Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Tornadoes leave 5 dead in northwest Ohio

The Associated Press
and The Cincinnati Enquirer

VAN WERT, Ohio - Chunks of steel beams and splintered wood were all that remained today of businesses and homes destroyed by a series of storms that spawned multiple tornadoes and killed five people in northwest Ohio.

The twisters were part of a system that moved through more than a half-dozen states Sunday, killing at least 33 people and injuring more than 100.

The storms entered Ohio about 3 p.m. Sunday, with National Weather Service spotters confirming four tornadoes hitting this city about 120 miles north of Cincinnati and 30 miles southeast of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Two people died here, along with two more in nearby Continental, in Putnam County. Another man was killed farther to the east in Seneca County.

The same storm system also caused problems in Kentucky. In Gallatin County, about 40 miles from downtown Cincinnati, some homes suffered severe damage. Seven people were taken to Carroll County Hospital for minor injuries.

Janet Carlton, 71, who lives about six miles west of the county seat of Warsaw, said this morning that her home - a log cabin - was the only structure on her street left standing.

Ms. Carlton took cover as the storm, which she described as "sounding like a train" bore down on the house. "The Good Lord was with me," she said.

The Ohio storms had winds of more than 100 mph and dropped tornadoes as they cut a 100-mile swath through northwest Ohio farmland to Port Clinton along Lake Erie, trapping people in buildings and leaving thousands without power.

Gov. Bob Taft declared a state of emergency Sunday night in Van Wert and Ottawa counties in northwest Ohio, but the storms downed power lines, closed roads and poured golf ball-sized hail in many areas of the state.

At least two small factories were flattened and four others were damaged at Van Wert's Vision Industrial Park. The damage was so widespread that it was difficult to tell where the buildings once stood.

No one was reported injured at the Twin Cinema, where managers herded about 50 customers into bathrooms and the lobby when the storm came between showings of Santa Clause 2.

The storm ripped away the walls and the roof of the theater, leaving rows of blue-cushioned seats - littered with wood and plaster - open to the sky.

"The Lord was looking out for us and our customers," said theater owner Jim Boyd, whose home next door was destroyed. "Our entire life went away in a matter of five minutes," he said today, standing in what was left of his bedroom.

Two deaths were reported in Van Wert County. Nicholas Mollenkopf, 18, of Van Wert, died after being thrown from a car during the storm, and Alfred Germann, 75, was killed when his Van Wert house collapsed.

In nearby Putnam County, two people were killed and one critically injured when a mobile home overturned, said Sgt. Brad Nelson of the sheriff's office. Denver and Cretie Branham died in the trailer near Continental, and their daughter, Margie, was hospitalized today in critical condition.

As the storm moved east, Darren Smith, 24, was killed when his house near Republic in Seneca County was flattened. Two others in the home were injured, said Maj. Tim Thwaits of the sheriff's office. Their identities were not available.

Brian Farris of Van Wert said he saw a tornado touch down just outside of the city and level a house.

"It pulled everything off, set it down, then threw it in a field," he said. "It was on the ground at least a mile."

Jon Cross, 39, was packing his cruiser to go to work as a State Highway Patrol trooper when the churning storm came at him.

"I heard a roar. I saw a black wall. I could see everything spinning. It was coming right at me," he said.

A young couple pulled up to his house in their car, and they all took shelter in his basement, Mr. Cross said.

In Van Wert, firefighters had to cut through steel to reach a trapped worker in a collapsed building at an industrial park.

All schools in Van Wert County were closed Monday, officials said.

Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor planned today to tour the most heavily damaged section of Van Wert County. The state of emergency declaration authorizes state agencies to assist local officials.

Emergency officials in numerous Ohio counties reported widespread damage to barns, homes and businesses.

About 23,000 American Electric Power customers were without power in central and western Ohio today, the company said. Power to thousands more homes and businesses was out in northwest Ohio, including most of the city of Port Clinton. There were scattered failures in the Toledo suburbs, FirstEnergy Corp. spokesman Mark Durbin said.

Based on past experience with such storms, restoration in some areas "could be stretching into days," Mr. Durbin said.

About 40 miles northeast of Van Wert in Hamler, the storm knocked rail cars off their track, the Henry County sheriff's office said.

In Port Clinton along Lake Erie, the storm shattered windows at Magruder Memorial Hospital, including in the emergency room, said hospital president Dave Norwine.

No one inside the hospital was injured, although people in town were coming in for treatment, Mr. Norwine said.

Winds also toppled a tractor-trailer on Interstate 75 just south of Toledo. Highway signs were uprooted and tossed across the road.

Rains had stopped throughout the northern section of the state by about 9:30 p.m., National Weather Service forecasters said. The weather service planned to investigate today how many tornadoes hit. Rain is forecast for the beginning of the week, but meteorologists did not predict more severe storms.

Although it is rare to have tornadoes in Ohio in the fall, it is not unheard of, said Sam Lashley, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Syracuse, Ind.

"Tornadoes can happen anywhere at any time if the atmospheric condition is ripe for it," Mr. Lashley said. "The Great Lakes are fairly warm and they can actually add to some instability in the atmosphere."

A weather system that included warm temperatures ahead of a strong cold and dry front, along with strong winds in the atmosphere, helped create Sunday's tornadoes, Mr. Lashley said.