It was Jim McDonnell’s 70th birthday Thursday, and he decided to stop by the casino at the Hamburg Fairgrounds to celebrate.
“On your birthday they give you some freebies,” he said.
He was at the slots at about 12:30 p.m. when the lights suddenly shut off and he heard what sounded like a dozen bombs detonating.
“We heard: Boom! Boom! And the rain was pouring down like crazy,” he described.
That was the first of two tornadoes that touched down in the Southtowns during the noon hour.
Investigators from the National Weather Service's Buffalo office said it tore a destructive path 5 miles long and as much as 700 feet wide from Hamburg through Orchard Park, hitting Chestnut Ridge Park. Top winds were estimated at 105 mph.
Lower end of Chestnut Ridge Park has lots of tree damage. Old trees snapped or blown over. Can follow path of storm through park pic.twitter.com/gZmZ4ZpZqX
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) July 20, 2017
The second tornado struck in the Town of Holland at about 12:50 p.m., investigators said. They determined that it cut a path 2 1/2 miles long and up to 500 feet wide with top winds estimated at 95 mph.
"Several structures were damaged with a significant amount of tree damage," the investigators reported. "Roads were blocked and wires were downed. Tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railway were blocked in several places by large downed trees."
Incredibly, no serious injuries had been reported to the authorities as of Thursday evening, but the funnel cloud downed hundreds of trees and power lines, ripped roofs off houses and tossed patio furniture and garbage totes across lawns and streets.
More than 20,000 customers lost power after the storm hit and debris-covered roads prompted Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to issue a “no unnecessary travel advisory” for southern Erie County.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo flew in from New York City and traveled to the Hamburg Fairgrounds Thursday evening to assess the damage.
Standing before strewn and splintered picnic tables, he said that additional crews had been called in from neighboring power companies to help restore electrical service, noting that "half the cases can be easily restored tonight."
He added that about 50 additional state troopers also had been called in to assist.
He praised local officials for their prompt action and cooperation.
"They all came together and worked together as a team," he said.
"Mother Nature likes to test us, I think," he added. "Seven feet of snow — that was a test. Flooding was a test. A tornado was a high-level test. Buffalo and Erie County are ready for it and can handle it."
A video of a car being picked up by the wind and moved several feet went viral after Kevin Karas of Hamburg posted it.
Posted by Kevin Karas on Thursday, July 20, 2017
While a storm team from the National Weather Service was determining if an actual tornado had touched down, many local officials were already assuming that it was indeed a true tornado — a rare occurrence in the Buffalo area. The last one to hit Erie County was on June 30, 2006, in Cheektowaga, according to the weather service.
The sudden change in air pressure blew out the windows of at least 100 cars parked outside the casino, including McDonnell’s new 2017 Ford Explorer.
“What a way to celebrate my birthday,” he said.
But there was a bit of good news. While the windows of his SUV were shattered, the nice bottle of Tommyrotter vodka in his vehicle, a gift that his sister gave him, somehow survived. “I’m going to have my neighbors over and we’re going to have a drink,” he said.
More than 3,000 people were at the fairgrounds when the storm hit, said Erie County Fair CEO Dennis Lang.
He described what it looked like at the McKinley Parkway entrance of the fairgrounds as the funnel cloud formed.
"I saw the black clouds start to spin, and everything just kind of raised up," he said. "I would call it a rotation of clouds. I'm not a weather expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly had my attention."
After the winds blew through, he assessed the damage. "Power lines are down, the east grandstand lost its roof, lost its announcer's stand for the race track ... it blew out the back wall, our umbrellas that were throughout the fairgrounds have been blown away. Bleachers have been blown away," he said.
Marty Biniasz, the fair's marketing director, said that a 20-person work crew atop the grandstands had taken its lunch break just before the first tornado hit.
"You could have imagined what would've taken place," he said. Biniasz added that the first storm had already mowed through the grounds before his staff received any emergency alerts.
Lang vowed the Erie County Fair would be ready to open Aug. 9, as scheduled. The Raceway announced that would cancel the rest of season because of the storm damage. There was just one weekend left in the racing season.
Whatever blew through the area caused widespread damage Thursday.
Dan Neaverth, emergency services coordinator for Erie County, said the winds came from the lake shore area of Hamburg, blew through the fairgrounds, then to southern part of Orchard Park, moved on to the West Falls/Colden area and then headed to Wyoming County. They will determine whether it was straight line winds or tornado depending on the type of damage to trees, he said.
The weather service’s storm team was looking for twisted wreckage along with evidence of a clear path with damage on either side, explained meteorologist Steve Welch.
The storm blasted through Orchard Park, where several homes lost their roofs.
Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick J. Keem was in a budget meeting in Town Hall when the skies turned dark and the wind picked up.
Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec told him the south end of town, including Chestnut Ridge Park had been hit, with trees and power lines down and roads closed. "He said it’s real bad. He had a look on his face like he saw a ghost,” Keem said.
“Up by Newton Road the chief said some trees were ripped in the air and came down right through the roofs of homes,” Keem said.
Keem’s wife was home in Eagle Heights at the time. “She said it was horrible, deer running through the woods,” Keem said. “She grabbed our dog and ran in the cellar. She said she never heard anything like it.”
In West Falls, where Elizabeth Czajkowski and her friend Brittany Fallon were hanging out with their children at Czajkowski’s house, a tornado warning sounded on their phones. Czajkowski looked at the weather radar on her phone and saw a tornado was headed straight toward her neighborhood.
“It was five minutes away,” she said.
Czajkowski grabbed her daughter, Autumn, and her dog and Fallon picked up her infant son, Cash, and they ran to the basement.
“Just as I was getting to the stairs, you could see it. You could see everything spinning branches and leaves everywhere,” she said.
The women and their children stayed in the basement for about 10 minutes as rainwater seeped in.
They came back up and saw the damage. Czajkowski’s house was fine but many of the trees in her backyard had fallen down. They lost power too.
“Tornadoes are actually my No. 1 fear,” she said.
In the Town of Holland, Amy Hewson and Marty Benzinger both left work early after hearing about the tornado. They came home to a blocked-off driveway and an uprooted oak tree.
"The house is OK. The animals are fine, but the trees just took a beating," Hewson said.
For about 45 minutes Benzinger cleaned up trees on Lewis so that cars would have a clear path to pass. Their property however will take several days, possibly weeks, to clean up, he said.
But they already have friends texting them with offers to help, Hewson added.
Staff reporters Joseph Popiolkowski, Barbara O'Brien and Stacy Fernandez contributed to this report.