Donna Bove will never forget what she calls the worst day of her life.
That time was Sunday, May 31, 1998 — the day a fierce tornado ripped through parts of north Mechanicville and Stillwater.
Many other residents remember the powerful weather that hit the area 20 years ago Thursday. The strong winds uprooted trees, flipped over cars and trucks and demolished, or severely damaged, at least 70 homes and businesses.
Nobody was killed when the tornado, moving at 185 mph, arrived around 4:30 p.m.
It wasn’t just a rough afternoon in Saratoga County. Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Albany said severe weather hit the northeastern United States on that day. Severe thunderstorms produced 20 tornadoes within a two-hour drive of Albany. Hundreds called to report damaging winds and large hail.
The Mechanicville twister traveled quickly. Meteorologists said the tornado moved across parts of Saratoga and Rensselaer counties in New York and across Bennington County, Vermont. The tornado tracked 30.5 miles along the Route 67 corridor across eastern New York and into southwestern Vermont.
Sixty-eight people were hurt in the tornado, which meteorologists said caused around $71 million in damages.
On the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates the strength of tornadoes based on damage caused, the Mechanicville tornado was classified “EF3.”
“The strongest we’ve ever had in this part of the country is an ‘EF4,'” said Steve DiRienzo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany.
The most damaging tornado would be classified “EF5.”
On May 31, 1998, meteorologists were expecting trouble. The Albany area had been placed in a “high risk” category for severe weather.
“This is the only time the Albany forecast area has been put in a ‘high risk,'” read a report on the tornado’s anniversary posted on the National Weather Service website. “It hadn’t happened before. It hasn’t happened since.”
The day the twister hit, Donna Bove had just called her daughter, Tina Bove Pugliese, and asked her to visit the Bove residence at 18 Cannon Court.
“When she walked in the door she said, ‘Oh my God, the sky is green,'” Bove said. “I said … let’s go downstairs to the basement.'”
The weather arrived and the family settled in the laundry room — a fortified location because the room was behind the foundation for the garage.
“We couldn’t see anything, it was dark and my daughter was screaming,” Bove said. “She had just got married a couple years before and she thought she was never going to see her husband again. I was screaming — I thought we were going to die.”
After a few minutes, when the tornado had passed, the family saw damages outside.
“There was no house next door,” Bove said. “The young man was out of town for the weekend, he was not even there. His house was gone. My girlfriend who lived in the next house, her’s was half there.”
Bove said the tornado tore off the roof of her home and smashed in her living room window.
“There were tree branches and insulation and leaves and dirt and whatever you could imagine just through the whole house,” she said. “My neighbor in the next townhouse was banging on my front door and said, ‘Everybody get out! Gas leak!’ So we ran.”
Bove said her home had to be rebuilt. “Then I sold it,” she said. “I couldn’t go back. I kept saying I was going to come back, but I couldn’t.”
Bove has lived in Saratoga Lake since 1999.
Other remembrances from people who lived through the Mechanicville tornado:
— Ed Hildreth, co-owner of the city’s landmark restaurant Hildreth’s, had heard warnings for bad weather. He said people did not take them seriously.
That changed around 4:30 p.m.
“I vividly remember seeing the tornado come over the hill,” Hildreth said. “It blew the townhouses apart. I spent the next 20 minutes on the floor. Everything was rocking and rolling pretty good.”
Several dozen people had been seated for Sunday dinner. They hit the floor, too.
Hildreth said the tornado sounded like a train engine. “It sounded like a locomotive,” he said. “It had an engine noise.”
— Marie Rinaldi and her husband Nick had a full house on Viall Avenue — 13 relatives over for a Sunday macaroni dinner.
They had to move the party.
“We were in the dining room,” Marie said. “At our front window, we could see the deck umbrella go by and the tablecloths. Nicky said we better go downstairs.
“As we were going downstairs, we could feel our stairs shake, and we didn’t even get the brunt of it.”
Son Scott Rinaldi, who now lives on Battery Boulevard, remembers people as they walked down Viall Avenue. “People were walking down the hill like zombies,” Rinaldi said. “You could hear people say, ‘My house is gone, my house is gone.'”
— Mechanicville Police Chief Joseph Waldron had just reported for work. As a patrolman, he was on the dispatch desk that afternoon. The tornado came, and so did phone calls. Many were concerned for relatives.
Police borrowed all-terrain vehicles from a local dealership to patrol the hard-hit areas.
Waldron said city residents now pay extra attention to forecasts that call for severe weather.
“We take it very seriously,” he said. “We never underestimate any thunderstorm warning — as a family, even the city as a whole. Anybody who was ever impacted directly by it will never take a thunderstorm lightly again.”
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