Rare tornado hits Salt Lake City

A powerful tornado touched down in Salt Lake City near Church headquarters Aug. 11, killing one person and injuring dozens of others.

After collapsing the tents of an Outdoor Retailers Summer Market, ripping sections of the roof off the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz, and blowing windows out of a prominent hotel, the tornado raged past Temple Square and hit the construction site of the Church's new assembly hall, crumpling scaffolding and toppling the top half of a construction crane. Minimal damage was done to the building.Power lines snapped, leaving the Church's Family History Library and Museum of Church History and Art without power for more than 24 hours. Temple Square was closed for two days — the first closure in recent history — while crews worked to clean up downed trees and shattered windows. The Salt Lake Temple, however, remained open for scheduled weddings and appointments during and after the storm. No missionaries, Church employees, visitors to Church headquarters, or temple patrons on Church grounds were injured during the storm. Only two of the more than 1,000 construction workers at the site of the new assembly building sustained injuries, and those were not life-threatening.

All total, more than 150 people were injured, many of whom are members of the Church. Most were treated at the scene; some 50 were taken to local hospitals. Allen Crandy, 38, a Las Vegas businessman who is not a member of the Church, was killed.

After hitting downtown Salt Lake City, the tornado moved northeast, into a Salt Lake neighborhood, the Avenues, leaving 37 homes uninhabitable and dozens more damaged.

Tornadoes, often associated with the Midwest, are rare in Utah. This storm, classified as a F2 on a scale of 0-5, was the worst tornado in Utah history.

Just hours after the disaster, Gerda Bals recalled the storm from her third-floor office in the Family History Library — where she had watched the tornado form and then move across downtown Salt Lake City.

Looking out on the shredded tents of the outdoor market, toppled cars and shattered windows in nearby buildings, Sister Bals, a member of the Provo 5th Ward, Provo Utah East Stake, recalled an eerie feeling moments before the disaster. She had watched as construction workers left a rooftop project and then as clouds began to form. Next she saw black billows and what looked like an explosion.

"Then the tornado came," she said. "I saw a big piece of corrugated steel fly though the air. I saw the shredded tent. I saw tiles from roofs fly by. . . . It was horrible to watch."

Minutes after the storm had passed, Sister Bals stood in a dark office left without electricity. The earth began to settle and a hush moved across the area.

As she thought the worst, and worried about all those who had been injured, two birds flew past her office window. Then she knew — things could have been worse.

"It was awesome, but sad," she said. "I felt better when I saw the birds."

Moments after talking to a Church News reporter she left the Family History Library with the hundreds of other workers and patrons. They walked to their cars, some covered with trees, many without windows.

Nearby, employees at the Museum of Church History and Art also gathered outside. The canvas from a tent from the Outdoor Retailers Summer Market hung from a huge tree in front of the Museum; a 30 foot-steel beam lay nearby. Both had blown more than block.

Across the street on Temple Square, Church employees worked to clean up dozens of downed trees. The windows around the Christus statue in the North Visitors Center rotunda were shattered. However, all the missionaries assigned to Temple Square were safe and accounted for, said Pres. Charles D. Jarman, second counselor in the Temple Square Mission Presidency.

Lloy Romrell, assistant grounds manager at headquarters, said the thing Church employees were impressed with was that no one was hurt. "We had shards of glass from the visitors center [windows] that were embedded in soil 12 inches," he said. "The doors on the east end of the Tabernacle blew off — they were gone."

He said it was a miracle that every falling tree missed buildings. "You couldn't even see the grass, you couldn't walk on the sidewalks. The Square was just covered with branches of trees."

Pres. Jarman explained that a few minutes before the glass collapsed in the North Visitors Center, more than a dozen sister missionaries were standing in front of the window watching the storm. "None of us knew they were in any danger, we didn't know there was a tornado," Pres. Jarman recalled. "They were really crowded around looking out. For some reason we made them move."

As a result, they were all a safe distance away when the windows shattered.

Two other Temple Square missionaries were in a car on 2nd West and South Temple — the heart of the storm. "It was a horrible experience for them," Pres. Jarman said. "Cars were turning over and windows were blown out. They calmly prayed for relief. Afterward their little car had debris in every crack. But they were uninjured."

Pres. Jarman said the sister missionaries were eager to help with the cleanup on Temple Square, where most all the trees received some damage.

Brother Romrell noted that on Temple Square six large trees were lost. Another five trees were destroyed on the tiled area adjacent to the Salt Lake Temple, called the Temple Deck, and 12 were lost in the Church's parking area.

Just southeast of the temple, the "Sweetheart Tree" — a favorite backdrop for brides' pictures — was uprooted. The honeysuckle tree, which is gnarled in a manner similar to an olive tree, is believed to have grown from seeds carried across the plains by the pioneers and was transplanted on the Temple Grounds in 1969, a process that took three years.

This was "the most historical — the saddest tree of all," said Brother Romrell. "It was not saveable. It was ripped right out of ground. We hauled it away last night. I am sure the 57 brides today [Aug. 12] are a little sad that no one will get their picture taken by it."

Much of the cleanup on Temple Square, was completed the evening of the tornado by more than 200 Church volunteers from the West Jordan Utah Westbrook, West Jordan Utah Bingham Creek and Salt Lake Sugar House stakes.

"They were literally angels," said Brother Romrell, noting that by the time Church employees opened the temple grounds Aug. 12, every leaf was raked up, enabling weddings to go on as normal.

"We had a visitor to Temple Square who said she had never seen anything like the clean-up effort," said Brother Romrell. "She asked how we did it. I said I made one phone call to one stake president and that is all it took."

The day following the tornado, 10 Welfare Service employees gathered at the Outdoor Retailers Summer Market, one of the hardest hit areas, to help repair the tents that were demolished.

Church members also offered service in the neighborhoods north of downtown Salt Lake City, where the tornado left 37 homes uninhabitable — five very seriously damaged, said Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy who works with the Utah North Area Presidency.

Elder Porter noted that the leaders in the Salt Lake Ensign Stake, where the damage took place, did an excellent job rallying their members. By nightfall, all those affected had a place to stay and Church members were working together to cover damaged roofs and board up shattered windows, he said.

Elder Porter noted that the Church offered any help that was needed — donating 28 tarps, 6 rolls of plastic sheeting, 3,600 feet of rope and tents from the Bishops' Central Storehouse — but that the majority of the needs were handled by local Church leaders. "The local system worked," he said. "The local stake and wards carried the burden and they did it really well."

As soon as the stake presidency heard about the disaster they left work to survey the area, said Neil Newell of Church Welfare Services. "By the time they arrived [30 minutes after the tornado struck] there were already from 400 to 600 people working in the area clearing the debris and searching for injured victims. These volunteers, members and non-members, just showed up spontaneously and began working."

Bishop Loyal J. Pace of the Ensign 6th Ward, said the entire neighborhood responded to help those affected. "It was amazing," he recalled. "Trees had fallen on houses. Power lines were down all over the neighborhood. It was a thing that pulls your neighborhood together."