierce thunderstorm with nickel-sized hail ripped through the Inland Northwest Saturday - tossing trees and snapping power lines.

The storm even snatched up an entire barn - a horse still inside - then slammed it down in the middle of Prufer Road, four miles west of U.S. Highway 395 in Stevens County. Firefighters said the horse survived.

Power was knocked out across areas of Eastern Washington and North Idaho. In Spokane, hardest-hit areas were the South Hill and the northwest side of town.

Cars were smashed. Homes were impaled by trees. U.S. Highway 2 - crisscrossed with hundreds of limbs and live wires - was closed in parts of Stevens and Spokane counties.

About 2 p.m., wind shook the Haleys’ mobile home, recalled Robyn Robles, a close family friend. Then came the rain. Then hail.

As the group slowly gathered in the living room, they heard a noise outside. They dropped to the floor.

“Everything came down and the roof fell,” Robyn Robles said. “The walls started leaning on me.”

The storm uprooted the tree that stood less than 10 feet away from the trailer.

They tried to lift the tree off Haley, said her husband, Ron. It was too heavy.

“I’m OK,” she kept telling him.

Medics eventually rescued the 44-year-old. She was taken to Holy Family Hospital in Spokane where she was treated and released.

Throughout Elk, the storm eclipsed the sun and blackened the sky.

“There was no color to see but black and gray. You couldn’t see 100 yards,” said John Muise.

Dozens of roads were impassable.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Twister’?” asked Jerry Turner, one of several men who attempted to clear Findley Road, near Elk. “It got nasty real quick.”

According to the National Weather Service, the storm was a “squall line” - a rare recipe for destruction caused when a cold front mixes with heat and humidity.

“The moisture is like pulling the hammer back on the gun, and the cold front is the trigger,” meteorologist Mark Strobin said.

The storm blasted in from the Washington and Oregon coasts, carried on winds as high as 65 mph. The temperature at Spokane’s Felts Field dropped from 79 at 1 p.m. to 61 at 3 p.m.

Driving wind and rain disrupted an arts festival in downtown Spokane, and also state high school baseball, softball and track tournaments. Hundreds of people attending a Family Day celebration at Coeur d’Alene’s City Park were sent scrambling for cover.

In mere moments, entire neighborhoods were littered with felled trees. The weather service said the storm didn’t stay in one place longer than 20 minutes.

In Spokane, Karen Baker’s West Sinto home nearly met the same fate as the Haleys’. She came home to find “this big, humongous tree” in her yard.

“From the front, all I could see was the peak of my house,” Baker said. It destroyed $300 in lilies and tore out part of a neighbor’s porch.

In Chattaroy, Muise said, the storm only lasted about six minutes.

He stepped outside with his camera, thinking he would get some pretty shots of a sky jagged with lightning. Instead, he saw a billowing charcoal-colored wall of storm raging straight toward him.

It grabbed his 7-foot patio umbrellas and drove them into the lawn like darts into Styrofoam.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

After the storm, 30 neighbors took to the streets armed with a bulldozer and chain saws to clear debris.

An hour later, Cliff Otto was outside taking pictures of his car.

The 18-year-old received the silver-blue Toyota Tercel as a graduation gift a week ago. Saturday, it was squashed beneath a tree, the windows shattered.

In Suncrest, a tornado ripped up a tree by its roots and sent it smashing into a house. No injuries were reported. “It completely creamed their living room,” neighbor Diane Moore said.

“We saw huge, black clouds like a funnel come ripping through over a bluff,” Moore said.

According to Washington Water Power, electric lines were downed throughout its service area. No estimates on the number of residents affected were available.

Company spokeswoman Carol Snyder warned people without power to turn off all electronic equipment. They should leave one light on, she said, so they know when power returns. Even after it does, they should leave everything off for about 30 minutes.

People should report downed power lines immediately. “Don’t touch them or try to move them,” Snyder warned.

The weather service reported that the squall isn’t expected to be repeated. However, showers are on the way for Tuesday.

Today should be partly sunny with only a small chance of showers. Highs are expected in the 60s. Monday should be warmer, 70 degrees, with isolated showers.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos Graphic: What caused Saturday’s storm

MEMO: Changed from the Idaho edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ward Sanderson and Virginia de Leon Staff writers Staff writer Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

Changed from the Idaho edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ward Sanderson and Virginia de Leon Staff writers Staff writer Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

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