SALT LAKE CITY (AP by TIM KORTE)–A rare tornado swept through downtown on Wednesday, tossing trucks and trees around and shredding tents set up for a convention. At least one person was killed and about 100 were injured.
“It couldn’t have picked a worse place,” said National Weather Service meteorologist David Hogan. “The chance of it hitting a city right smack where it did today is pretty slim.”
Power lines were ripped down, roofs torn off, windows blown out and shards of glass were everywhere. Helicopters landed in the streets to ferry the injured to hospitals.
Gov. Mike Leavitt flew over the mile-long path of destruction before declaring a state of emergency.
The black funnel cloud also damaged the roofs of the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz basketball team, and the Salt Palace Convention Center, which was hosting an outdoor retailers show.
The streets were littered with shredded tents set up for the convention.
Robert Stock of Toronto, a sales representative for a rock-climbing company, said he saw the roof of the Delta Center lift up when the tornado passed over.
“It peeled it right back, just like an orange peel,” he said.
Dan Groff of San Diego, attending the convention, said he saw several “critically injured people.”
“I helped one guy who had a beam fall on him. … It just crushed him,” Groff said.
Gary Morgan of Vancouver, Wash., was setting up a booth.
“The building just started to flutter, then it became more intense until the structures were coming down and things were just flying through,” he said.
At least one person died and about 100 were injured when the tornado struck about 1 p.m., said Ken Connaughton, spokesman for Mayor Deedee Corradini.
The mayor said 40 were transported to hospitals, 12 in serious or critical condition.
“Our first priority is people. We’re not sure we have everyone out of this tent area near the convention center yet,” said Corradini, adding that dogs were being used to search the debris.
The American Red Cross was sending additional blood supplies to Salt Lake hospitals.
The organization keeps several hundred pints of blood on hand in the city, said Gary Ouellette, chief operating officer of the Red Cross’ Utah Division.
“The Utah Highway Patrol is closing all major routes into downtown because of traffic congestions, accidents and debris,” said Connaughton, the mayor’s spokesman.
Crowds gathered on street corners to watch the twister over the Mormon church’s Salt Lake Temple, which was not damaged.
A severe thunderstorm watch was issued at 12:48 p.m.; the twister touched down about seven minutes later.
“We saw what was going on,” said David Toronto, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “But to look at it and say there’s a tornado and it’s going to hit downtown _ we didn’t have that information because of the rapid development.”
Hogan said the tornado was classified as a low-end F2, which has winds of between 110 mph and 150 mph. “We’re thinking maybe closer to 100 mph.”
The fatalities were the first recorded tornado-related deaths in the history of a state that averages two tornados a year.
“Sometimes we get a `Wizard of Oz’ mentality that they occur in the middle of nowhere,”said Tim Shy, a meteorology researcher at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
“There have been enough counter examples here recently as Oklahoma City, Nashville and downtown Miami got hit in the last few years,” he said.
Copyright Associated Press