The debris has long since been cleaned up, but the memories of a devastating tornado that hit Mechanicville, Stillwater and nearby communities almost 10 years ago still remain vivid for many local residents.
The tornado touched down at about 4:30 on Sunday, May 31, 1998. It caused $71 million in damage and injured 66 people, according to the National Weather Service.
Miraculously, nobody was killed in the twister.
“I thought for sure that there’d be a lot of fatalities,” said Paul “Butch” Lilac, who was the Stillwater Town Supervisor at the time.
Lilac said he slept at a fire station where a command center had been set up for three weeks after the tornado so he could be available there when needed.
“It was just a devastating time,” he said. “When we first got to the site, people were wandering around dazed and shocked. In many cases their house was gone.”
Lilac said he saw a boy who was 11 or 12 at the time shortly after the tornado. The boy was crying and looking for his lost dog.
The boy described the dog to Lilac and a police officer, who were driving around Stillwater viewing the damage and helping residents.
Lilac ended up finding the dog unharmed in the Riverside neighborhood, a half a mile away by car from the boy’s home.
“It looked like this dog was picked up by the tornado, carried down over the hill to the Riverside area, and dropped off there before the tornado took off across the Hudson,” Lilac said.
Mechanicville resident Kim Noonan remembers going to her basement with her family for at least 30 minutes during the tornado. Like many city residents, Noonan has a binder with news clippings and photographs of the tornado’s aftermath.
But Noonan was lucky — she said her house only suffered minor roof damage.
Teresa Moore was home in Valley Falls when the tornado struck. She said she saw the warnings on television but was never worried about her home being hit.
However, her husband is the manager at Schaghticoke-based Wiley Bros. Lumber Yard, which suffered severe damage.
One building that housed lumber and building supplies was destroyed in the tornado, Moore said.
“Inside the building, you could see the circular motion, the way that the lumber was thrown around in the building,” she said.
Moore said she remembers seeing a thick, green sky that day as she looked over towards Mechanicville.
She works at the Mechanicville District Public Library, where news clippings and photos from the tornado’s aftermath are being displayed.
From noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, the library will show a slide show of images with audio recorded in 1998 of eighth graders recounting their experiences during the twister. A television will display news footage from the tornado.
Stillwater is also holding a ceremony from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Riverside Pavilion.
There will be speakers who recall their experiences during the tornado, a screening of footage from the tornado and food and drinks.
“It’s just amazing to see the force of what happened,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of telling pictures.”
Moore said she found a strip of camera film negatives among debris carried to her front yard after the tornado. She had one of the pictures developed and was able to find the owner — a family she said lived 12 miles away in Mechanicville.
She said the photos from the negative were some of the only photos they had left after their home was destroyed.
“It just felt wonderful to be able to give them that gift of something back to them,” she said. “Those memories, how can you ever get a memory back like that?”
Linda Sanders, the Stillwater deputy town historian, said she was home watching a Yankees baseball game on television when the tornado touched down. Her Stillwater home was away from the tornado path and was not damaged.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “The big thing is to see the houses flattened and the fact that nobody was, per se, hurt. Nobody was killed.”
“I think the Lord protected Stillwater,” she added. “That could have gone across the road. It could have smashed into a couple cars and killed some people.”
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Categories: Schenectady County