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Investigators Assess Whether Tornado Hit N.Y.C.

A car is crushed by a fallen tree in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood on Thursday after a storm swept through New York City.
Mark Lennihan
A car is crushed by a fallen tree in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood on Thursday after a storm swept through New York City.

Residents, utility crews and railroad workers were cleaning up debris a day after a severe thunderstorm cut across New York City at the height of rush hour, blowing down trees, stripping roofs from homes, disrupting train service and killing at least one person.

The National Weather Service was to dispatch investigators to assess whether a tornado touched down Thursday evening during the storm and whether twisted trees provide any evidence. Tornado warnings had been issued for Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens.

Officials at Long Island Rail Road, the nation's largest commuter rail line, said crews were working through the night to clear tracks of fallen trees, which caused service to be suspended temporarily between Penn Station in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens. They expected to have full service restored in time for the morning rush hour.

Police closed the gates to Penn Station and used bull-horns to direct thousands of commuters to Brooklyn subways. Lines at taxi stands and bus-stops stretched for blocks.

At least 30,000 customers were without power Thursday night, according to Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison. He said hardest hit was Queens, with 27,000 outages.

A huge tree limb, like 25 feet long, flew right up the street ... and stopped in the middle of the air 50 feet up in this intersection and started spinning. It was like a poltergeist.

Shaun Gerien of member station WSHU reported that a woman was killed when a tree fell on her car in Queens. Driver Iline Levakis, 30, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was pronounced dead at the scene and a 60-year-old passenger suffered minor injuries, police said. Numerous minor injuries were reported elsewhere.

"The good news is that most people were safe, just annoyed — traffic being bad or a tree coming down in their yard," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after touring storm damage in Queens.

Residents were awed by the power of the swift storm.

"A huge tree limb, like 25 feet long, flew right up the street, up the hill and stopped in the middle of the air 50 feet up in this intersection and started spinning," said Steve Carlisle, 54. "It was like a poltergeist."

"Then all the garbage cans went up in the air and this spinning tree hits one of them like it was a bat on a ball. The can was launched way, way over there," he said, pointing at a building about 120 feet away where a metal garbage can lay flattened.

Fire officials were inspecting 10 buildings in Brooklyn whose roofs were peeled off or tattered by the wind.

"The wind was holding my ceiling up in the air. It was like a wave, it went up and fell back down," said Ruby Ellis, 58, who was doing dishes in her top-floor kitchen when the storm hit. "After the roof went up, then all the rain came down and I had a flood."

A neighbor in an adjacent building, Julian Amy, said he was sitting in his first-floor apartment when the storm barreled down his street. "I just heard a loud boom," said the 33-year-old. "I thought it was a truck accident."

Residents of the top floors of the buildings were evacuated. A structural engineer was called in to assess the damage.

Investigators planned to spend several hours Friday looking over the area and mapping out the width and intensity of the storm to determine whether a tornado touched down, said Kyle Struckmann, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Eight twisters have hit New York City since 1950, he said. The last was in July, when a small one hit the Bronx during a thunderstorm that left thousands without power. In 2007, a tornado with winds up to 135 mph touched down in Staten Island and in Brooklyn, where it damaged homes and ripped the roof off a car dealership.

On Thursday, a grateful Townsend Davis stood outside his Brooklyn home, where a 40-foot tree that was uprooted from the sidewalk and crushed two cars still had a sign in the soil around its roots that read "Respect the trees."

"Someone up there wasn't listening," said Davis, 47. "I'm just glad it fell that way, as bad as I feel for the owners of that car, because if it fell this way, my house wouldn't be here."

Davis' children and wife were in the home when the storm hit.

"All of a sudden, we saw this dark cloud, and it was moving. I said 'Let's go in!' " said Stephen Wylie, who was working in a backyard in Brooklyn.

Within seconds, the front door started lashing back and forth. Tree branches were falling and trees came flying from other yards, Wylie said.

"They smashed the whole backyard, a gazebo there. Then half the roof was torn off — eight layers of it" — leaving only a layer of wood, he said.

In Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, witnesses say the sky went pitch black at about 5:30 p.m. Trees started waving around like blades of grass. Large branches snapped and hit cars, smashing windshields.

Tashunna Williams, 19, was one of thousands of commuters stranded at Pennsylvania Station, waiting for word on when they might be able to get a train back home.

"It's horrible," said the Uniondale teenager. "I'm ready to go home."

Shaun Gerien of member station WSHU contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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