A howling wind and flying debris sent the Stinebaughs to the basement of their Harford County home.
"The trees," Kim Stinebaugh recalled, "were dancing in circles."
After a three-hour tour of the Fallston area yesterday, the National Weather Service confirmed what many there had suspected: Monday evening's storm included a tornado.
The twister was rated an EF-1, the second-weakest rating on the scale that measures tornadoes. But with winds of 86 to 110 mph, it was stronger than last month's tornado north of Butler in Baltimore County, which was an EF-0 with 65 to 85 mph winds.
The twister that touched down Monday spanned as much as 150 yards, and it traveled about four miles, the National Weather Service estimated. The path of destruction stretched from Fallston southeast to close to Abingdon.
Most houses were spared, but one towering tree landed across a swimming pool at the home of Brian and Terry Hirsch on Terry Way, and another ruined the wooden fence that the neighboring Stinebaughs had just installed. Just up the street, a tree fell into the bay window of a living room.
"The pool is gone, can't be fixed," said Brian Hirsch, who was well into the cleanup and waiting for his insurance agent yesterday morning. "But we are lucky. A little further to one side and the tree could have taken the house."
The Hirsches surveyed the damage and cleared the front lawn of debris. The county extended hours to 7 p.m. at its yard trim drop-off site at 703 N. Tollgate Road yesterday and today.
County roads crews and contractors were out within an hour of the storm Monday evening and were still working throughout yesterday, officials said. Cleanup might take as long as two weeks, officials said.
At least 13 county roads were closed, as well as portions of U.S. 1 in Bel Air, throughout yesterday.
"We will be here most of today and tomorrow just getting trees off the lines," said Ray Wymer of Lewis Tree Service in Edgewood said yesterday. "It's really bad, but not the worst we have seen."
Highway crews reopened U.S. 1 in Bel Air at 6 p.m.
In the Joppa Hills neighborhood, nestled between Old Joppa Road and U.S. 1, so many trees snapped that residents said they could trace the storm's path. A few said their homes shook.
"It was horrible, but over so fast," said Margaret McSorley of Summit Road.
County Executive David R. Craig also toured the damaged neighborhoods.
"I knew right away this was more than a thunderstorm," he said.
The fast-developing thunderstorm boiled up over northern Baltimore County around 5:30 p.m., knocking down trees near Old York Road and Troyer Road in Monkton, and near Corbett Road in Phoenix. In Harford County, the storm arrived with high winds, heavy horizontal rain and 1-inch hail.
Wymer, the tree service worker, said he was driving on Mountain Road to his home in York, Pa., when the storm hit.
"It was like squalls hitting my car, and I couldn't see out the windows," he said.
Once the rain let up, he saw a highway littered with tree limbs and debris. His normal one-hour commute took double the time, with detours around many closed intersections.
The county Emergency Operations Center took about 300 calls from 80 locations. During the storm and its aftermath, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company answered 15 calls, and the Fallston company handled another 18 calls.
"At one point, one of Bel Air's engines had to stop on the side of Bel Air Road and wait out the storm," said Rich Gardiner, spokesman for Harford's fire and emergency services. "They could not see to drive."
Most of the emergency calls were for downed power lines and trees, Gardiner said. A tree fell on a car traveling on Whitaker Mill Road, but the driver was unharmed, he said.
"What is really surprising is that no one was hurt," Gardiner said.
The tornado touched down near Fallston about 6:15 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The key to distinguishing tornado damage from straight-line wind damage is the orientation of the downed trees and debris.
If they diverge, it's straight-line wind, said David R. Manning, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington Forecast office in Sterling, Va. He compared the effect to that of pouring a bucket of water onto the floor. The water moves out and away from the center.
In a tornado, the debris is drawn in toward the center of the storm's track.
Terry Hirsch said yesterday that she saw "trees bending over and touching the house. There was a whirling noise beating against the windows and debris hitting the back of our house."
Brian Hirsch had spent most of Monday crabbing in the Gunpowder River. He caught at least a bushel, intending to steam them for dinner that night. But, without power, he iced the catch.
The electricity returned about 4 a.m. and the family reset their crab feast for last night.
"We are steaming tonight, and maybe we will invite the neighbors," Terry Hirsch said. "Nobody was hurt, and most of the damage was to yards and driveways. Sometimes, we lose sight of how lucky we are."
Harford's yard waste drop-off site at 703 N. Tollgate Road in Bel Air will extend its hours until 7 p.m. today. It opens at 9:30 a.m. Information: 410-638-3637.
More weather stories and Frank Roylance's blog at marylandweather.com