The National Weather Service won't determine until today whether a violent storm that smashed into Westmoreland County contained a tornado, but for those who rode it out Wednesday, there was no doubt.
Greg Kurtiak, who lives on Millersville Road in Hempfield, was in his detached garage with his daughter, Taylor, on Wednesday afternoon when hail began to fall. He looked outside and noticed the wind picking up, tossing debris above his head.
Suddenly, he said, a funnel cloud developed above a ridge. He grabbed his daughter and headed into the house.
They rode out the storm huddled near their brick fireplace.
"It sounded like a freight train," he said -- a cliched description that people everywhere use when they are caught in a tornado.
The storm obliterated his garage, turning it into a pile of rubble. A tree in the front yard was ripped up at the roots and blown through the roof of the house.
There were dozens of stories like that Wednesday night in Westmoreland County, but miraculously, said county emergency officials, no one was seriously injured.
Downed trees and power lines, ripped off roofs and smashed outbuildings were reported throughout the south-central area of the county, particularly in the Fort Allen section of Hempfield.
The weather service and Westmoreland County 911 also reported damage in Sewickley Township, North Huntingdon, Rillton, Shaner and Herminie. The damage seemed to follow a line south from Route 30 to Interstate 70, generally along Route 136.
The American Red Cross Westmoreland-Chestnut Ridge Chapter opened a shelter at the Hempfield municipal building on Woodward Drive.
"We've got a lot of damage," said Dan Stevens, spokesman for Westmoreland County emergency services. Darkness fell last night before investigators could get a full tally of the destruction.
Hempfield High School reportedly had damage to its roof, weather service meteorologist Fred McMullen said.
John Jobe, president of Sewickley Township EMS, said about a dozen homes on General Braddock Road in Rillton were damaged.
"General Braddock Road and Reservoir Road areas were among the hardest hit by the storm in Sewickley Township," Mr. Jobe said. "Incredibly, with all the devastation, we only had one emergency call for an injury through it all. I think it was a miracle."
Some damage also was reported in Rostraver, in southwestern Westmoreland County, said township Commissioner Andrew S. Temoshenka.
"We have trees and wires down, and some homes lost shingles and siding. And someone reported seeing a shed flying 30 feet in the air," he said.
Widespread and heavy hail damage was reported in several areas of Allegheny County, a county 911 supervisor said. They included Green Tree, Downtown and Squirrel Hill, where hail as large as 1 1/4 inches in diameter fell.
Meteorologists will travel to Westmoreland County today to investigate whether it actually was a tornado.
"We've seen the video already, but we have to go out and verify," said meteorologist Brad Rehak.
"Tornado damage is more of a circular pattern." Rehak said.
Other weather phenomena, such as a microburst, leaves damage that is "straight down and then fans out as it proceeds."
Heavy storms were reported throughout the region between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to the weather service. They contained winds that at times reached speeds of 60 mph.
Electricity was knocked out throughout the region. Duquesne Light said it had about 1,700 customers out of service, mostly in O'Hara, Hampton, Shaler, Aspinwall and Sharpsburg, at the height of the storm. But most of those customers had their power back by 8:30 p.m., the utility said.
About 27,000 customers of West Penn Power lost electricity during the course of the storm. By 9 p.m., there were just under 17,000 people lacking power, but the utility estimated restoring service to everyone would be no quick fix.
"Obviously, it's going to be multiple days," utility spokesman Allen Staggers said late Wednesday.
There were nearly 500 individual trouble spots involving such hazards as broken poles, downed wires or snapped cross-arms, he said.
The counties with the largest numbers of affected customers were Allegheny, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland. Another roughly 17,000 West Penn customers lost their power in West Virginia.
Mr. Staggers said West Penn was contacting neighboring utilities and line-crew contractors for help and was calling up additional personnel.
Utility damage caused by the storm fit with residents' description of a tornado touching down in Westmoreland County.
"It caused significant damage and anecdotally I heard of one area down there where we have 20 broken poles," Mr. Staggers said. "This isn't just thunderstorm damage."
The weather service had issued a tornado warning for parts of southwest Pennsylvania until 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. A tornado watch remained in effect until 9 p.m.
Whatever hit Westmorland County leveled homes and garages and tossed cinder blocks around like Lego toys, residents reported.
On Route 136 in Hempfield, street signs were bent sideways and stands of trees were flattened.
Mr. Stevens said 30 homes, two schools and two businesses were damaged in Sewickley and Hempfield townships. Some homes were destroyed and declared uninhabitable.
There were scattered reports of looting, prompting officials to cordon off sections of the heavily hit Fort Allen area, Mr. Stevens said.
He did not know how many people were left homeless, but all residents were accounted for, he said.
"We are in the assessment stage right now,'' Mr. Stevens said. "We are very fortunate -- there are no fatalities and only very minor injuries, bumps and bruises from flying debris."
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533. Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com or 412-263-1962. Staff writer Sadie Gurman and Norm Vargo contributed. First Published March 24, 2011 4:00 AM