Suspected Tornado Decimates Shopping Centers In Wilkes-Barre; 6 Injured
WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Six people suffered minor injuries but there were no fatalities in what emergency officials say was a suspected tornado that descended on Wilkes-Barre Twp. Wednesday night, causing widespread destruction. The scene along Mundy Street on Thursday morning resembled a war zone, with debris in the streets and damage to most structures. A number of businesses at the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons and Arena Hub Plaza had collapsed roofs, broken windows and damages signs. Power lines were downed in the streets and parking lots, along with overturned cars. “I never seen anything like this in my life,” township Mayor Carl Kuren said at the scene Thursday morning. “It’s devastating, and the only thing — we’re fortunate it didn’t happen an hour earlier because the mall and everything was still open. It could have been a catastrophe.”
Video Courtesy of Access Ariel
The storm came through around 10 p.m. Wednesday, following a tornado warning the National Weather Service issued. While many businesses were winding down for the day at that point, the people who remained reported chaos. “It was something out of a horror movie,” said Joy Frie, 18, of Wilkes-Barre. Frie was working as a bartender at Teasers, a gentlemen’s club on Mundy Street near the Ken Pollock Nissan Dealership and U-Haul. “The doors were busting open. Almost everyone’s cars in the parking lot were destroyed. We had no cell phone service. We had no idea what was going on,” Frie said. Downed power wires trapped them inside the building as the fumes from a nearby gas leak infiltrated, she said. Staff and patrons huddled in a kitchen for over an hour until they were allowed to escape to the Sonic Drive-in restaurant at the other end of the Wyoming Valley Mall parking lot. Police Chief Ron Smith said the six injured people suffered only minor wounds and were not hospitalized. “They were able to be treated on the scene and then they walked away,” he said. Kingston police Chief Michael Krzywicki said his officers helped secure buildings shortly after the storm passed. At one point, looters were reportedly spotted fleeing with steaks from Outback Steakhouse. “That’s how fast they were up here,” he said. It wasn’t immediately clear if looting occurred or was attempted at other businesses. Smith said responders removed the guns and ammunition from Dick’s Sporting Goods as a safeguard, and that they had also evacuated the Petco and PetSmart stores of the animals for their safety. The damage in the area was extensive. The roof appeared to have been torn off of the entire strip of stores in the Panera Bread building, and the Sprint and Stations Grill storefronts in the Ashley Furniture Store plaza had gaping holes in their roofs. Kurlancheek Home Furnishings and U-Haul also suffered extensive roof damage. “If you look right across the road from here, you see parts of roof,” Smith said, surveying the scene. “It might be U-Haul’s roof. It might be part of a U-Haul vehicle. They’re ripped apart, and they’re laying all over the place. I was just talking to these people down at the flower tent. They had a Porta Potty. We have no clue where it’s at. It could be up on the mountain someplace.” Stan Davis, with the Keystone Incident Management Team, said crews were working Thursday to assess the extent of the damage at the scene. “They’ll be doing some structural assessment of the buildings to verify the condition of the buildings,” Davis said. “From that point, decisions will have to be made as far as what to be done with the buildings, whether they are recoverable or not.” Gov. Tom Wolf planned to tour the scene later Thursday afternoon, and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said he was working to get aide for the township through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its state counterpart. “Our goal here is to try to get all the utilities up and make things safe, and to try and get our businesses up and running as soon as possible,” Pashinski said. “This is an all hands on deck.” The National Weather Service was also assessing the scene Thursday in an effort to determine if a tornado did in fact touch down, as officials at the scene said they suspected. As of Thursday morning, Mundy Street and the parking lot of the Wyoming Valley Mall were closed because of a propane leak from a tank at the U-Haul store, Smith said. The tank had about 500 gallons of propane remaining and was expected to continue venting for hours. Don Brominski, spokesman for UGI Utilities, said the storm damaged some of the utility’s gas meters but that the leaks had been stopped. “As we stand right now, we have no leaks,” Brominski said. “Our system is holding and safe at this point.” The mall and the businesses on Mundy Street between Highland Park Boulevard and Tambur Boulevard will remain closed Thursday, according to officials.