A tornado of true terror

Last updated 05:00 07/12/2012

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The final toll was three dead, seven hospitalised and hundreds displaced and terrified.

A tornado that appeared in the sky over north-west Auckland yesterday saw residents cowering in cupboards and wardrobes as their houses were torn apart, trees up-rooted and living rooms laid bare to the elements.

Across the road from the houses destroyed on suburban Wallingford Way, Hobsonville, the tornado turned lethal.

Construction workers building a new secondary school were killed when the tornado flicked over massive concrete tilt-slab walls, crushing them and what looked like the flat bed of a truck.

Plumber Sam Nuthall watched in horror as his work mates disappeared beneath the 15m concrete panels.

"There was about two or three of them (panels) that tipped over and a couple landed on the truck and one landed half on the ground and half on the truck. That was the one that landed on top of the two guys.

"There was one guy, he wasn't in the truck he was at the front of the truck, sort of. He obviously got caught as it was coming down. But then another guy, Tom, I knew the guy, he got caught right under it."

Fairfax understands two of the men were crushed but confusion surrounds the third casualty whose whereabouts are unknown.

The tornado touched down on a relatively small part of the Auckland suburb with the devastation stretching roughly one kilometre mainly along Wallingford Way.

Homeowner Debbie Booty stood in the ruins of her house and described being home alone when the twister struck.

She sheltered indoors from the torrential rain but then the windows began rattling and trees swaying.

Suddenly, without warning, the tornado hit.

"I knew it was bad when I saw empty flower pots flying past the window."

She took shelter in the bathroom but one by one the windows blew in, leaving a broken glass coating the floors of her home.

Scared for her life, she took shelter in a hallway cupboard.

When she emerged she looked up at where her ceiling used to be and saw the sky.

Walls were broken and almost every window smashed.

"I'm just shaking and in shock," she said.
 
She joined about 250 other people driven from their homes who were sheltering at near-by Whenuapai Air Force Base.

"It's just so close to Christmas. We're safe though, everything else is just things."

A couple of doors down the road, Alex Butson's first thought was to save his girlfriend.

"I got the washing in because it started to drizzle, but then it just picked up from nowhere.

"It was rubbish day so everyone's wheelie bins were just flying down the road."

His girlfriend, Melanie Kassian, was downstairs in the kitchen.

As he sprinted down the stairs to his girlfriend the first window shattered.

In the kitchen, Kassian suffered a gash to her foot as the windows blew in.

She ran behind the kitchen door to shield her face from flying glass.

"I was pushing the door with all my weight but it [glass] was still coming in.," she said.

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"It sounded like someone was breaking into a house."

Butson at this stage had reached her in the kitchen.

"I ran down and threw her under the stairs. That's when the second window and top window blew out."

As she huddled under the stairs, the whole roof blew off and windows shattered.

Outside, trees were uprooted.

Their house was evacuated as it was deemed unsafe.

By the afternoon, 220 homes were declared uninhabitable in Whenuapai and Hobsonville and were evacuated.

Prime Minister John Key offered his condolences and will visit the site of the destruction today.

An ambulance spokeswoman said five crews attended different scenes and Air Force rescue and security crews could be seen pitching in with fire and police services.

Seven people were admitted to hospital with a variety of injuries.

Along with the wind damage, torrential rain flooded homes and brought motorways to stand-stills.

Auckland Council said winds of up to 150kmh were recorded and 21mm of rain fell in 10 minutes.

The suburbs of Henderson, Greenhithe and Riverhead were still without power last night.

University of Canterbury eteorology lecturer Dr Marwan Katurji said the North Island's west coast was "more vulnerable to westerly and northerly winds that are associated with weather fronts".

"Warm moist air from the warmer Tasman Sea carries within it embedded thunderstorms. When the air hits land it interacts with the topography to create convergence zones and the wind speeds are higher in these areas and the storms get more severe in this case.

"The Auckland region is one of the hot spots for this activity which promotes tornadoes, though Taranaki region is the record holder."

Yesterday's tornado weather closely paralleled a tornado which struck Albany in North Auckland on 3 May last year, just 12 kilometres away.

Fletcher Construction worker Benedict Dacayan, 37, was working on demolishing an old Placemakers building in Albany when he was picked up by 200km/hr winds and slammed into a concrete car park.

Two of his colleagues were also seriously injured.

- Auckland Now

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