By Maria Glod, Tom Jackman and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 5, 2008
A Fairfax County man was killed yesterday when swift-moving and violent thunderstorms swept through the Washington region, toppling trees and power lines and leaving hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power.
The Annandale area man was killed when a massive oak tree smashed into a white 1995 Toyota 4Runner on Hummer Road in Annandale just before 3:15 p.m., at the height of the first wave of storms, authorities said. Another Annandale area man, the driver, was injured.
The storms also knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the area, and continued outages prompted Montgomery and Prince George's county schools to close today. Officials with several other systems said they would make a decision this morning. Area utility companies said last night that they expected many outages to extend into late tomorrow.
In Bethesda, a tree fell on a car near Greentree and Fernwood roads, trapping the driver, a 40-year-old woman, who was rescued with minor injuries, authorities said. WRC (Channel 4) showed footage of a man being pulled from a car after a tree fell on it on River Road in Bethesda. He was unhurt.
The storms, with high winds and blinding rain, might have spawned small tornadoes in Falls Church; in Fairfax County; near Stafford, Va.; near Bel Alton, in Charles County; and near the Anne Arundel-Calvert county line. National Weather Service experts planned to survey damage and investigate tornado reports today.
With surprising speed, the storms burst into a warm, sunny afternoon and continued into the night. Dismissal was delayed at some schools in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Charles counties so that children could be kept safely inside. On Capitol Hill, an afternoon congressional hearing was suspended, and everyone was urged to stay clear of the windows. Falls Church city employees were ordered into the City Hall basement after reports of the possible tornado.
Kristi Hellmuth had just picked up her daughter, Jordan, from Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, when the sky turned dark. They decided to forgo a stop to get cash for Jordan's yearbook payment, instead heading home to Mason Neck.
"Everything started blowing sideways, and immediately the traffic light blew out," Hellmuth said. "We're on this narrow, winding, tree-lined road. The trees were bent over touching the car, it was blowing so hard. I said, 'Jordan just pray nothing flies down and we can get home safely.' "
Carl Erickson, a meteorologist for AccuWeather, said the initial line of thunderstorms that moved across Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District produced punishing winds. At Andrews Air Force Base, gusts of up to 66 mph were reported, he said. At Dulles International Airport, winds whipped up to 59 mph.
"If you were driving, the rain came down so hard, visibility was down near zero," Erickson said.
The storms were moving so quickly, meteorologists said, that little rainfall was recorded.
Temperatures are forecast to climb into the 80s today with a chance of thunderstorms. The weekend could be in the 90s, with partly or mostly sunny skies.
Authorities said darkened traffic lights and fallen tree branches snarled traffic yesterday across the region. In Montgomery, about 200 of 800 traffic lights were out during the storm's peak. By late evening, officials estimated the number at 75 to 100. In Loudoun County, sheriff's deputies directed traffic and hauled branches from the roadways.
"We have a ton of trees down, a ton of traffic lights out," Loudoun County Sheriff's Office spokesman Kraig Troxell said.
In Anne Arundel, fire officials received reports of a tornado touching down at 3:30 p.m. in Tracys Landing. There were also reports of a tornado in Chesapeake Beach, where Trader's Steak and Seafood House was nearly destroyed and dozens of other buildings were damaged. At least three people were injured, including, officials said, a construction worker seriously wounded when he was struck in the head by debris.
The storms disrupted Metrorail during the afternoon rush between East Falls Church and stations west to Vienna. Normal service resumed at 6:27 p.m.
In the evening, Pepco reported about 159,200 customers without power across the District, Montgomery and Prince George's. Baltimore Gas and Electric reported 65,281 outages among its customers in the Washington area. In Northern Virginia, about 250,000 customers were without power, Dominion Virginia Power reported. By 11 p.m., the numbers had fallen to 140,000 for Pepco, 64,000 for BGE and 179,000 for Dominion.
But officials cautioned that it would take time to restore all power.
"There was not any area seen that was spared," said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokeswoman.
Montgomery school officials said last night that more than 70 schools were without power, while their counterparts in Prince George's reported more than 40 in the dark.
"It's obvious I can't run the system tomorrow," Prince George's Superintendent John E. Deasy said last night.
Still, he said, graduations tomorrow will go on as scheduled. In Montgomery, commencements for Blake, Walt Whitman and Wheaton high schools will also take place tomorrow. A decision had not been made last night on ceremonies for the Stephen Knolls School and Regional Institute for Children & Adolescents, officials said.
In Alexandria, Bob Schurk was sitting at his desk at the Lyceum, the city's history museum, yesterday afternoon when a covered walkway about 20 feet away collapsed. "I heard a very, very, very loud thunderclap. The loudest of my life," he said. "And right after that thunderclap, I heard a very loud thud, and the building shook."
Schurk said he looked outside to see that a tree had landed on one side of the wooden roof covering the 40-foot walkway and caused the length of the roof and the columns that supported it to fall. "It was like dominoes," he said.
Staff writers Lori Aratani, Bill Brubaker, Michael Alison Chandler, Daniel de Vise, David A. Fahrenthold, Christy Goodman, Jenna Johnson, Kristen Mack, Nelson Hernandez, Ian Shapira, Elissa Silverman, Sandhya Somashekhar, Lena H. Sun, Theresa Vargas, Clarence Williams and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.