The College Park (Prince Georges County) Tornado of 2001 September 24

The temporary MFRI headquarters before the tornado

MFRI before the tornado

The remains of the MFRI building after the tornado; Ann and Imogen were inside with 5 others

The remains of the MFRI building

Until 2001 September 24 we tended to look on tornado watch warnings as an exciting possibility to see something dramatic but harmless: after all, tornados never touch down in suburban Maryland. That all changed when an F3 tornado with winds close to 200 mph ("solid" F3) touched down at about 5:30 pm on a hill on the University of Maryland campus, beside the University President's residence and just behind the portable building temporarily then housing the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute MFRI) headquarters, where my wife Ann Harris Davidson then worked.

The path of the tornado from MFRI past Performing Arts

Path of the tornado
The tornado proceeded north at 30 mph, right through the building and down the hill, across Stadium Drive, over the top of Easton Hall and through the dorms, across Lot 2 and the Center for Young Children, up the hill on the far side of Lot 9, down the other side and back across the intersection of University Blvd and Metzerott Ave where it took down the steeple of the church on the corner, through the University Courtyard apartments, snapping huge trees in the swamp beyond and across the north end of Paint Branch Golf Course before de-roofing Home Depot and Linens'n'Things on Cherry Hill Rd, then more damage as far as Laurel. 

Ann and our daughter Imogen Davidson White were in the MFRI building (Imogen was there after school to take advantage of Ann's fast Internet connection for a French project) and knew that a storm was coming but they had not heard anything about the possibility of a tornado locally: when they felt a sudden drop in pressure they looked out and saw debris whipping by the windows and dived under the nearest desks. The main funnel passed right through the center of the building and out the other side; the building appears to have been shredded. Amazingly all those in the building survived, but with varying degrees of injury. Ann's colleague Toby was in the adjacent smaller photocopying building and was thrown about 80 yards across the parking lot; MFRI's huge photocopier was thrown 50 yards. Toby's dog Muffin was with him but was never found. Ann was right in the path of the funnel and was left in the open when it passed, everything around her having been sucked away. She held on to the carpet fixed to the concrete floor of the building and a table leg while the tornado was pulling her legs upwards. She suffered bruises and scratches on her knees and lower legs where debris struck them, and a number of heavy cinder blocks from the base of the adjacent building 20 yards away landed a few feet from where her head was. Imogen was under a solid desk which was completely covered with rubble when the building fell apart: she was not excavated for another 40 minutes. She suffered a sharp bruise on one arm and skin scraped off her elbow. If you look at the photos of the state of the building after the tornado, it is extraordinary that their injuries were not worse.

Tragically, the daughters of Pat Marlatt, Ann's close colleague, had just left the building and were driving away when the funnel picked them up and carried the car several hundred yards, over one of the high-rise dorms, before dropping the car into the woods beyond. They will be sadly missed by everyone who knew them. Pat himself was in the middle of the MFRI building and suffered severe lacerations on the head when the building collapsed; he was the last to be extricated.

Our 2001 Accord featured prominently in many of the press photos, sitting forlornly with its trunk open, on top of a tree with a white van sitting on its nose. Copies of Washington Post (with quotes from Ann and Imogen) and Baltimore Sun stories on the tornado are on this site and the Baltimore Sun article on the Marlatt sisters. In addition, the Baltimore Sun has extensive coverage of the tornado and the Washington Post has a photo gallery. More images are accessible from a menu below.

I work in the Space Sciences building on campus, about half a mile from the MFRI building and one-third of a mile from the tornado path. Our part of the building faces away from the tornado path, so we had no view of it. We certainly were all aware that an amazing storm had gone by, but none of us knew that it was a tornado. We were all gathered in the hallways talking about it for some time afterwards. Then after about 30 minutes it became clear that things were more serious: a colleague called from the Center for Young Children to say that they weren't allowed to leave, and there was a report that the new Performing Arts Center had lost its roof.

When I heard this I became worried, because I knew that the new building was very solid and unlikely to have lost its roof, and I definitely knew that if any building in that area had been damaged, it would be the portable trailer housing MFRI where I knew Ann and Imogen to be. At that point I left our building to go up to  MFRI, through the rain still falling. I started seeing damage at the practice soccer fields, where goals had been tossed over the fence. In the shadow of Byrd Stadium were trees that had been snapped off half-way up. I walked around the stadium parking garage  to Stadium Drive where emergency vehicles were already parked, and down past the Performing Arts Center. When I turned the corner at the bottom of the hill and looked up towards the MFRI building, I could not believe my eyes, because none of the things I expected to see were there. There was just a pile of rubble where the buildings had stood and my mind did not want to accept that image. I walked up towards the rubble with fear rising in my throat, because I didn't see how anyone could have survived the destruction visible, but I was trying to force my mind not to panic. The rest of that walk was a terrifying sequence of the power of the tornado: a solid long-bed trailer thrown against a pile of cars, trees ripped out or broken off. When I got within about 150 yards I could see some people standing in the rubble, and a little closer I was overjoyed to recognize one of them as Ann. Imogen had already been extracted and sent to shelter in the Performing Arts Center, due to erroneous reports of another impending storm. Brian Fuselier was badly injured and had been taken to the hospital, but Pat Marlatt was still trapped in the wreckage at that stage and rescue personnel were moving in. They were delayed in arriving because there was some confusion between the new Performing Arts Center and the old Tawes building on the other side of campus.

The La Plata tornado crossing Chesapeake Bay.

Update: On 2002 April 28, an F4 tornado struck southern Maryland (La Plata), killing four people and destroying many buildings. This was initially thought to have been an F5 tornado and may have been the most severe tornado recorded in Maryland. La Plata was also the site of Maryland's most deadly tornado on November 9, 1926, when 17 people died, most of them in a small schoolhouse in La Plata.

A tree memorial for the Marlatt sisters has been planted at La Plata Beach, a popular recreation area for campus students lying between two clusters of high-rise dorms (La Plata Hall and Cumberland Hall). Two small crosses consisting of rough-hewn stone cubes have been placed at the edge of the woods north of Easton Hall, close to the site where the sisters' car came to rest.

There is little trace of the College Park tornado now visible around the MFRI site: the University bulldozed the area within a few days in order to prepare for the opening of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center the next weekend.  The tree trunks in the swamp to the north of the MFRI building were removed, young trees were planted on the hillside above (south of) the MFRI building, and the area of the trailer building and its parking lot is now a grassy hillside. On the other side of Stadum Drive some landscaping between Easton Hall and University Blvd has been donated by a local company.

An access trail has now been cut through the woods fringing University Blvd on the west (golf course) side, probably to allow dead trees to be cleared. The damage in this area, about 200 yards away from the main tornado track through campus on the east side of divided University Boulevard, is extensive and makes you wonder whether it was produced by a second funnel, widely reported and probably visible in some of the long-range images of the tornado in College Park.

MNCPPC is now (January 2003) erecting informational signs on the Paint Branch Stream bike path, running along side Paint Branch Golf Course between campus and the Beltway, about the tornado damage that is still very visible there; they apparently plan not to do any clearing and to allow the area to recover naturally. To the north of the golf course, however, extensive clearing of the forest is taking place.

The College Park tornado and the damage at MFRI is the subject of one of the 30 minute "Storm Stories" produced by Tower Productions for the Weather Channel and premiereing in January 2003.  The program features extensive interviews with the Marlatts and with Ann and Imogen.

Ann and Imogen were also featured in a Jane Pauley Show on survivors that aired locally on September 24, 2004. They were flown up to New York to do an interview in front of a live audience. The survivors featured in this program were apparently picked by Jim Cantori of the Weather Channel, who remarked that he remembered the College Park tornado for the tragedy of the Marlatt family.

The College Park tornado now has its own Wikipedia page

On 2008 April 20, two small tornadoes touched down in Maryland during a day of storms from a low-pressure system to the south-east: an F1 struck a Seventh-Day Adventist primary school in Chillum, between Hyattsville and the DC border in Prince Georges County; and much to Tony Kornheiser's delight, the La Plata area (actually, St. Charles, closer to Waldorf) was hit once again, this time by an F0.


Catherine Plaisant's digital camera images of the MFRI site (large 1600x1200 files, 700 kB, annotated): Some of our photos (typically 400 kB): AP photos (small): Peter Teuben's photo: