First Responders | Former governor, mayor recall work of first responders after 1998 tornado
Feb. 22—Kitty Davis will never forget the ominous sound of a charging train accompanied by a "huge black tumbleweed" that overtook her Crestview Acres property.
It was June 2, 1998, when a thunderstorm produced an F-4 tornado on the ground for about 48 miles.
The storm rose up and over Big Savage Mountain and then headed for Frostburg.
"It was election evening when I got home from the polls," said Davis, who at the time served as the elections administrator for Allegany County. "It came right through my backyard — I actually looked up and saw it," she said and added she and her husband fled to their basement.
Davis said that while her property received some damage, "right at the end of the street homes were gone."
Her neighbor took in a cat that the storm had "picked up somewhere and dropped it off next door," she said and added they named the feline Tornado.
"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years because you can bring that nightmare back in an instant," Davis said.
Although the experience was terrifying, she said she was amazed at how quickly folks began to help each other after the tornado passed.
"Within a few hours you could hear chainsaws," Davis said. "The neighborhood was proactive."
Prior to the tornado, the National Weather Service in Sterling, Virginia, notified the Allegany County 911 Communications Center in Cumberland of the storm's potential.
"With this verbal warning, Frostburg sounded its warning sirens," NWS reported. "A fire crew from the Frostburg Fire Department saw the tornado coming over Big Savage Mountain. It appeared as three funnels — a multi-vortex tornado. They put the word out over the radio as they headed for cover."
The tornado hit the northern outskirts of Frostburg and continued east to Eckhart Mines.
"The tornado had been predicted in the warning to hit Frostburg at 9:45 p.m. and struck right on the mark," NWS stated. "People interviewed that saw the warning made a special note of that."
On Armstrong Avenue, four houses were destroyed or heavily damaged and cars were tossed as the tornado moved down a hillside.
"To some extent, the steep sloping hill protected these homes from experiencing even greater damage similar to what occurred on the next rise," NWS reported.
No one in the Frostburg area was seriously hurt or needed transport to the hospital.
"Everyone either got the NWS warning or heard or saw the tornado coming and headed to their basement," the weather service reported.
"Eckhart Mines had (intense damage) to both homes and businesses," NWS reported. "A number of which were considered totally destroyed including a new daycare that had just opened the day before."
In all, 29 homes were destroyed, another 29 had major damage and 67 had minor to moderate damage.
Three businesses "were damaged with one destroyed, Frostburg Elementary School had heavy damage, and a church was damaged," NWS reported and added that "thousands of trees were destroyed."
Newspapers across the region also covered the storm's aftermath.
The tornado caused "an estimated $5 million in damages," the Baltimore Sun reported at the time. "The twister traveled with enough force to peel roofs off homes, pull a minivan out of a garage and warp the steel flagpole at Frost Elementary School."
The Washington Post reported the tornado was part of a widespread storm "that caused damage from New York to North Carolina and killed two people in Northeastern Pennsylvania, cut a jagged swath a quarter-mile wide across the north side of Frostburg, near Cumberland in Western Maryland."
No one was killed in the city of roughly 8,000 people, and a few injuries were reportedly minor, the newspaper reported.
Ron Dugan, Frostburg's fire chief at the time, said prompt warnings from the NWS saved most residents from injury.
"We got an 8- to 10-minute notification that it was 12 miles west of Frostburg traveling at 45 miles an hour," Dugan said at the time according to Washington Post.
Weather service officials said the same storm cell that struck Frostburg spawned 14 tornadoes across southwestern Pennsylvania and damaged more than 450 structures.
John Bambacus, a former state senator, was Frostburg's mayor at the time of the tornado.
"The warnings and the watches kept coming up," he recently told the Cumberland Times-News.
"I had been in and out of City Hall staying in touch with staff (and) the police chief who was then Bill Evans," Bambacus said.
Late afternoon that day, Evans said, "We better get ready for this thing because it looks like we could possibly be hit," Bambacus said.
By about 7 p.m., "the warnings really started coming in" he said of sirens blaring over the city.
When the tornado actually hit around 9:45 p.m., "I was in the basement with my family," Bambacus said. "It didn't seem to last very long."
After the storm subsided, Evans, Bambacus and Dugan went out to inspect damages across the city.
"It was dark by this time," Bambacus said. "There were sirens going off and all hell was breaking loose to say the least."
He recalled the fast work and efficiency of the police and fire departments in response to the tornado's aftermath.
"These first responders just did an incredible job," Bambacus said.
Bambacus instructed the city's streets department to clean debris from the town.
"The whole public works department came out as well as the rest of our city employees and just helped," he said. "We also had help from some of the coal mining operations that were in the area that were able to bring in heavy equipment."
Prior to the tornado, the football team — called the Washington Redskins at the time — was training in Frostburg.
Later, the owner of the team sent its coach and several players to the city and "they gave a check to the community to help those that had been displaced and whose homes had been destroyed," Bambacus said.
He also said he'll "never forget" that after the tornado, local company Armstrong Insurance "immediately came out and gave checks to people whose houses were destroyed or ... obviously in bad shape."
Bambacus said the local community center and churches also opened to help people.
"For a period of at least a week basically all of the community was helping other people," he said. "We were all working around the clock to get this city cleaned up and ready to go and that's what makes me so proud to be a resident of Frostburg."
Bambacus called Gov. Parris Glendening around 11 p.m. the night of the tornado.
"He flew up first thing the next morning in a state police helicopter that landed as I recall at Frost Elementary School," Bambacus said of one of the town's first areas the tornado hit as it came over from Pennsylvania.
"Governor Glendening had sent in the State Highway Administration, state police, the Maryland Department of the Environment, anybody that could help us, he did it," Bambacus said. "And he also sent funding to go along with it."
CoordinationGlendening, who served as Maryland's governor for two terms from 1995 to 2003, shared with the Times-News his memories of the Frostburg tornado.
Allegany County had experienced record-setting floods a couple of years before, he recalled and described damages he saw as result of the tornado.
"It was somewhat staggered," Glendening said of seeing one building with no damage and the next with serious destruction.
The tornado that struck Frostburg "was the strongest that I had ever heard of," he said.
Glendening talked of positive actions and people who worked together to overcome tragedy.
"Even more than the damage, what I really recall was ... a sense of community," he said. "(Bambacus) as a mayor was doing a great job and when I was briefed it was clear to me that the city, the county, and the state were all working together really as one unit."
At the end of Glendening's second term, the second strongest tornado to ever hit Maryland struck La Plata in 2002.
In his experiences as governor, Glendening said he saw "how quickly first responders responded" and set into motion remarkable coordination.
"We in Maryland actually should feel very, very good about the combined cooperation that these men and women put forward," Glendening said. "I'm really proud of them and think that our state is better because of their service."
Teresa McMinn is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or email@example.com.