Powerful storms roll through the region



A powerful thunderstorm that rolled through the region with a hurricane-force gust knocked out power to at least 280,000, some SEPTA service, and, evidently, the heat wave.

The storm barreled along at a brisk 55 m.p.h. between 3 and 4 p.m., and cleared the region in time for the heart of the evening commute. Damage and debris will linger much longer.

At 12:01 a.m. Friday, Peco Energy Co. spokeswoman Cathy Engel said 190,000 customers in Delaware and Chester Counties and in Philadelphia were still without power and she said some would go days without power.

"The damage is quite significant," Engel said.

Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties in New Jersey also had power outages and a 60 m.p.h. gust was measured in Camden.

SEPTA service south of Philadelphia was delayed or suspended. Trees on tracks and snapped wires shut down the Media/Elwyn Line for the evening, a spokeswoman said. SEPTA hoped to restore service for Friday morning's commute.

Delaware and Chester Counties were especially hard-hit.

A woman and her two daughters were traveling on West Greenwood Avenue in Lansdowne, Delaware County, when a large tree crashed on their Lexus, trapping two of the occupants, police said.

The youngest daughter got out of the car and ran to a nearby house, where 911 was called, Lansdowne Police Sgt. Dan Donegan said. Firefighters rescued the mother and teenage daughter from the Lexus, which was surrounded by downed power lines, Donegan said.

Both were taken to a local hospital to be treated for minor injuries, Donegan said. When asked what kind of tree fell on the car, Donegan laughed. "It was a big tree," he replied.

In Willistown, Chester County, there were dozens of felled trees, wires dangling, natural debris as deep as the snow had been in winter. At the McDonald's in Newtown Square, people were lined up outside the door as late as 9 p.m. because other restaurants were closed or they had no power at home.

Golf-ball-size hail was reported in parts of Delaware County, with some car windows blown out in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby.

Several large trees came down near Citizens Bank Park, where the storm interrupted the Phillies-Cleveland Indians game with 45,085 in attendance. After umpire crew chief Gerry Davis signaled for play to stop, head groundskeeper Mike Boekholder and the rest of the Phillies grounds crew rushed onto the field as fans scrambled for the safety of the ballpark corridors. Boekholder said he had prepared for the worst by calling in extra help.

"They were telling us to expect [winds] up to 70 miles per hour, and they probably weren't too far off the mark," Boekholder said. "We were watching it on the radar, so we knew what was coming. It wasn't like it caught us by surprise. We were well aware."

That still wasn't enough to keep Mother Nature from wreaking havoc. With visibility almost at zero and giant hail falling from the sky, the heavy tarp the crew uses to cover the infield came flying off despite being held down by a John Deere utility vehicle.

"It wasn't a lot of fun," Boekholder said. "That's the first time I ever saw a vehicle get pulled across the tarp."

Horse racing was stopped at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

At Clark Park in University City, four large sycamore trees were felled, one perhaps 100 feet long and eight feet in diameter.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said damage was widespread and appeared to be caused by powerful straight-line winds rather than anything indicating a tornado, but he said weather officials would make the final determination.

As of 12:01 a.m. Friday, Peco reported about 99,000 customers were still without power in Delaware County; 79,000 in Chester County; and 12,000 in Philadelphia. Bucks and Montgomery Counties were largely spared.

In New Jersey, more than 17,000 customers in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties, said PSEG spokeswoman Karen Johnson. Atlantic City Electric said 40,000 customers lost power in Camden County, and 14,000 in Gloucester County.

Shortly after 4 p.m., a piece of the roof at Bagelicious Deli & Catering, 1200 Delsea Dr., in Deptford collapsed, according to a Gloucester County dispatcher. No one was hurt. In Mullica Hill, a car went off into a stream near High Street and Tomlin Station Road. One person was taken to Underwood-Memorial Hospital, authorities said.

The awning of a banquet hall at 1402 W. Oxford St. collapsed in North Philadelphia. No injuries were reported.

In South Philadelphia, heavy winds tore part of the roof off New Light Beulah Baptist Church at 1701 Bainbridge St. and sent it to the street about 4 p.m., crushing two cars, according to a neighbor.

There were no apparent injuries, said Zachary Dreier, a private jet pilot who lives on the block, but fire crews and police cordoned off the area.

Dreier said a friend who witnessed the incident saw nearby foliage rotating just before the collapse, suggesting a "cyclone-type wind."

He said about a third of the roof was damaged, leaving "a big, square hole," and that this same section had fallen the street in the past and been repaired. Calls to the church, a yellow cement building about 100 years old, were not returned.

In the area around the Neumann-Goretti High School baseball field on South 26th Street was particularly hard hit. Three of the trees lining the outfield were split or toppled. Another had been uprooted in the 2600 block of Mifflin Street and deposited on a Chevy Impala. Another had been felled in the 2600 block of Moore Street.

Those two streets, which bracket the ball field, were closed to traffic.

"I came through there before they closed it off," said Mike DeSalis, who was sweeping in front of his house on South 27th Street. "It was like an obstacle course."

Across the street from his house, two trees were split, the shattered pieces crushing the metal fence around St. John Neumann Place, a senior housing facility that used to be St. John Neumann High School.

At Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, the famous yellowwood tree was struck by lightning and, although still standing, had only one large branch intact.

"I am devastated," said Louise Turan, the garden's executive director.

The 60-foot yellowwood, second oldest in the historic garden at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, may have been collected in Tennessee or Kentucky by French plant explorer André Michaux and sent to William Bartram in the 1790s. It was planted next to the house and has been a favorite with visitors. Its cascading white flowers bloom only every other spring, including this one. "It was beautiful," Turan said.

Bartram's will be closed Friday because of storm damage. Turan said staff members have told her they had seen the yellowwood survive even worse damage in the past.

"I hope that's true. This tree is near and dear to our hearts," she said.


Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Bob Brookover, Sally A. Downey, Joelle Farrell, Frank Fitzpatrick, Troy Graham, Robert Moran, David O'Reilly, Darran Simon, Virginia A. Smith, Allison Steele, John Sullivan, and Sam Wood.