AUBURN — About an hour after the National Weather Service in Gray issued a tornado watch for western Maine on Saturday, Rachel Barcelou, Harold “Bunky” Hall and Tom Johnson saw something they'd never before seen — a funnel cloud.
All three were in the vicinity of Brighton Hill in the Minot area when all hell broke loose at about 5:40 p.m.
Barcelou, of 147 Chicoine Ave. in Auburn, and her husband Robert live on Taylor Pond. Their grandchildren had just left after a birthday party at the lake, when they saw lightning hitting the lake. The wind was picking up.
They ran for cover inside their house, which turned out to be “ground zero,” Rachel said. They didn't know it, but their neighbors spotted a funnel cloud headed right for their house.
“We didn't know what was going on at first,” she said. “It sounded like a freight train was coming through.
“The wind was howling and the rain was pelting the windows, and actually, we were watching the tree next door, because the wind had taken it right out of the ground and we could see the roots coming up. And just as we were watching that, then we heard the tree fall on our house and it was from the property next door. I don't ever want to see that again.”
“It got dark here just as if it was nighttime,” she said. “The rain pelted so hard and the wind was just unbelievable. There was no hail, just pelting rain like crazy. I didn't know if the windows were going to sustain it, it was hitting so hard.”
After the unconfirmed tornado passed, the neighbor who saw it rushed over to see if they were injured. He also ran next door to Ed and Gabbie Gray's home, into which the Grays moved last week. A tree hit the Grays' roof, damaging it quite a bit, Rachel Barcelou said.
“We've lived her 10 years and nothing like that's ever happened here, but it sure did this time,” she said. “I didn't see any twisted trees, but it uprooted all the trees and just sent them flying."
Hall, a Hebron firefighter, said he was just pulling out of his driveway at 5 p.m., heading to a fire call when the funnel cloud hit.
“We got a call that there was a tree down, and I swear that we had a tornado,” Hall said. “It really was wild.”
“The trees would blow one way and then they would blow the other way, and then we got called to Oxford because trees tore down this guy's wires and landed on his house and his car, and that's in the same line as where my house is, and definitely, those trees are all twisted around over there,” he said of Hebron Road in Oxford.
They also had large hail.
“Some guys saw some hail as big as golf balls and it scared them,” Hall said.
Johnson, who owns Sunrise Photography in Monmouth, was in Minot at the same time, having earlier photographed beagle field trials when his friend and beagle club member Michael Durgin of Minot called.
“I got a phone call and Mike says, 'I'm watching the television and it says there's a tornado headed right for you!'” Johnson said. “And I said, 'Well, how far away is it?' and he said, 'It should be right there any minute.'”
Alarmed, Johnson said he put his camera equipment in the truck and then the funnel cloud arrived overhead.
“It was scary there for a minute, but it was pretty funny because I just got a phone call that said it was headed my way,” he said. “I had him give me a couple of directions for it and said it sounds like it's going to be right here and it sure was. Boy, didn't it rain. We didn't actually get the hail where I was, but just up the corner, they got quite a bit of hail.”
Johnson said he heard a lot of wind at first.
“You knew something was going to happen, because we had blue sky and then you could see the clouds just racing across the sky, and that was fairly quick,” he said. “I knew something was about to give, but I wasn't expecting no tornado in the area. It came through quick, that was for darn sure. It was blue sky and then five minutes later, it was all hell breaking loose.
“You could tell in the sky that there was funky things going on up there. It didn't look like a regular old thunderstorm, that's for sure.”
At about the same time, an Oxford County Sheriff's deputy spotted a funnel cloud on Bisco Road in South Paris. Another funnel cloud was seen by a Middle Road woman in Sabattus, who said it was headed toward the turnpike, according to the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office.
The National Weather Service in Gray had yet to confirm a tornado touching down in the area, but meteorologist Butch Roberts said conditions were ripe for twisters just as weak atmospheric disturbances came through.
“We have the fuel,” he said. Temperatures were in the 80s, with high humidity and surface heating. “All we need is something to lift it, and the disturbances added that component to it.”
For tornadoes to spawn, Roberts said, “You're going to have that special atmospheric instability that can cause a rotation — super cell-type development — and even though these cells are fairly small, they're still very, very potent.
“So, given the right wind shears and the right spin to the air as it billows up, they can produce a funnel or a tornado.”