Tornado rips roof from sporting arena, tears apart businesses in Billings, Mont.

By Matt Brown, AP
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tornado rips businesses, arena in Billings, Mont.

BILLINGS, Mont. — A tornado that ripped the roof off a sports arena Sunday evening also tore through businesses, damaging a bar and a casino and leaving just the walls of an auto glass shop standing.

The tornado struck at about 4:30 p.m. as a big storm system with golf ball-sized hail passed through the area, National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier said.

After running through Main Street in the city’s northeast area, the twister quickly moved toward the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena about a half-mile away, where it hovered for about 15 minutes, snapping trees and telephone poles.

“It would touch down and suck back up and touch down and touch down again,” said Trooper Toman Baukema of the Montana Highway Patrol, who saw the tornado from a patrol station about a mile away.

Big pieces of metal could be seen hanging from power lines near the arena, and tangles of insulation and metal debris were strewn for hundreds of yards in the surrounding industrial area.

There were several employees inside the arena when it struck, but there were no reports of injuries, Baukema said.

There were no reported deaths and no one has been reported missing, Billings police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said last Sunday.

The only reported injury was from someone who got hit in the head by a hail stone. City officials were working to clean up the mess and were dealing with power outages and flooding from the storm, which sent about 2 feet of water into many city streets.

Wind speeds from the tornado were estimated to range between 111 and 135 mph, Meier said. The last time Yellowstone County, which includes Billings, had that scale of a tornado was July 2, 1958, he said.

John Schilling said he saw the tornado approach Sunday as he was driving north on Main Street with his son. He had taken shelter under a carport at a motel because of the heavy hail and strong winds.

After a few minutes, Schilling saw the twister envelop the Main Street Casino and a laundromat, then start to head south in his direction, hitting other businesses as it went.

“Then the roof came flying off that print shop, so we kept going,” the 42-year-old said. “I wasn’t going to stick around.”

The tornado also picked up the roof from the Fas-Break Auto Glass and dumped it into a nearby creek. At least 10 businesses along the street suffered some sort of damage.

Fas-Break owner Kevin Massick and several members of his family picked through the rubble of the shop, trying to salvage what they could. But there was little left.

“I’m in a total daze,” Massick said, his face creased with emotion and tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s a total loss, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Start over, I guess.”

Main Street was shut down in one direction several hours after the tornado struck as bulldozers cleared debris. The other direction was jammed with cars that slowly moved northbound as drivers and passengers gawked at the destruction.

About 20 Montana Army National Guard members were to watch over the damaged properties overnight, Iffland said.

Buildings near the arena at the MetraPark expo center, which also includes a racing track and several pavilions, appeared to have suffered little damage. The arena is the center’s main venue and often hosts rodeos, monster truck shows, concerts and graduation ceremonies.

Crews were working to shut off a gas leak at a commercial strip mall near Main Street, authorities said. Utility crews were also working to repair downed power lines.

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