For a moment, Patrick Hook was transfixed in his front-row seat as Mother Nature got freaky. Little did he know that in minutes, she would go berserk.
Hook, 35, was outside his home in the upscale Tailwinds Estates section of Cecil County on Thursday night watching as a wicked thunderstorm transformed into a howling tornado.
"The clouds were incredibly billowy, both dark and bright, lightning crackling from the bright sections. I was mesmerized," said Hook, an accountant. "Then, in seconds, a funnel started west across Route 272 and I saw tree limbs, plywood, aluminum siding whirling through the air."
The tornado - the second to strike Maryland this week - was carrying 150-mph winds and would ravage a 4-mile-long ribbon of farmhouses, barns and homes priced in the $300,000 range.
As the rural section of Cecil County started putting itself back together yesterday, most residents who suffered property losses agreed on one key point - they were fortunate. No injuries were reported.
Preliminary damage estimates were put at $450,000, said Frank Muller, director of the Cecil Department of Emergency Services. But that figure could rise as insurance adjusters submit their estimates.
As the storm was gathering just before 6 p.m. Thursday, Hook's wife and two young children moved to safety in their basement; they had heard the area was under a tornado watch. Hook remained outside, awed by the natural light show and stunning cloud formations.
Then, the eerie beauty unfolding near the town of Rising Sun turned violent.
A funnel cloud danced across Route 272 and picked up a canoe in a nearby pond. "The canoe hovered about 5 feet off the water, something right out of the Wizard of Oz," Hook said. "And then very violently and suddenly, the canoe shot across the pond like a dart and stuck in the opposite bank."
That's when Hook dived under the front of his pickup truck. "There was just the noise, all consuming, like a freight train. I was pelted with sand, bark, debris. ... I was absolutely seized by fear."
Four people died, nearly 100 were injured, and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged after a tornado tore through Charles and Calvert counties Sunday. A fifth person died after suffering a heart attack while watching television reports of the storm. That tornado was rated an F5, the most powerful on the Fujita damage scale and the first of its kind to touch down in Maryland.
In Cecil County on Thursday evening, about 21 structures - homes, barns, a silo and sheds - received minor damage. Three homes, all in Patrick Hook's neighborhood, were heavily damaged, Muller said.
One family, Mike and Jane Crabb's, had to seek temporary shelter after the tornado. The Crabbs live next door to the Hooks.
Half of the roof on the Crabbs' house was ripped off. The brick chimney crashed to the wooden deck below. Their sports utility vehicle was lifted 25 feet above the driveway and deposited, right-side up, in the back yard.
An official with the National Weather Service said yesterday that the Cecil tornado was rated an F2.
Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist at the Mount Holly, N.J., office of the weather service, said the tornado carved a path of damage about 4 1/2 miles long and two football fields wide.
Listened and survived
"It was impressive how long it stayed on the ground," Szatkowski said. "But the people in the path of the tornado were very lucky. They listened to the precautions of the tornado watch and survived."
Strewn in the wake of the tornado were snapped and uprooted trees, roof shingles, broken utility poles, pieces of children's swing sets and dead birds. Pieces of yellow insulation hung in tree limbs.
Trees like toothpicks
Dale Martin of Blue Ball Road said a neighbor saw her family's trampoline churning "high in the air, like a Frisbee."
"The funnel took out 10 tall pine trees around our house like they were toothpicks," Martin said. "One of the trees crushed our 22-foot boat, another one destroyed our SUV."
The weather service said the twister formed over York County, Pa. It reportedly touched down at 5:22 p.m. near Delta, Pa., just north of the Harford County line and hit Cecil County about 30 minutes later at England Creamery and Crothers roads.
The funnel moved northeast until it dissipated around Route 273 and Fairview Road.
"No one was home when it hit," Jane Crabb said. "My husband was stationed in Kansas, Oklahoma and Hawaii, and we have seen some vicious wind damage from tornadoes and hurricanes, but it's just awful when it hits your home."
Storm on radar
Mike Crabb, a retired Army flier and now a pilot for MBNA Corp., was flying the corporate jet home from England on Thursday evening when he saw the storm approaching Maryland on radar. "We had to avoid the storm, but never did I dream it would be tearing down my home."
Crabb's employer provided emergency housing for the couple. They won't be able to move back home until safety inspectors examine the structure, Muller said.
The Crabbs moved into the house, at 27 Steeplechase Lane, a month ago.
"The first mortgage payment is laying in the house, somewhere in there," Jane Crabb said. "I was going to mail it out this weekend."