It seemed like any other hot and humid July day in Connecticut. Around 2:30 p.m. a violent supercell thunderstorm developed west of Albany, NY in Schoharie County. This thunderstorm produced a large tornado that was on the ground for an incredible 42 miles (though many believe it was a family of two or three tornadoes that followed the same path). The tornado did $20 million dollars in damage across New York state and injured nearly two dozen people.
The storm remained violent as it crossed the Hudson River and moved toward Connecticut's northwest corner. Though the tornado was no longer on the ground, the storm was still rotating. Around 4:40 p.m. the thunderstorm, with incredible longevity for the northeast, produced another tornado in Cornwall, Conn. This tornado ripped apart the Mohawk Mountain ski resort. Chair lifts were tossed like toys, buildings were destroyed, and trees were snapped. One of the largest stands of white pines and hemlocks east of the Mississippi was devastated by the tornado in Cornwall.
The tornado continued southeast through the village of Milton and borough of Bantam in the town of Litchfield. Winds up to 150 mph leveled trees, homes, churches, and stores. This tornado was on the ground for 10 miles and finally lifted over the town of Morris after injuring several people and destroying numerous structures.
It wasn't long, however, before another tornado touched down. This tornado started in Watertown and snapped countless trees and power poles. Homes in Waterbury were destroyed by violent winds up to 150 mph. A falling tree crushed a girl to death in Black Rock State Park while 70 were injured in both Watertown and Waterbury by flying debris and broken glass.
Hamden bore the brunt of this deadly tornado. Around 5:45 p.m. the sky in Hamden and New Haven turned an ominous green color. The green color was due to incredibly large hail suspended aloft in one of the strongest thunderstorms to ever hit Connecticut. The first touchdown was reported near the Wilbur Cross Parkway and Dixwell Avenue in Hamden. The tornado moved nearly due south destroying homes, businesses, an industrial complex, and a church.
The worst damage was where winds exceeded 200 mph near Newhall Street in the southeast corner of Hamden near the New Haven line where entire apartment complexes were destroyed. One man was getting ready to take a bath in his second floor apartment just yards away from Hamden Middle School. Firemen found the young man on second base in a nearby softball field with a sports illustrated in his hands. Former mayor John Carusone remembers seeing the man sitting on second base in his boxer shorts. When the mayor approached second base the man said, "you'll never believe what happened to me." The mayor eventually learned the man was carried by the tornado in the air 212 feet from his apartment onto the softball field. Amazingly, he wasn't injured.
Hamden Middle School sustained severe damage. Most of the windows at the school were blown out and the roof peeled back like a sardine can. Robin Sweeney lived on Augur Street a few blocks from the middle school. She remembers cooking dinner after putting her four-month-old son to sleep in his crib. "I remember looking outside and seeing the sky had turned an interesting color of green and gray. All of a sudden it got pitch black and there was a weird smell, an indescribable smell. It was a wild thunderstorm with a huge noise when a tree came through the bedroom window."
An entire hill between Augur Street and Rochford Field was deforested by the tornado in Hamden. Whole trees were sucked into the air and carried just short of a mile before they were dumped into Lake Whitney.
Rochford Field was turned into a triage center that afternoon. Nearly 500 people were injured that July afternoon, most were cut by broken glass. Mayor Carusone says the playing field looked red that night because of the amount of blood covering everything. In what the mayor says is a miracle, no one died in Hamden from the storm, and there were very few major injuries from the tornado.
The damage in Hamden was consistent with an F4 tornado or wind speeds over 200 mph. Even after the tornado lifted an 80 mph wind gust was measured at Tweed-New Haven Airport. Just north of the Airport, near Lake Saltonstall, the smell of pine persisted in the air for days because of the number of pine trees snapped during the storm.
The F4 tornado in Hamden is only one of two F4 tornadoes to ever hit the state. Some indications are the Windsor Locks tornado in 1979 may have been stronger for the brief time it was on the ground, but no tornado outbreak rivals the longevity and length of the 1989 tornado. All told 575 people were injured, one was killed, and nearly a thousand homes in the state were damaged or destroyed by the worst tornado outbreak in Connecticut history.