‘I’ll never forget it’: a Mechanicville disaster remembered

An aerial view of the Viall Hill area highlights the damage left behind by the storm.
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An aerial view of the Viall Hill area highlights the damage left behind by the storm.

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SARATOGA COUNTY — It’s an infamous day locally: May 31, 1998.

Lawnmowers buzz in an early Saratoga County heat. For many, Sunday dinner is around the corner.

While planting flowers at her Mechanicville city home, Karen Van Veghten listens to a Yankees-versus-Red Sox game. The National Weather Service interrupts the action, issuing repeated tornado warnings for Saratoga County.

To her, it almost sounds like a nearby street, so she laughs in relief.

“They said Saratoga County, not Saratoga Avenue, so I went about my business,” Van Veghten recalled.

Noticing storm alerts that morning, youth baseball coach Kevin Connors tries to cancel an away game against Greenwich, but the opposing coach insists otherwise. As he heads back home to his Schaghticoke neighborhood across from Mechanicville, the sky grows darker and darker, and the surrounding light turns pea green.

A medley of objects in Mechanicville and the surrounding area blow through the air, including fence posts. Horizontal lighting bolts crack through the sky as some families, now heeding the signs of an incoming disaster from meteorologists and ominous sightings, take refuge below.

“My daughter and I had just come from Price Chopper and when we got into the yard, all of a sudden we saw different things flying around,” said Dorthy Stalter of Bancroft Street in Stillwater. “I run inside, run upstairs into the bedrooms and close the windows as she’s yelling her head off at me: ‘Mom, you got to get down here. Mom, you got to get down here.’”

It’s around 4:30 p.m. when a sound described by witnesses as a freight train or some kind of explosion is heard from above. Power outages are aplenty.

Surrounded by darkness is a plate of cheese and crackers in a Cannon Court townhouse basement, a meal prepared by Donna Bove before she and her family take shelter. After the rumbling, what she sees out of her cellar window shocks her.

Minutes ago her neighbor had a house. Now, it’s gone.

BEYOND BELIEF

On May 31, 1998, a tornado ripped through parts of eastern Saratoga County, leaving behind injured residents, extensive damage to some buildings and a lifetime of bad memories for some who lived through it.

After developing its full fury in Halfmoon, the twister hit wind speeds of more than 160 mph in Stillwater and Mechanicville before crossing the Hudson River to Schaghticoke. It eventually dissipated in southwestern Vermont.

Altogether, approximately 68 people were injured. A shock to many, nobody died.

Then-Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Root received an alert from Ushers Road in Halfmoon. About a minute later, he decided to respond to another call in Viall Hill, a neighborhood on the border of Mechanicville and Stillwater.

Downed power lines and loads of debris stood in the way of westbound emergency crews, forcing first responders to grab their equipment and trudge up the hill.

“When we got up there, it was just as quiet as anything,” Root said. “Very eerie.”

The hilltop neighborhood was only a fraction of what it was earlier in the afternoon.

Throughout the storm’s path, rooftops were peeled off like tuna can lids; vehicles were tossed around like Hot Wheels; glass and brick missiles were flown through the air.

Hildreth’s Restaurant lost at least than $10,000 in food, as well as structural damages. A portion of DiSiena Furniture was decimated. Damages amounted to $3 million for DeCrescente Distributing Co, which closed down for one day after the storm.

On top of all the wind damage, lightning struck an electric wire on Warsaw Street, setting an apartment building ablaze.

In total, the damage numbered $71 million, $52 million more than an F4 that hit Schoharie County in July of 1989.

Connors, an insurance specialist, had received hundreds of claims. While working with an insurance adjuster, he said the only way to identify flattened homes was to look at existing structures.

“The camera that I had was one of those old one-steps, so I could only take 10 pictures per roll,” Connors said. “I had a bunch of rolls.”

AND BEYOND

Julie Erno Rider of St. Johnsville recalls receiving a phone call from her in-laws in Mechanicville, concerned about her well-being as extreme weather appeared to reach every corner of the region.

“I was so nervous,” Erno Rider recalled. “And then a couple of hours later, they got the tornado, so that was strange.”

Tornadic activity was spotted near Amsterdam, Mohawk and parts of Little Falls, in addition to a bevy of other locales in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

The closest related death to the Capital Region was in Oneonta where a tree fell on a man.

Powerful winds resulted in felled trees and downed power lines throughout the core counties of the Capital Region. Around 50,000 residents in the Albany metro area and about 131,000 residents around the state were left without power.

This briefly impacted operations at the Times Union’s Colonie headquarters. Under a disaster agreement at the time, the newspaper printed its June 1 edition off the Daily Gazette’s press in Schenectady due a power outage.

Price Chopper in Clifton Park, one of the largest grocery stores in southern Saratoga County at the time, was shuttered for days. Their power didn’t come back on until June 3.

RESPONSE

On the night of the storm, the American Red Cross set up a shelter in Mechanicville Elementary School’s gymnasium.

Affected families were told by storm crews that they couldn’t live out of their homes anymore. Evacuated were more than 100 residents.

“I grabbed a couple pairs of pants and shirts and threw everything in big black garbage bags and we started walking down Viall Hill,” Bove recalled.

First responders set up a makeshift command post in a home garage left standing on Viall Hill. Firefighters and police officers were working 24 hours a day in the aftermath of the disaster.

National Guard units came from a number of different directions, including Troy, Binghamton, Newburgh and Glenville, to assist in the recovery efforts.

“I’d say that was one of few times in my state police career that I got out of the car, looked at the disaster scene and said, ‘Wow, where do you begin with this?” said William Sickinger, a retired state police zone commander. “But things came together.”

Then-Gov. George Pataki, who had sent a federal disaster declaration to President Bill Clinton, arrived in Mechanicville on June 1 to assess the damage.

In mid-June, FEMA said that the federal government would pay for 75% of relief costs put on local governments and the state. Saratoga and Rensselaer counties received $2 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, which was run at that time by now-disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

25 YEARS LATER

Despite landing in Halfmoon and also causing a great deal of damage in Stillwater, the tornado is known by most as the “Mechanicville Tornado.” That’s likely the result of associations with a namesake postal code, said Mayor Mike Butler.

The nearly two-year mayor typically only hears about the tornado during anniversaries. He tried to get more survivors to appear on NewsChannel13’s anniversary special, which was broadcasted on May 24.

“They said they really didn’t want to talk about it again,” Butler said. “I think maybe it’s kind of one of those things people don’t like remembering.”

Most of the houses on Viall Hill were rebuilt by year’s end. Much of the residents fortunately had homeowner’s insurance, Connor recalled.

Some of the trees were never replanted.

As the years progress, the number of witness accounts from that time have dwindled. Additionally, much of the city’s leadership from that time, including three-term Mechanicville Mayor Thomas J. Higgins, are now deceased.

For those that are still around, the experience remains vivid, Connors maintained.

“I’ll never forget it,” Connors said. “And the people who were there back then will never forget it, either. Everybody knows where they were.”

Van Veghten’s family home was among the condemned at the time. It took about 11 months to get a new home on Johnson Road. She now lives in King’s Isle Apartments on state Highway 67.

“For the first year or so, I was going by it like three times a week and every chance I got, I’d go by it,” she said about the old property.

“And I still do.”

Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.

Categories: -News-, News, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs

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