OPDYKE — One year ago today, tragedy struck Jefferson County when an EF 2 tornado swept through the southeast part of the county.
The tornado touched down at approximately 1:26 p.m. on March 23 in an area northeast of Opdyke. Pat Brown, 60, of Opdyke, was killed in the tornado when the family’s double-wide mobile home was lifted and tossed 100 feet feet across Lynchburg Road and destroyed. One home had windows blown out on the second story and siding damage. One barn was heavily damaged, and a few tree tops were snapped or trees uprooted. Power lines were also downed by the tornado, which reached wind speeds from 110 to 135 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
One landmark spared by the storm was a small Amish school, only about 500 yards north of the Brown residence.
“We saw the funnel cloud come across the field here and it really didn’t look a funnel. It looked more like a whirly-twirly, spinning water coming through a ditch down here,” explained teacher Cristy Byler. “We didn’t see it come across this half-acre field about 200 yards away that some of the neighbors had seen. We just went inside the schoolhouse and hoped for the best.”
Byler said it was very calm inside the schoolhouse, and then it turned windy, and a small buggy turned over.
“About that time, I saw Jack’s (Brown) house go and it passed about 90 yards west of the schoolhouse. It took everything completely across the road on top of neighbor Omar Hoffstettler’s greenhouse,” he said. “The children were all very much in anxiety and crying, and there was no trying to diffuse them, which was very understandable. I just turned around and said, ‘Let’s see how it looks’ and the sight we saw looking out the door here was something I hope I never see again.”
Byler said there was little time to react to the storm’s path.
“If we would’ve seen it earlier we would’ve had plenty of time to go to a neighbor’s basement. We live about one-quarter of a mile away, and my wife saw it coming directly for us a couple of miles away, and then it turned over here by the interstate. There was not much time to react,” Byler said.
EMA Director Steve Lueker, who was the assistant director a year ago, said the agency played a major role in tracking the storm.
“Part of our role is to help prepare the community, to make information available to the public, and we do that through our website and other means, especially through the media,” Lueker said. “We did play a part in that we took some watcher positions when we knew the storm was coming. It helped alleviate some of the burden off the fire department and law enforcement.’
Lueker said although there was major damage and one fatality, the aftermath could’ve been much worse.
“I believe us to be very fortunate when you look at the family that lives directly across the road and the damage to parts of their home. You could’ve seen that family severely hurt or killed, and the schoolhouse that was adjacent to the property with all of those children inside, it could’ve been a real travesty,” he said.
In addition to the fatality, two people reported injuries of contusions and bruising. They were treated at the scene, according to Sheriff Roger Mulch.
According to the NWS, the tornado began about 5 1/2 miles southeast of Mt. Vernon or just northwest of Opdyke and south of Interstate 64. The tornado lifted about five miles east of Mt. Vernon, just southeast of Liberty and North Lighthouse roads. The average path width of the storm was 100 yards and the path length was approximately 2 1/2 miles.
The storm hit Perry and Franklin counties, spawning a tornado in DuQuoin, before heading northeast into Jefferson County.