BILLINGS – A tornado that ripped the roof off a sports arena in Billings on Sunday evening also tore through businesses, damaging a bar and a casino and leaving just the walls of an auto glass shop standing.
The tornado struck about 4:30 p.m. as a big storm system with golf-ball-size hail passed through the area.
After running through Main Street in the city’s northeast area, the twister moved toward the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena about a half-mile away, where it hovered for about 15 minutes, snapping trees and telephone poles.
“It would touch down and suck back up and touch down and touch down again,” said Trooper Toman Baukema of the Montana Highway Patrol, who saw the tornado from a patrol station about a mile away.
Big pieces of metal could be seen hanging from power lines near the arena, and tangles of insulation and metal debris were strewn for hundreds of yards in the surrounding industrial area.
There were several employees inside the arena when it struck, but there were no reports of injuries, Baukema said.
Billings police Lt. Mark Cady said the only reported injury was from someone who got hit in the head by a hailstone.
City officials were struggling to deal with power outages and flooding from the storm, which sent about 2 feet of water into many city streets.
John Schilling said he saw the tornado approach as he was driving north on Main Street with his son. He had taken shelter under a carport at a motel because of the heavy hail and strong winds.
After a few minutes, Schilling saw the twister envelop the Main Street Casino and a laundromat, then start to head south in his direction, hitting other businesses as it went.
“Then the roof came flying off that print shop, so we kept going,” the 42-year-old said. “I wasn’t going to stick around.”
The tornado also picked up the roof from Fas-Break Auto Glass and dumped it into a nearby creek. At least 10 businesses along the street suffered some sort of damage.
Fas-Break owner Kevin Massick and several members of his family picked through the rubble of the shop, trying to salvage what they could. But there was little left.
“I’m in a total daze,” Massick said, his face creased with emotion and tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s a total loss; I don’t know what I’m going to do. Start over, I guess.”
Main Street was shut down in one direction several hours after the tornado struck as bulldozers cleared debris. The other direction was jammed with cars that slowly moved northbound as drivers and passengers gawked at the destruction.
Buildings near the arena at the MetraPark expo center, which also includes a horse racetrack and several pavilions, appeared to have suffered little damage. The arena is the event center’s main venue and often hosts rodeos, monster truck shows, concerts and high school graduations.
Crews were working to shut off a gas leak at a commercial strip mall near Main Street, authorities said. Utility crews were also working on downed power lines.