WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) – It really was a tornado that swept through Westchester County – not that residents needed persuading.

After a tour of damaged areas in Sleepy Hollow and Mount Pleasant and conversations with witnesses, National Weather Service science officer Jeff Tongue said Wednesday’s storm was a twister that carried winds of 100 to 125 mph.

The tornado ranged back and forth between F-1 and F-2 on the Fujita scale, making it stronger than most of the tornadoes that are documented in the Midwest’s Tornado Alley, Tongue said Thursday.

“Less than 10 percent of all tornadoes reach F-2,” he said.

It was the first tornado to hit Westchester County since 2000 and just the eighth since 1950, according to a list kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. None of them reached F-2 intensity on the Fujita scale, which ranges from F-0 to F-5. Tongue said there was an F-2 tornado in Nassau County in 1998.

No fatalities were reported after Wednesday’s storm, nor did officials know of any major injuries.

County Executive Andrew Spano, who viewed the damage from a helicopter, said, “There are trees on houses, trees that fell on cars, cars turned upside down. There are walls down, and yet everyone survived. … I don’t know why, but thank God for that.”

Tongue said fatalities are common in F-2 tornadoes.

Within a few minutes, the twister uprooted or snapped off thousands of trees, blocked roadways and railroad tracks, blew out the concrete-block wall of a California Closets warehouse, destroyed a 125-year-old stained-glass window, tossed a truck into a bank of gasoline pumps and lifted a state trooper’s cruiser off the ground, spun it and dropped it.

The tornado may have been born on the Rockland County shore of the Hudson River, then moved at 25 mph across the river toward Sleepy Hollow, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, Tongue said. In about 15 minutes it cut a 200- to 300-yard swath of torn-up woods and tossed-around structures straight across Westchester and into Fairfield County, Conn., he said.

Based on a Coast Guard report, he said, the same tornado may have appeared later over Long Island Sound.

Vicki Safferstein, who works for PepsiCo Inc. in a glass-walled building in Mount Pleasant, watched the tornado approach – for a while,

“There were swirling black clouds, then they would stop, then they would swirl again, and we could see them gathering momentum,” Safferstein, 46, said Thursday. “Then we saw all kinds of white paper blowing around in a circle, and at that point we realized what we were looking at was a tornado.”

Safferstein said she fled to the windowless cubicles at the center of the building as the storm stripped glass panels from it, pulled up trees and ignited a fire.

It was in Mount Pleasant – over the high wooded grounds of the Rockefeller estate – that the storm reached its top intensity, Tongue said. Two small old barns on the estate were destroyed.

Thunderstorms continued for hours after the tornado spun through, and as many as 10,000 customers were without electricity for some time, although that number was down to 1,600 by midafternoon, Consolidated Edison power company spokeswoman Elizabeth Clark said.

In Hawthorne, a state trooper driving on Route 9A was slightly hurt after “his patrol car was picked up by the funnel and flipped around several times,” Investigator Joseph Becerra said.

Shards of colored glass littered the floor at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Sleepy Hollow beneath the opening where a 10-foot-tall stained-glass window had been. Only the small arched top of the window was spared.

At the closet warehouse in Hawthorne, the storm took out a two-story wall, exposing beams and severing wires. Cinder blocks littered the surrounding area – including the hoods and roofs of employees’ cars. An interior staircase also was destroyed, and four employees had to be evacuated by ladder.

Nathaniel Pringle, who had pulled his truck into a gas station on Saw Mill River Road, left the cab as he felt the wind pushing against his truck. Shortly, the truck was blown onto the gas pumps.

“It was just like on TV,” Pringle said. “I hope I never have to see it again.”

AP-ES-07-13-06 1843EDT


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