The brief but violent storm brought down a tree onto a vehicle in the Park… (Mark Lennihan / Associated…)
Reporting from New York — A storm that thundered through New York City on Thursday turned the afternoon sky black, unleashed tornado-like squalls and stunned even jaded city dwellers with its ferocity, killing at least one person and stranding tens of thousands of evening commuters.
Officials suspended access to overcrowded Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan, where people were locked shoulder to shoulder after fallen trees forced a halt to commuter rail traffic.
In Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, the boroughs hit hardest by the storm, locals used axes to hack at trees that in some cases had crashed across stairways and front porches, trapping people inside homes.
New York has had more than its share of bizarre weather this year — its biggest snowfall in February, its hottest summer. But the 5:30 p.m. onslaught appeared to beat them all with its sudden arrival on what had been a relatively cool, calm day.
Shortly after the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings, the skies turned dark and the wind picked up. Within minutes, blinding lightning followed by deafening thunder swept through the city. Hail and rain fell in horizontal sheets, pelting people as they left their offices for the day.
"It was like Iraq — the front line," one man told NY1, the city's all-news television station.
"It felt like the Wizard of Oz," a woman told the station.
Others described whooshing noises, train-like rumblings and the sounds of loud cracks as lightning struck and trees snapped.
"I actually started to pray. I was very frightened," Antonia Ritorto of Staten Island's Tottenville neighborhood said. "It came so quickly. The sky got so dark. The rain was sideways — the water was coming in through the windows."
On the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, a motorist died when a tree fell across the road, said Joe Bruno of the city's Office of Emergency Management. Winds reached 80 mph, he said.
The storm evaporated as suddenly as it arrived. Within half an hour, tornado warnings were lifted, the skies lightened and people went outside to survey the damage, which weather officials had not yet confirmed was caused by tornadoes.
"Whether it was or not is not really the issue," Bruno said. "It was a very severe storm."