Eighteen years ago today, a massive tornado ripped through downtown Salt Lake City, causing one death, at least 81 injuries and an estimated $170 million in damages.
The giant funnel shocked Utahns and weather experts alike by striking before any warning could be issued.
Here’s a look back at eyewitness accounts of the stunning event and the reasons why no one involved can forget what one Utah climate expert called Salt Lake City’s "biggest weather story of the century."
"The ceiling turned to sky"
Before the tornado touched down, August 11, 1999, felt like an ordinary summer day.
In Salt Lake City’s Avenues district, Grace Wilson and her daughters were watching TV when they heard a ferocious wind. They looked out the window and saw a powerline explode with a flash of lightning, and — suddenly — a tree crashed through their living room. Then, as one Deseret News reporter described, "the ceiling turned to sky."
"I watched the roof blow right off," Emily Wilson said. "That's when I knew this was serious and we needed to get downstairs."
Across the street from the Wilsons at the Northcrest Neighborhood outdoor pool, Katherine Bradway was about to start lifeguard duty when she saw the same lightning flash. Thinking it was just a summer storm, Bradway joked with her fellow lifeguards, insisting, “It’s Utah — we can’t be having a tornado.”
But Bradway realized something more serious was happening when hefty garage doors began to fly off their hinges, dogs were launched over fences and she was forced to evacuate the pool.
Several blocks southwest of the Avenues, Dick Fernandez, a 52-year-old insurance salesman, was walking to work from a parking lot at the corner of North Temple and West Temple when he felt a powerful gust of wind.
Fernandez grabbed a nearby tree for safety, but the tree was quickly uprooted, breaking his leg and causing his face to split open from his forehead to the tip of his nose. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the hospital.
Many of those injured were downtown, setting up outdoor tents for the annual Outdoor Retailers convention at the Salt Palace. The tornado flattened these large wood-framed structures, battering and trapping those inside. Police had to bring in search and rescue dogs to find people buried by the debris.
Corran Addison and Jonathan Reeves were hanging signs and setting up gear when someone ran into their exhibition tent, announcing a tornado was coming. Addison had just enough time to grab onto a tree.
"My feet were straight out, three feet above my head," he explained. "I'm just hanging on with my head down going, 'What's gonna hit me?'" Fortunately, he avoided being struck by a 17-foot kayak circling in the air above him.
When Reeves heard the pavilion snap, he crouched under the same tree. But as panicked as he was, he couldn’t resist looking up at the tornado. "You couldn't not look," he said. "You had to see what was gonna kill you, if it was gonna kill you."
Rescue crews set up a triage and treatment center in the lobby of the nearby Wyndham (now Radisson) hotel, where paramedics helped the injured and coordinated ambulance runs to the hospital.
Jim Sadler, also in town for the convention, said the scene inside the hotel was pandemonium, with crying children separated from their parents and people constantly pushing through the front doors covered in blood. Another man said it looked like a bomb went off.
One man did not survive the injuries he sustained when flying debris hit him in the head. Allen Crandy of Las Vegas, an Outdoor Retailers contractor and a 38-year-old father of three, was the tornado’s only fatality.
When the winds finally died down, the city was left reeling, struggling to comprehend what happened.
Mike Leavitt, the governor of Utah at the time, spoke to reporters immediately following the storm. "Standing here in the calm of an August afternoon, it's almost inconceivable what happened," he said.
The perfect storm
Despite the magnitude of the damage, the tornado itself lasted only ten minutes. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado first touched down at 12:45 p.m. about two blocks southwest of the Delta Center (now Vivint Smart Home Arena). It took down power lines, several abandoned Union Pacific warehouses and tore off part of the Delta Center roof. It continued ripping up houses and trees in a northeasterly direction for five miles, through Memory Grove and the Avenues. By 12:55 p.m., it was all over.
Tornadoes in Utah aren’t all that rare — the Beehive State averages two per year. But a storm as massive as the ‘99 tornado, with wind speeds between 111 to 135 mph, only happens once every seven years on average. And rarely do they strike a metropolitan area.
According to KSL meteorologist Mark Eubank, it took a very unusual combination of conditions to produce this perfect storm.Comment on this story
"It took just the right, unique type of storm and setting," he said. "But what it did is it kind of woke up Utahns to tornadoes." Previously, experts thought it was impossible for a storm to develop between a 9,000 and 11,000 foot mountain range.
Could it happen again? A recurrence is unlikely but "always possible," Eubank said.