EDITOR’S NOTE: While many of us were asleep, a string of deadly tornadoes tore through east-central Florida on Feb. 22-23, 1998, destroying homes and resulting in 42 deaths and more than 260 injuries. On the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, here is an account of the devastation that night, originally published in the St. Petersburg Times on Feb. 24, 1998.
The wind was so strong it sucked a toddler from his father’s arms, blew a teenager out a window to a pasture and yanked a full-grown man from his car and threw him 500 yards.
And when the storm hit, said one survivor, "it had the sound of death."
A series of devastating tornadoes killed at least 38 people early Monday, injuring more than 250 others and destroying hundreds of homes across Central Florida. Thirteen people were reported still missing as rescue workers used dogs to search the rubble.
The toll, higher than that from 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, made this Florida’s deadliest onslaught of tornadoes since the National Weather Service started keeping records 50 years ago.
Some of the tornadoes may have had wind speeds as high as 260 mph, said meteorologist Bart Hagemayer with the National Weather Service in Melbourne.
Meteorologists do not know how many tornadoes were involved; some estimates were as low as six, others as high as 10.
The first of three storms that spawned the tornadoes crashed ashore over Citrus County about 10 p.m. Sunday and was over Daytona Beach in an hour.
Forecasters issued tornado warnings in time for Central Florida residents to seek shelter, but the warnings went unheeded by those who already were in bed.
"Some people slept right through it," said Angela Braden, a spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. "They woke up and their house was gone."
In Sanford, a man who was asleep in his mobile home was killed when the wind picked it up and tossed it into the yard next door, sailing right over the spot where a neighbor’s Rottweiler was staked down. The dog was unhurt.
Nearby another man had been ripped from his mobile home. His body was lodged in a tree.
In Daytona Beach, as the storm bore down on Mark Price’s one-bedroom mobile home, he forced fiancee Jennifer Johnson into the hall closet, big enough for only one person. Johnson tried to pull Price in with her, but as the mobile home blew apart his hand was yanked from her grasp. She survived. He did not.
Ponderosa Park, a tourist campground near Kissimmee, was unusually full because the annual Silver Spurs Rodeo wrapped up Sunday and spring training for baseball’s Houston Astros was just beginning. Ten people were killed there as a tornado tossed recreational vehicles around and hurled one body onto the Florida Turnpike 100 feet away, Osceola fire Chief Jeff Hall said. At nightfall eight other park residents were still missing.
Dozens of mobile homes were flattened, lying on their sides or upside down. Cars, glass, furniture and thick chunks of denuded ponderosa pines were strewn among the mess.
The worst casualties were in and around Kissimmee, in Osceola County: 23 dead, 148 injured and seven missing, according to county emergency management officials. Damage estimates there topped $18.5-million.
After devastating the campground, the tornado tore northeast through Lakeside Estates, a middle-class subdivision still in the making. The heart of its path was marked by a swath of houses, four or five abreast, where every house lost its roof and many lost walls.
Miguel and Tania Alvarez were asleep in their bed, with 1-year-old Beatrice between them, when "vroom, the ceiling fell down!" Mrs. Alvarez said. They crawled out of the room and discovered the 1983 Cadillac parked in the front drive had disappeared.
Kissimmee’s BVL Shopping Center was nearly leveled. Two convenience stores at the center were flattened. Cars were twisted hunks of metal lying on their roofs or sides. Two semitrailer trucks lay on their sides, split open. But because the shopping center was closed, no one there was injured.
"Thank God this happened at night _ we would still be picking up bodies," said Kissimmee police Officer Scott Morris.
Somehow the tornadoes missed Walt Disney World and the two other major theme parks in the Orlando-Kissimmee area.
East of Kissimmee the storm cut a crooked but destructive path through the Lakeside Estates neighborhood. One house stood with no more damage than a bent television antenna. The house next door was nothing but rubble.
Tonight marks the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Central Florida Tornado Outbreak which killed 42 and injured more than 260 across East Central FL. It remains the deadliest outbreak in the state's history. See https://t.co/damhilRaaN for the write up from @NWSMelbourne. #flwx pic.twitter.com/5EyJW96GdA— NWS Tampa Bay (@NWSTampaBay) February 22, 2018
Chris M. Gent, a spokesman for the Kissimmee Utility Authority, said the storm’s path could be traced by electrical outages. In the Kissimmee area, he said, it knocked out power in a strip about one-eighth- to one-quarter-mile wide and 19 miles long. Some places were left without the means to get power.
"We have got 2 miles of system where we can’t find the poles, we can’t find the wire, we can’t find the transformers," Gent said.
At the height of the storm, more than 76,000 people in Central Florida lost power. Utilities’ spokesmen said most people had power restored Monday, and the remainder would get their power back today.
Visiting devastated neighborhoods in Orange County, Gov. Lawton Chiles told one survivor: "I thought I’d seen everything when I’d seen Andrew, but this is Andrew revisited."
The governor promised to get help as quickly as possible. The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted Chiles’ request that 14 Central Florida counties receive disaster assistance, FEMA Director James Lee Witt said after touring the area with the governor.
President Clinton said he would travel to the state Wednesday to survey damage.
National Guard units were on standby and National Guard officials were among those staffing the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee, but no troops were deployed Monday.
U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., said several survivors told him they heard the tornado warning "but what could they do?"
In Seminole County, Dan Roger, 38, said his first warning came from the flashes of lightning that lit up the inside of his house.
"The entire sky was white with lightning, but there was no thunder," he said. He woke his wife, Debra, and their twin 9-year-old daughters, Christina and Danielle, and the family piled into the hallway when he heard the tornado.
"It sounded to me like a jet, a jumbo jet, a 747," he said. "It had the sound of death when it went over. It was that strong a force."
This is how strong it was: Hearing the storm, a man in Morningside Acres in Osceola County grabbed his young daughter and went to the center of his house, according to fire chief Hall. The tornado blasted the house and sucked the girl right out of her father’s arms.
The man, whom Hall did not name, was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center with severe injuries. In nearby woods, rescue workers later found a body that matched the girl’s description.
East of Sanford, the opposite occurred. A couple who lived in a mobile home were killed and the couple’s 5-year-old daughter was found wandering, dazed, in the woods about 100 yards from where the mobile home once stood, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Viewed from a helicopter, the Country Garden Apartments in Winter Garden looked as if a bomb had blown up six buildings and damaged two others. One had its entire facade torn away, exposing bedrooms and bathrooms.
As usual, though, the tornadoes took their worst swipes at the mobile homes that fill the need for inexpensive havens for retirees from the Midwest and Northeast.
About 100 mobile homes were destroyed at Hyde Park Mobile Home Park in Orange County, where three people were killed.
Ned and Josephine Woods left Dayton, Ohio, in 1983 to move into a mobile home near Kissimmee. Monday, all that was left of their retirement home was scraps of wood, metal paneling and pink insulation.
Crying, Mrs. Wood searched through the wreckage for some medicine she needed.
"It’s all gone," she said. "This was our whole life. I’m 73 years old and you can’t start over at 73. What good is it? You work so hard and now there’s nothing. I wish it would’ve killed me."
Times staff writers Rick Danielson, Jean Heller, Teresa Burney, Tim Nickens, Ian James, Susan Clary, Bryan Gilmer, Ameet Sachdev and Chris Sherman contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Orlando Sentinel and the AP.