A small tornado, born of storms that battered the Philadelphia region with heavy rain, touched down in the Far Northeast at midafternoon Wednesday, smashing a car-repair shop, crushing a beer distributorship, and ripping the roof off a crab house.
The mini-swirl of destruction, which also slightly damaged an apartment building and left three people in need of Red Cross care, carried winds of about 75 m.p.h., the National Weather Service said.
The tornado vanished as quickly as it appeared, touching at 1:50 p.m., and bumping along for just 300 feet, cutting a path of wreckage 100 feet wide.
Residents and shoppers in the area of Bustleton Avenue and Red Lion Road ran for safety, and police reported no injuries.
"I heard the wind," said Benjamin Fisher, who lives about 50 yards from where the tornado alighted in the 9900 block of Northeast Avenue. "It was so loud I went to the window, and that's when I saw stuff flying around in the yard."
The wind blast caved in the roof of R&R Car Repair, leaving the building looking as if a giant had stepped on it.
Next door, the roof of the Beer Hut collapsed, causing flooding in the store. Torn-off shingles, signs, and debris littered the grass around the buildings, and a small tree lay on its side.
Benny the Bum's Seafood Restaurant & Bar, a well-known neighborhood watering hole, lost part of its roof.
"We were cleaning some equipment out back, and it almost sounded like a train," said Bret Levy, whose family owns the business.
"It was really dramatic," he said. "It lasted a few minutes and calmed down after that. But for that time, no one knew what was going on, and it was pretty scary."
The Red Cross said at least three people in a small apartment building needed assistance because their unit was unsafe to enter.
"These residents have been provided financial assistance for food and clothing," Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Smith said. "We will provide shelter if they need it. That is still being determined."
The storm was so concentrated in size that an Acme Market close by never even had to close its doors.
Everyone, it seemed, remembered the sound.
Meg Giamboy was ringing up a customer in the Beer Hut and had just stepped outside for a bag of ice when the wind picked up.
"It sounded like a siren, and I saw it was really dark out," she said. "It was all gray around me. Then signs started blowing over, and stuff was flying through the air. I really thought something was going to hit me."
Giamboy ran back inside, crying, but the danger seemed to subside almost as soon as it started.
"It wasn't even a minute," she said. "It was over real quick."
Allison Pollack, a Northeast resident, had just left a medical building in the area and climbed into her car.
"I looked up and saw a dark, dark, grayish-black thing turning in the air. . . . There was stuff flying through the air," she said.
"I ran back into the medical building and started yelling there was a tornado across the street," she said. "When I got back outside, it had dissipated."
Dean Iovino, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storm was a minimal tornado - an EF-O on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
Small tornados aren't unusual in the Philadelphia region, with sightings once or twice a year.
In August 1991, a twister caused considerable damage to parts of the area, including Chestnut Hill, where the Morris Arboretum lost many stately trees.
During 1994, at least 11 confirmed tornadoes touched down in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and one killed three people in a home in Limerick Township, Montgomery County.
Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writers Kia Gregory and Sam Wood contributed to this article.