Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years later

Great Barrington -- It was the night Satan himself roared through Great Barrington, leaving a path of death and destruction in his wake.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the Memorial Day tornado, whose still-visible scars on East Mountain tower above the Great Barrington Fairgrounds from across the Housatonic River.

Several mature pines were snapped like matchsticks at the Mahaiwe Cemetery by the 1995 tornado. Photo: Gary Leveille.

Monday, May 29, 1995, was a warm muggy day in the Berkshires -- conditions which the National Weather Service said were ideal for severe weather. By 3:30 p.m., scattered thunderstorms were developing over the western Catskills, not far from Oneonta, New York.

One such storm developed into a supercell as it crossed over the Hudson River near the city of Hudson.

The cell later touched down briefly as a tornado in Hillsdale and then again more permanently near Prospect Lake in North Egremont at 7:06 p.m. It quickly traveled to Great Barrington's Walter J. Koladza Airport, which suffered extensive damage, and bore down on the area of the Big Y plaza and the fairgrounds on Route 7 south of downtown.

Just before arriving at the Big Y, the twister tore off a large section of the roof of the Timberlyn Heights Nursing and Rehabilitation building on Maple Avenue.

It then cut a swath of destruction through the area of the Mahaiwe Cemetery and the plaza, hurling a tractor-trailer into the Ames department store and all but destroying the structures at the fairgrounds.

See video below of the destruction caused by the Great Barrington tornado of 1995 uploaded by meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan:

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The tornado, later classified by the National Weather Service as an F-4, the second strongest on the scale, then proceeded east, felling dozens of large trees on East Mountain before damaging Ski Butternut and several homes in the Lake Buel area, and killing three people near Eagleton School. The twister eventually lifted away as it entered the town of Sandisfield from Monterey.

For recollections of that day and week, The Edge turned to Mike "Fitzy" Fitzpatrick, who was the town's fire chief at that time. Fitzpatrick was at home when he heard one of the town's fire whistles blow. 

Devastation was the order ot the day at the fairgrounds.

Photo courtesy Great Barrington Historical Society

In those days, the Great Barrington Fire Department was an all-volunteer operation and mobile communication with firefighters was spotty, so a fire whistle was typically used to alert them that their services were likely needed.

The whistle blew once, which usually meant that a tree was down. That was initially the case, as a tree near the airport fell over a power line and ignited a fire that the department was called to put out.

When Fitzpatrick arrived at the firehouse, Great Barrington police officer Mark Stannard was at the desk and told Fitzpatrick that he had received calls that a tornado had ripped through South Main Street. Stannard was best known as the first police officer to arrive two and a half years earlier at a deadly mass shooting at the Simon's Rock campus.

"I did not know the extent of the thing until ambulances that were called into town from the west couldn't get through because a tornado had taken branches and trees down," Fitzpatrick said. "Then I knew this was big."

Fitzpatrick got into his car and as he headed west on Bridge Street toward the firehouse, which was then on Castle Street across from Town Hall, he could see a wall of very dark clouds south of downtown in the direction of South Main Street.

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterA lone golden retriever relaxes near a felled tree.

Photo: Gary Leveille

After checking in briefly at the firehouse, Fitzpatrick continued south. When he arrived on the scene, he was shocked at what he saw. Mature pine trees and headstones had been overturned in the Mahaiwe Cemetery.

Two houses on Main Street were destroyed and the grandstand at the fairgrounds had been moved and then smashed.

Cars had been flipped into the fairgrounds. Vehicles had also been hurled into the L&G gas station (now the Xtramart). The pumps out front were uprooted, spilling fuel through that area.

Fitzpatrick sent aid to several people who had been injured there, including a woman who was trapped in a minivan at the pumps and suffered a broken hip when a long wooden pole shot through the front passenger door. Remarkably, inside the vehicle, a carton of eggs survived the impact without so much as a crack.

Meanwhile, over on Maple Avenue, crews were frantically working on the evacuation of 78 elderly residents at Timberlyn Heights, who were pelted with rain coming through the gaping hole in the section of roof that had been torn off. A fleet of a dozen ambulances were involved in that operation.

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterMost of the structures at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds were leveled after the 1995 tornado.

Photo: Gary Leveille

But that was only the beginning. Fitzpatrick would later learn that near the town line with Monterey, two students and a staff member at Eagleton School were killed when the car they were traveling in was sucked up by the twister, lifted 300 feet up in the air and tossed hundreds of feet into the nearby woods. There were originally four occupants of that vehicle, Fitzpatrick said, but one escaped certain death by jumping out of the car before it lifted too high.

And there were also some early reports that proved to be false, such as the one reporting that the Reed Street neighborhood, which encircles the Great Barrington Bagel Company on Route 7, had been flattened.

So many South County residents were caught off guard, in part because a tornado warning for neighboring Columbia County, New York, wasn't issued until 6:40 p.m.

Only 20 minutes later, the twister touched down again near Prospect Lake in Egremont and began its path of destruction eastward toward the fairgrounds. Further complicating matters, Fitzpatrick said, was that the tornado was "rain-wrapped," making the funnel and rotation very difficult for onlookers to discern.

The National Weather Service reported that debris was carried more than 45 miles to the northeast in Belchertown, where a fairgrounds racing ticket was found along with white corrugated plastic roofing material.

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterTop: Justin Leveille surveys the damage with his grandfather Donald Moulthrop. Bottom: Portions of a vehicle wound up on Moulthrop's Christmas tree farm on Silver Street.

Photos: Gary Leveille

Local historian and Edge contributor Gary Leveille said, in the immediate aftermath of the twister's destruction, he turned on WSBS radio and heard newsman Tom Jay pronounce that, "The fairgrounds are no more." Leveille's wife, Audrey, was distressed because her parents, Don and Priscilla Moulthrop, lived near the fairgrounds on Silver Street.

"We grabbed our two kids, hopped in the car, and attempted to drive up Route 23 toward their house," Leveille recalled. "We were forced to park at MACONY Pediatrics on West Avenue because the rest of the road was blocked by fallen trees."

Audrey and the children stayed in the car while Gary, an inveterate hiker, climbed over piles of toppled trees and downed wires to his in-laws' house, which was difficult to see because of the fallen trees.

"The back of their house was ripped off, but everybody was okay," Leveille said. "Then the historian in me decided to check the Newsboy Statue." 

Fortunately, the popular monument was not seriously damaged, but Leveille was moved to write a book about it, "The Mystery & History of the GB Newsboy Statue," about 20 years later.

Fitzpatrick and Edward "Buddy" McCormick, who headed the town's emergency management operations, promptly called for mutual aid. More than 200 responders descended on the town, including the Pittsfield Fire Department and the county fire coordinator. Pittsfield brought a heavy rescue truck.

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterMounted Massachusetts state troopers survey the damage after the 1995 tornado.

Photo courtesy Great Barrington Historical Society

Monday evening, Fitzpatrick and McCormick began sectoring off the town, assigning areas of Great Barrington to individual departments. But it wasn't until sunrise the next day that the extent of the damage became evident. 

Approximately 5,000 people lost electrical power when 70 utility poles went down. More than 125 crews from throughout the U.S. helped to restore power over the course of the next several days.

The National Guard and the Red Cross soon arrived on the scene.

The Navy Seabees arrived the next day and spent the rest of the week cleaning up debris in front of people's homes. The state police came with K-9 units and mounted troopers to aid in possible rescue operations and to discourage gawkers and prevent looting.

Some strange things began to happen. Numerous older trees had been twisted by the tornado and, over the next few days, began to right themselves, resulting in loud noises that alarmed residents and clean-up crews.

"The trees that had been twisted around were untwisting themselves for a day or two," Fitzpatrick recalled. "It would sound like a gun going off.

The tree would bang as it untwisted."

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterThe plaque commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 1995 tornado. Photo: Gary Leveille

And things got even stranger. Four months later, the tornado's effects would still be felt.

During the cleanup, the town Department of Public Works used a woodchipper to shred the thousands of trees and branches that had fallen during the epic storm. There were several large piles of woodchips at the fairgrounds, which the department had used as a staging area for much of the cleanup that lasted all summer.

"They were in big piles on the fairgrounds parking lot and sat around for a long time," Fitzpatrick explained. "They ignited in September. It was spontaneous combustion."

The woodchip fire was never out of control, but it created an enormous amount of smoke, much of which drifted into the Reed Street neighborhood, where residents complained loudly.

The fire department put a pumper truck down by the river and spent a couple of days wetting down the piles until the smoke was vanquished.

Remembering the 'great' Great Barrington tornado 25 years laterJustin Leveille, Katelyn Leveille and Devan Arnold read the inscription on a plaque commemorating the fifth anniversary of the tornado in 2000 at the Mahaiwe Cenetery. Photo: Don Victor

The Great Barrington Historical Society, where Leveille is the archivist, erected a plaque at the Mahaiwe Cemetery in 2000 on the fifth anniversary of the tornado, and the society held a dedication at the site, which was well-attended. Paul Hickey, who was president of the society at the time, came up with the idea.

Leville wrote the inscription.

"It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed," Leveille told The Edge. "The incredible destruction, the state troopers patrolling on horseback, the helicopters, the roar of dozens of chain saws cutting away the debris.

It is all still so fresh in my mind."

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