Filed Under Story

"Tornado Day" of 1985

Unusually powerful storms devastated Western Pennsylvania

In the late afternoon of May 31st, 1985, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for counties surrounding Lake Erie. The warning itself was nothing unusual. But that night, the unthinkable happened. The next morning, residents across Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Ontario would wake up to absolute destruction. Overnight, 43 tornados touched down in the region, killing 89 people. The storm spared nothing, leaving behind 600 million dollars’ worth of damage.

Of these twisters, five were reported in Butler County, resulting in six casualties and over 15 million dollars in property damage. This night would go down in history as the worst natural disaster Pennsylvania has ever seen, and is now remembered as “Tornado Day.”

Severe thunderstorms are a common occurrence in western Pennsylvania, especially in the late spring and early summer months. However, tornadoes in the area are rare, so no one was anticipating what would come. That evening, Bill Swauger, a former reporter for the Beaver County Times, said he was driving east on route 228 in Butler County, when he saw the sky begin to darken and the clouds begin to move. “There was going to be a storm,” he wrote in his 2015 retelling. “Just how bad a storm, I could not have imagined.”

The deadliest of these Butler twisters was an F3, categorized as a severe storm with winds up to 200 mph. It touched down in Beaver County at approximately 8:10 p.m. and crossed over into Butler County soon after. Zelienople was the first town in Butler County hit by this deadly storm, followed by Evans City and Saxonburg. Its path of destruction was 39 miles long and up to a quarter mile wide. The twister spared nothing, destroying small businesses, large shopping centers, trees, homes, factories, farms, and more. Worst of all, it took the lives of six innocent victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the twister made its way east that evening, it came across the mobile home of Edward and Lorraine Fink. The storm destroyed the home and killed the couple, ages 64 and 51 respectively. Just south of Saxonburg, the tornado struck another mobile home, killing 1-year-old Dennis Armstrong and 19-year-old Sherri Durci. Both of Dennis’s parents, along with Sherri’s daughter were taken to the hospital with injuries. Further down the road, the storm hit the home of John and Karen Bogus, killing both. The next morning, a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed at the site of the couple’s destroyed home, an act of memorial for the two by an unknown neighbor. This same twister killed three others in Beaver County before crossing into Butler.

That night, Pennsylvania National Guard Major General Richard M. Scott deployed guardsmen to disaster zones. In New Castle, about a dozen miles east of Butler County, an emergency operations center was created early the next morning. As the extent of damage became clearer, Pennsylvania Governor Thornburgh proclaimed a group of counties, including Butler, to be under a Disaster Emergency. On June 3rd, President Ronald Reagan declared the region a Major Disaster. The damage done to Butler County qualified it for individual and public assistance. Specific townships within the county qualified as well.  Organizations like the American Red Cross, as well as numerous local and regional relief agencies, gave aid to victims and contributed to community rebuilding.

To date, "Tornado Day" remains the largest, single-day tornado outbreak in Pennsylvania history.

Images

Photo of tornado destruction Photo published in the Butler Eagle of rubble from destroyed homes near Saxonburg Source: Vertical file, Weir Genealogy Room, Butler Public Library Date: May 1985
Tornado path graphic Map published in Butler Eagle depicting path of tornados through western Pennsylvania Source: Vertical file, Weir Genealogy Room, Butler Area Public Library Date: June 5, 1985
Untitled
Map depicting tornados of May 31, 1985 Map created by the National Weather Service, depicting tornadoes and their relative recorded strength, indicated by color. Source:
“May 31, 1985 Tornado Outbreak: 35th Anniversary.” NOAA’s National Weather Service. https://www.weather.gov/ctp/TornadoOutbreak_May311985.
Creator: National Weather Service Date: 2020
Untitled

Location

Saxonburg, PA

Metadata

Alana Colvin, “"Tornado Day" of 1985,” Butler County Historical, accessed April 12, 2024, https://butlerhistorical.org/items/show/85.