Schenectady County

2016 archives: Schenectady’s deadly mudslide, 20 years later

Steep hill off Broadway, close to busy Interstate 890, is mostly rock now
The Tel Oil gas station and convenience store on Friday, Jan. 19, 1996.
The Tel Oil gas station and convenience store on Friday, Jan. 19, 1996.

The steep hill off Broadway, close to Schenectady’s busy Interstate 890, is mostly rock now.

Small pieces of stone probably weigh 15, maybe 20 pounds. Larger ones weigh a lot more.

“They’re not rocks, they’re boulders,” said Albert P. Jurczynski. “And I dare say those boulders are probably 5 or 6 feet deep. I was climbing on those things and nothing was moving under my feet.”

JAN. 29, 2018: 2 buildings demolished after Schenectady mudslide
JAN. 28, 2018: Man rescued from Schenectady mudslide

Jurczynski was on the hill last week. He was Schenectady’s mayor when the hill collapsed on Friday, Jan. 19, 1996, rolled through the Tel Oil gas station and convenience store and covered Broadway with tons of rocks, trees and waterlogged mud.

The mudslide toppled the station canopy and killed Thomas B. Frank of Amsterdam, an employee of Dick’s Glass who was pumping gasoline into a company van when the slide occurred around 6 p.m. The incident made national news.

All this was 20 years ago tonight and came at a time when Schenectady city officials already were worried about the January weather. It was less than three weeks into the new year, and the city had already been forced to declare two snow emergencies.

Rain and 60-degree temperatures that Friday contributed to a massive snowmelt that saturated grounds all over the Capital Region.

Ian Lee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, said 28.4 inches of snow fell in January 1996. So did 4.58 inches of rain. “The day that had the most rain was January 19,” Lee said. “There was a high of 60 and almost 2 inches of rain fell.”

About 26 inches of the month’s snow had fallen by Jan. 19, Lee said. The 28.4-inch total is just outside the Capital Region’s top 10 for snowiest Januaries. “The No. 10 is 30.6 inches, so it’s not far off,” Lee said.

Jurczynski was 19 days into his first term as mayor. He said he always remembers the mudslide date, and for the past few years has posted a recollection on social media outlet Facebook.

Jurczynski said he and other city officials were in the Stockade that night, checking high water levels on the Mohawk River, when they received word about the slide.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Jurczynski said. “So we all worked our way over there from the Stockade and when we got there, it was surreal. It was like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’ ”

The former mayor was candid as he remembered his first moments at the scene. “I was standing there across the street and I can remember, for a very brief moment, reverting to being a little kid and saying, ‘Where’s my mommy?’ That went through my head and then I snapped out of it. I said, ‘You’re the mayor, you’ve got to be a leader.’ ”

Broadway was a mess. “It was like thick pea soup,” Jurczynski said, as he stood across the street from the former Tel Oil last week (the business is now a Mobil gas station). The mud rolled across the street, covering Broadway, and just reached the curb on the opposite sidewalk.

City Engineer Milt Mitchell, Fire Chief Thomas A. Varno and Police Chief Michael Moffett were all at the scene. Bunches of firefighters, police officers and public works employees were sent to Broadway. A Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. crew working nearby rushed to the street. Even a private contractor showed up with equipment.

‘Crazy night’

“They earned their money that night,” Jurczynski said of city employees. “You know who else earned their money that night — dispatch. For dispatch it was crazy, all the calls that were coming in.”

The now-retired Varno said Monday that he couldn’t remember a similar mudslide during his career with the Fire Department, which started in 1957. “There were trees that were out in the middle of Broadway that were probably 40 feet tall and the mud was probably a good 3 feet deep,” Varno said.

“It was certainly something we were not used to handling,” the former fire chief added. “But eventually we got our hands on it and did what we had to do to, and got it cleaned up with the cooperation of the other departments in the city.”

Schenectady’s Anthony Teta Jr. was on Broadway in his green Ford Ranger pickup truck when the hill came down. “I came off 890 and the mud smashed right into me,” said Teta, now 55. “It pushed me all the way over to the other side of the road. It happened too fast to worry about. In 20 seconds it was over.”

Teta never saw it coming. “It was dark out and raining,” he said. “What gets me is there were no cars. It was six o’clock at night and there were no cars on Broadway.”

Christine Tiscione of Mayfield was in her sport utility vehicle, which was also damaged by mud. She was pulled to safety.

Many responders began shoveling their way into the mud, which had nearly covered the Dick’s van. At one point, Jurczynski said, the van’s front headlights lit up; that spurred increased effort, because workers thought somebody in the van was trying to signal. But the van was empty.

Rescue crews weren’t sure how many people they were looking for. Jurczynski said people on the scene had to worry about something else — temperatures dropped quickly as the night progressed. The mud was starting to freeze.

Jurczynski said Frank’s body was found around midnight. He remembers men on top of a large mound, digging down.

“When I went over there, it was so eerie,” Jurczynski said. “There were floodlights where they were working. I got to the base of the mound … I stood at the bottom, and on top, all the guys who had been busting it all night were just standing there.

“You know what it reminded me of? An old Civil War picture where you see the soldiers, either Confederate or Union, standing there with their rifles in their hands. These men were all standing there and they weren’t muskets they were holding, they were holding shovels.”

Warnings, lawsuits

The fatal mudslide brought controversy. Peter Jacobs, who owned Tel Oil, had written letters to the city in 1994 and 1995, warning officials of hazards he said were present with the steep bank.

Several lawsuits were filed against the city after the slide. The Tel Oil station was destroyed and Broadway was closed for several weeks. Schenectady also received $135,000 in federal funding to repair damage on the hill.

An engineering report filed by Clough Harbour & Associates said the soaking rain and unusually high temperatures weakened the embankment. The report, which did not affect the city’s potential liability in the accident, also said similar weather could cause another slide in the same area. The report added that such weather conditions are “estimated to occur at a frequency of about once every 50 to 100 years.”

Jurczynski doesn’t believe another slide will happen. He thinks the tons of rock placed on and in the hill will hold the soil in place no matter what the weather. When he looks at the hill now, he sees new growth, trees and other vegetation surrounding the rocks.

“Mother nature is taking over,” Jurczynski said. “She’s nobody to screw with.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected].

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