Past Times

Past Times: Violent storms marked Thanksgiving weekend 25 years ago

This home on Kitty Lane lost its roof and walls, but the wreath remained intact after the tornado hit Thanksgiving weekend 1988.
This home on Kitty Lane lost its roof and walls, but the wreath remained intact after the tornado hit Thanksgiving weekend 1988. 1988 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

“Tornadoes, unlike hurricanes, don't have names. They aren’t here long enough for us to get that familiar with them. But no one who lived through the tornado that broke the back of Raleigh’s Crown Oaks subdivision will ever forget those few moments after 1 a.m. Monday.”

This was former N&O columnist Dennis Rogers’ reaction to the F-4 tornado that hit North Raleigh 25 years ago this week. Many of today’s residents have no memory of the landscape before that Thanksgiving weekend. The tornado first touched down near William B. Umstead state park and Ebenezer Church Road, then spun through neighborhoods, apartment complexes and Townridge Square shopping center on Glenwood Avenue where it destroyed a K-Mart.

Former N&O writer Judy Bolch reported on the storm.

Four people were killed and at least 150 were injured early Monday when a series of tornadoes sucked up acre after acre of North Raleigh and eastern North Carolina and spat them out like a furious giant.

The tornadoes slashed a 10-mile strip through Wake and surged through eight other counties, demolishing homes, stores and trees with high-velocity winds.

In Raleigh, one twister killed a 9-year-old girl and a 12-year old boy and left 500 people homeless.

In Nash County, Leroy and Mary Alston were killed when a tornado hurled their mobile home against a tree. Tornadoes also hit Franklin, Northampton, Halifax, Dare, Hyde, Pamlico and Currituck counties....

The storms, which touched down at least 17 times across the state, spawned tragedy and triumph.

A Rolesville-area woman was blown out of her mobile home and ended up a cornfield with only minor injuries. A North Raleigh couple, listed among the 102 injured in the city, took a ride on a flying mattress but escaped serious injuries.

Mark E. and Vera G. Cimerro were asleep in a second-floor bedroom ... when they were awakened by the “mean sound” of high winds.

“I held onto her as tight as I could,” Mr. Cimerro said, “and the next thing I knew, we were flying. It was like a ride at the fair.”

Their home was demolished, and the pair landed – on their mattress – against a tree in a yard across the street.

The blue skies of an unseasonably mild Sunday gave way to black skies that rained disaster.

The city lay sleeping when the tornado touched down shortly after 1 a.m. near an unpaved portion of Ebenezer Church Road east of Umstead State Park. Most of the area is uninhabited, so the fury of the storm was unleashed on pine trees that it snapped and twisted. Here, as elsewhere in the storm zone, the happy, Christmasy smell of pine was a stark contrast to the destruction....

Don A. Crouse ... said the storm “came out of nowhere. I heard it maybe 15 seconds before it hit.”

Many victims said they had no warning.

“I watched the weather 15 minutes before it happened; they made no mention of a tornado,” said Mr. Crouse. The N&O 11/29/1988

In fact, the first tornado watch wasn’t issued until about 2 a.m.

“’There was no tornado watch in effect at the time the damage occurred in Wake County,’ said Joseph M. Pelissier, deputy meteorologist in charge of the weather service office at RDU....

“Radar equipment at RDU could not have picked up the storm, Mr. Pelissier said, because it developed almost directly over the airport. Interference, known as ground clutter, prevents the radar from picking up storms within about five miles of the airport.”

N&O reporter Liz Clarke also got some first-hand accounts of the storm.

Late Sunday night had already yielded to early Monday morning when Michael A. Manuel headed to his home on Battleford Drive in North Valley. For a night in late November, it was unusually nice – and then suddenly it was frighteningly terrible.

“I was coming down Creedmoor Road, and I couldn’t see a thing,” Mr. Manuel said. “I got halfway down Creedmoor, and everything was twisting around – trees, poles.”

By the time he reached the house, a tree had fallen, just missing a corner of the house by inches. It crushed the family’s boat.

“Somebody’s bedroom – the headboard and the nightstand – slammed into the house, all the way in to my Dad’s bedroom,” he said.

Minutes later, many residents along Battleford Drive and the rest of North Raleigh were caught in a nightmare.

“It was kind of how you imagine a battlefield,” said Charles K. Craven Jr.... “The neighbors came out calling each other’s name, making sure everything was OK.”

Lisa G. Sult ... was in her upstairs bedroom when the tornado hit.

“I had just gotten up to shut the windows because it was raining,” she said. “Then I heard a downstairs window break....”

“I heard the wind really loud and heard my mom and dad screaming. The wind was sucking me to the window, and I was running, and that’s when the roof fell. I was just screaming, and I scooted from under” the rubble, she said.

Ms. Sult, her parents, and Ms. Sult’s two poodles crawled out of their house through a side wall.

“The wall between our house and our neighbors’ place was knocked down,” she said. “You could go into their apartment from ours.”

Among others counting their blessings were Ben S. and Jacque Tesh of Battleford Drive.

A tree had crashed through the ceiling of the corner bedroom where Mrs. Tesh was sleeping, landing within inches of her head as she hid under the covers....

When she next opened her eyes, the tree had crashed through the ceiling, landing on the bed beside her.

“I don’t know when the tree fell,” Mrs. Tesh said. “The noise was so loud. I remember smelling pine, and I thought, ‘Why do I smell pine?’”

... Bob and Millie Stelger stood outside their once pleasant brown house. Their roof was gone. Drapes from their shattered picture window lay in a heap on the living room floor.

“We were hanging onto this [stair] rail because the wind was trying to swoop us out,” through the open roof, Mrs. Selger said....

As they sorted through the rubble in their front yard, their daughter Heidi picked up some Monopoly money.

“Here’s $500 to start your repairs,” she said. The N&O 11/29/1988

Share your memories of the Thanksgiving tornado with us.