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An enhanced and sped up portion of security camera footage given to me by Mike Trazzera, showing the rampage of the twister through the Willow Oaks subdivision.

This is the first chapter of a three-part series focusing on the Mullica Hill-Mantua Township-Wenonah-Deptford, NJ, EF3 Tornado of September 1, 2021. A section map depicting the location of various stories and EF-scale trends in intensity can be found below. To return to the overview page of this twister, click here.

EF Scale and Location Map

The beginnings of the thunderstorm that would produce this tornado formed around 4 pm EDT in far eastern Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. Over the course of two hours, the storm matured into a supercell that became a concern for meteorologists. A group of five students from Millersville University decided to chase this storm and intercepted the rotating system when it was located between Woodstown and Upper Pittsgrove, NJ. Here is part of an account from one of those students, Evan Newman:

“We positioned ourselves close enough, but appropriately away from the rotation’s path, and a very discrete wall cloud was developing with rapid rotation beginning just ahead of us. It was difficult to spot exactly where this wall cloud was, as it was being camouflaged by drooping fractus clouds. But we knew the soon-to-be tornado was heading north at a very fast speed towards Mullica Hill. We drove after the tornado and eventually caught up close enough where we began to see damage left in its path.”

A photo of the storm taken by Evan Newman.

It was a few minutes later that the twister formed. As discussed in the overview page, the exact starting location is somewhat unclear. My initial formation point is 3.1 miles south of Mullica Hill at 6:16 pm EDT, between Commissioners and Elk Roads. Wisps of mist-like cloud drifted up into the storm below an ominous dark lowering. Several trees were sporadically uprooted before it moved into the eastern half of a neighborhood along Rose Drive. A few residences lost bits of siding, but structural effects otherwise remained minor. Thousands of feet above the ground, radar showed an extremely well organized storm.

Several images from Ray Kulpa were stitched together to show damage near Rose Drive.

A short clip given to me by David Gibson of the beginning of the tornado. 

Tree uprooting became very defined as it crossed Fislerville Road. Paneling, roofing, and other exterior cosmetic damage was noted to a few houses lining the street. In just a couple of seconds, however, the twister became stronger by several orders of magnitude. A grove of trees on the southern side of Joanne Court was snapped. A hundred yards north, homes on Marvin Lane in the Willow Oaks subdivision were blasted by a developing single suction vortex at the heart of the tornado. Portions of walls and roofs gave way under the onslaught, and countless pieces of debris were propelled through the air at deadly speeds. The video below was taken by a driver on Fislerville Road and shows the crossing of the twister.

Tree damage near Joanne Court. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
Two homes that lost some of their walls on the south side of Marvin Lane. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.

Hindsight is 20/20, so I will tell everyone I meet, if there is ever an emergency put your shoes on.

Ashley Thomas

Troy and Ashley Thomas, along with their three and six-year-old daughters and family dog, were getting ready for dinner when tornado warnings sounded off on their phones. Troy wanted to finish cooking, but per a September 2, 2021 article in the Courier Post, Ashley (who was pregnant with their third child) responded, “Well, I’m going in the basement with the kids.” Her husband followed, and the family huddled in the corner of their basement.

The subvortex core practically dropped onto their two-story, 3,000 square foot home. In eight seconds, only a couple of battered walls remained upright. Much of the first and second floors were crushed into the basement around them while the remainder was strewn through their backyard.

A vertical perspective of the Ashley Thomas home from orthomosaics provided by Jamieson Allen and Fire Chief Scott Evans of Atlantic City Fire Department and Office of Emergency Management (EMA). Note how a shed at top left was blown first south and then bounced around the center of the vortex to the east, creating gouges in the lawn.

“Pipes were just bursting and spraying down. It was horrific. It was dark. And then it was light. Like, we had nothing, nothing over us anymore. We were just exposed,” Ashley recalled. As soon as the twister was gone, they scrambled to escape the ruins, which continued to shift and fall apart. Troy pushed their swing set out of the walk-up concrete basement steps, allowing them to escape. Ashley stated that the only reason they survived was because of that exit.

The remains of the house. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.

Still, the family did not get out entirely unscathed. In their haste to initially seek shelter, “We were all barefoot, which is why I have broken toes. We all have glass in our feet because then we had to run and get out and walk all over this debris, nails, glass.” Ashley was loaded into an ambulance. Per a September 3, 2021 article in The Morning Call, downed powerlines turned what was normally a seven-minute drive to the hospital into a two-hour trip. She was quickly treated and released.

The next morning, the family surveyed the remains of their home. The generosity of their community quickly followed. Per the previously mentioned piece by the Courier Post, “neighbors — some she just met for the first time – walked up with a hug and lists of items and food they were willing to bring to them. Neighbors asked for her children’s clothing and shoe sizes.”

Ashley also made this statement. “We love it here. You see our neighborhood. Everyone is fricking amazing. I don’t know how we ended up here to have all these wonderful people around us.”

Next door, Troy Bonnenberg’s residence lost its roof and multiple second-story walls. He and his family were safely sheltered in their basement and survived without injury. Troy recalled that his ears popped with the sudden pressure drop, but it was all too fast for him to experience fear. Mike Cassel’s home about 200 yards to the north was also badly torn up. When the tornado warning came on their phones he was in the shower, but his wife was able to alert him. The family also sought refuge in their basement. Per a September 2, 2021 article from NJ.com, they weren’t particularly concerned until “the windows exploded and it sounded like a train came through the house. We came out of the basement and we saw the back of the house destroyed. We were just in disbelief. It’s like you’re in a bad dream or a movie. We’re just assessing the damage now. Luckily we have good neighbors. We spent the night there and now we’re picking up the pieces.”

At right, the home of Troy Bonnenberg. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
Mike Cassel’s home after the storm. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
An aerial view of the wider neighborhood. Image provided by Jamieson Allen of Atlantic City EMA.

It took a tornado to redeem my faith in humanity.

Mike Trazzera

At the very far northeastern corner of the subdivision is the house of Mike Trazzera. We had the opportunity to interview him months after the event. He and his wife knew that there was the potential for tornadoes that day and were watching the news for more information on the warning they had received. What struck Mike about this situation compared to previous events was that this time, the reporters weren’t saying there *might* be a tornado in the general *area*; they believed there *would* be a twister in *Mullica Hill*. It was this language that Mike said “spooked” them into taking the threat a little more seriously.

Mike noticed how ominously the clouds were swirling around them. There was no rain, and it was eerily quiet, with only flocks of birds flying about. He went outside and began to film. He was underneath the outer part of a wall cloud, the bottom of a thunderstorm’s rotating mesocyclone. At the center of it was a bowl-shaped protrusion that grew more and more defined. A faint rushing noise began to grow louder and louder. He realized that this was the actual tornado and retreated inside the home. Mike filmed for a few more seconds before he, his wife, and their dog retreated to the basement just in time. One minute after taking shelter, he began to climb the stairs again.

The sound of part of the roof being ripped off the Trazzera residence. Audio taken from a cellphone video provided by Mike Trazzera. 

The first sign that something was amiss was the fact that there were leaves scattered on the basement steps. He emerged to find the heavy front door blown inwards, windows shattered, and a portion of the roof removed. A gutter was in their living room, and a twig was stuck in a heating vent.

A snip from a cellphone video provided by Mike Trazzera, showing the front door blown inwards.

Fortunately, the core only grazed the eastern side of the structure, and Mike explained that their two-story residence was a custom-made home and built especially well. These two factors meant that they only had to tear down part of the house and not the entire thing.

A full view of the damage to the Trazzera house. A security camera on the far left corner of the structure took some remarkable video that is discussed further on in the summary.

Mike also noted something positive that the event brought, which is best exemplified from this line in our interview with him: “It took a tornado to redeem my faith in humanity. Our world has been in a really bad place for the last several years, and when there’s a common cause, politics, race, religion, all that stuff sorta goes out the window. And people are just there to help, and it was so incredibly overwhelming how quickly people came to our aid – and not just at the time, but over the weeks that followed….”

Mike was able to provide me with two pieces of amazing video. The first is security camera footage of the vortex. The full original clip can be viewed below. It shows the primary suction vortex core making its way through the neighborhood. The camera’s lighting was poor, so I cut out and enhanced a portion of the footage to better show the twister slamming down upon the Ashley Thomas home. This can also be seen below.

Unedited complete footage provided by Mike Trazzera of what his security cameras recorded during the time the twister struck.

An enhanced piece of the security camera footage Mike gave us, revealing the subvortex that destroyed the Thomas home.


While there are many fascinating things to investigate here, two stand out the most. A small tertiary subvortex developed on the western side of the core. It moved first north, then curved around east, and finally south. It was distorted, stretched, and merged into the larger circulation. The lifespan of this tiny vortex was approximately 0.6 seconds. The other thing I noted was a piece of small debris that was moving at an extremely high velocity. The projectile left some sort of mark on the Trazzera’s driveway.

A normal, unedited look at the miniscule tertiary vortex that quickly merged with the core subvortex of the tornado.

An enhanced and slowed down GIF of that same moment. The tiny tertiary subvortex is circled in red.

Another piece of enhanced and slowed down security camera footage, showing a high velocity projectile that left some sort of mark or trail on the Trazzeras’ driveway.

A diagram created using orthomosaics overlaid onto Google Earth from Jamieson Allen and Fire Chief Scott Evans of Atlantic City Fire Department and Office of Emergency Management (EMA). It shows suction vortex tracks that were found through the security camera footage and by personal analysis of the damage. Background Google Earth imagery from October 16, 2020.

The second set of footage was taken by Mike himself. The pieces below are taken from the phone video just before they sought shelter. Read the attached descriptions for more information.

Two small clips from the cellphone footage given to us by Mike were sped up and slightly enhanced to demonstrate the approach of the twister. The original pieces in normal speed were a combined total of 35 seconds long. 

Several snips from Mike’s cellphone video were stitched together to show the ominous structure of the rotating storm. The developing tornado can be seen at far right as a bowl-shaped protrusion.

The half-mile-wide twister with its incredibly compact core of winds continued into a field of corn behind the Trazzera residence. I was able to personally analyze the path through the field, and a few pictures from that visit are included below. To continue following the stories of the track, click here for Chapter II.

A complete panoramic view of the swath cut by the core of the vortex through a cornfield. The photos were taken and stitched together by Nelson Tucker.
Several photos stitched together to provide another wide perspective of the blown down corn. Images taken and stitched together by Nelson Tucker.
A zoomed in view of the path through the crops. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
In a 1992 paper (currently held by Texas Tech University) titled, “Memoirs of an effort to Unlock the Mystery of Severe Storms,” Doctor Fujita used damage to mature corn to understand F-Scale winds and the structure of the tornado. Using the photos I (Nelson Tucker) took, I created this comparison with those by Fujita to show the similarities.
Orthomosaics from Jamieson Allen of Atlantic City EMA were overlaid into Google Earth, showing part of the tornado’s trek through a cornfield.
A corn cob that was partially shucked by the twister. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.
Part of a plastic playset that was thrown roughly 500 yards from the neighborhood. Photo taken by Nelson Tucker.

Sources:

Damage Assessment Toolkit

NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-Gloucester County

NWS Mount Holy Event Page

Google Earth

Google Maps

Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Browser

Geospatial Intelligence Consortium Gray Sky Imagery

Gloucester County Office of Emergency Management on ArcGIS

Jamieson Allen (Atlantic City EMA)

David Gibson

Ray Kulpa

Evan Newman

Mike Trazzera

CBS3 Staff. “‘Luckily We Made It Out’: Expecting Mother, Husband And 2 Young Children Hide In Basement To Survive Tornado In Mullica Hill.” CBSN Philly, 2 Sep 2021. https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2021/09/02/mullica-hill-tornado-nj-ida-storm-damage/

Fujita, Theodore. “Memoirs of Effort to Unlock the Mystery of Severe Storms during the 50 Years, 1942-1992.” Wind Research Laboratory Research Paper, Texas Tech University.https://swco-ir.tdl.org/handle/10605/262046

Gray, Matt. “N.J. weather: Tornado-ravaged neighborhood picks through wreckage. ‘It sounded like a freight train.’” NJ.com, 2 Sep 2021. https://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/2021/09/nj-weather-tornado-ravaged-neighborhood-picks-through-wreckage-it-sounded-like-a-freight-train.html

Kummer, Frank. “New Jersey family recounts being trapped inside home when tornado hit Mullica Hill.” The Morning Call, 3 Sep 2021. https://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-morning-call/20210903/282222308863531

Romalino, Carly. “’Just sucking us out’: Pregnant tornado survivor says basement saved her whole family.” Courier Post, 2 Sep 2021. https://www.courierpostonline.com/story/news/2021/09/02/pregnant-mullica-hill-tornado-survivor-says-basement-saved-her-family-mullica-hill-ida/5698930001/

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