SPC Stats

Path length: 10 miles

Width:  75 yards

Fatalities:  0

Injuries:  2

Rating:  F4

County:  Culpeper, Fauquier

On September 24, 2001, one of the most significant tornadoes to ever hit the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area occurred. Of the nine tornadoes that day, six were in the NWS Baltimore/Washington County Warning Area (CWA). That included an F1 that brushed by the parking lot of the Pentagon, only 13 days after a group of terrorists had flown a commercial flight into that same building and killed 184 people. The deadliest of the outbreak was an F3 that struck the DC suburb of College Park in Maryland, killing two. However, the focus of this summary is on the strongest tornado of the outbreak, and one that has remained obscure for decades. Per the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), this F4 is one of only two in records going back to 1950 within the state of Virginia. The other one occurred on August 4, 1993, in Petersburg

This tornado began 1.4 miles to the southeast of Rixeyville in Culpeper County and moved towards the north-northwest. The track started in a forested area with sporadic uprooting of trees in a weakly circular pattern. It crossed Ryland Chapel Road and the width very briefly expanded to near 250 yards, with more uniform if still sporadically uprooted trees. This lasted only for a moment. A tree was blown onto a home in this area. This first tornadic swath appears to have ended with a mere length of 0.9 miles. The next sign of any tornadic damage is 1.3 miles northeast of the end of the first swath, and this time in a north-northeastward direction out of a forested area. It is not entirely uncommon for weak tornadoes to have “skipping” paths of this distance between damage, though these two paths track in somewhat differing directions. The NWS Baltimore/Washington was unable to access the area between the two tornadic swaths to confirm a continuous path. It is possible there were two separate tornadoes. It is more likely that the tornado may have been too weak to produce tree damage visible several years later in aerial imagery. The differing trajectories could possibly be explained by the fact that this tornado exhibited an erratic zig-zagging path.

April 1, 2006, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia four and a half years later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows tree damage near the beginning of the path.

The tornado exited the forested areas into largely open grassland, where damage had largely been limited to a couple of uprooted trees and snapped branches. A quarter-mile later another grove of trees was brushed through, where tree uprooting appeared notably more populated but not intense.

On the other side of a grassy field from the grove of trees was a large, “well constructed,” and “brick wall exterior” house along Indian Fork Road. The $500,000 summer home, owned by Dr. John Vas, was vacant at the time. This structure had a steel frame, with two stories above ground and an additional walkout basement level. An eyewitness described that the tornado “dropped onto” the home. The entire top floor was swept cleanly away, and only a couple of the interior kitchen walls were left on the first floor. One of the steel I-beams originally holding up the first floor was found to be badly twisted. Some of the walkout-basement walls were also leveled. Wood and even bricks were “impaled into the ground.” Roof trusses and a section of a deck were hurled as far as a half-mile downwind. Insulation was found six miles away as well, and The Free Lance Star described “the half-mile debris trail, evident in the days after the impressive two-story structure exploded….” It must be noted that this is exceptionally intense damage, perhaps some of the most impressive tornado damage ever recorded in the larger region. No trees were encountered by the tornado within a 300-yard radius of the house. Nevertheless, both before and after hitting the home I could not find any contextual tree damage typically associated with F4, F3, or F2 winds. Such rapid fluctuations in intensity could be found along other portions of the path as well.

The large home that was destroyed by the tornado from the front. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
The large home that was destroyed by the tornado from the back. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
The remaining kitchen walls pressed against a car. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
Velocity image of the tornado at peak intensity. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.

After it crossed Indian Fork Road and continued through grassy open areas for a mile, the tornado entered another area of forest. The severity of the tree damage was unimpressive and varied wildly, but still more defined than in previous points along the track.

An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. The far grove of trees at top left is approximately 400 yards after the large home that was demolished. The path takes a right turn after moving through the trees and follows a fairly straight path across a field and out of the picture near top right. The tree damage in this photograph appears to be relatively minor. The bizarre fluctuations in intensity are on full display as satellite imagery would indicate another cluster of trees just out of sight to the right may have been debarked. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
April 1, 2006, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia four and a half years later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows tree damage in the forested areas.
April 1, 2006, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia four and a half years later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows tree damage in forested areas.

The tornado continued for another mile and crossed Scottsville Road. Soon after it moved through the Ponderosa Trailer Park, destroying three trailers and damaging four more. One of the destroyed trailers was found in pieces 300 yards from where it was originally located. Two people were injured in the mobile home park, one of whom had been struck in the back by flying debris while clinging to a pole.

Destroyed trailers in the Ponderosa Trailer Park. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
February 1, 2002, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia five months later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows the damage to trees where the tornado entered the Ponderosa Trailer Park.
February 1, 2002, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia five months later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows a wider view of the Ponderosa Trailer Park.

The tornado made a sharp turn to the north-northwest, causing two churches to be damaged. The Rising Zion church sustained only superficial damage. 60 yards to the north-northeast of the church, a small cluster of softwood trees was completely flattened with some minor debarking visible in a photograph. This swath of extreme winds only measured 10-20 yards wide and narrowly missed the Upper Zion Church. The only damage to the church was when the roof was torn off of the social hall.

An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. For a few seconds the otherwise small tornado may have expanded to an estimated width of 260 yards in Jeffersonton - though the core winds remained miniscule. This image shows tree damage along the edge of the tornado at its widest. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado, where the core was only about 10 yards wide. At center is the Rising Zion Church. Just a few yards left of the building multiple trees were snapped off near ground level. Just behind them in the image are a few full top halves of trees. Since the tornado was moving from top center to center left, those trunks could only have originated from a grove over 80 yards away. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. This scene at first glance does not appear to be from a particularly powerful tornado. However, satellite imagery shows that there used to be a small cluster of mature softwood trees at bottom left just like the ones seen at top left. Only some partially debarked and bent juvenile pine trees are left standing in that area. This 10 yard wide core missed the church by a few yards and continued out of the picture near the bottom right corner. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
February 1, 2002, aerial imagery taken by the Commonwealth of Virginia five months later. It was recovered from the USGS archives and shows tree damage in Jeffersonton. The roof of the right wing of the Upper Zion church had been torn off by the tornado.

The corridor of intense tree damage continued for a short distance into a large grove of trees before disappearing. The tornado followed a zig-zagging north-northeastward track along Springs Road, moving through the heart of sparsely populated Jeffersonton but only impacting two other churches and several more houses. The hardest hit was a two-story home that lost a portion of its roof, a large garage, and the rear porch. One of the churches sustained extensive roofing damage. Large pieces of the roof were deposited in a resident’s front yard a quarter-mile away.

An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. The tornado had considerably weakened by this point in Jeffersonton, though the path at bottom center is clear where a tin outbuilding roof was removed and a large shed blown onto its side. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
A garage was ripped off of this house. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
Large pieces of a church roof that were thrown a quarter of a mile. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
Another view of the home with the demolished garage. Sourced from the NWS Baltimore/Washington.
An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. This is a third view of the home with the demolished garage. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/
An aerial image likely taken a few weeks after the tornado. Light roofing damage can be seen at center with some damage to what appear to be rotten trees behind the home. Image permission provided by the fantastic Vintage Aerials at https://vintageaerial.com/

Quickly after leaving Jeffersonton, the tornado weakened. Tree damage became barely noticeable in forested areas over the next half mile before it crossed the Rappahannock River into Fauquier County. Damage in that county was sporadic and weak. According to the NWS survey, it was limited to some F0 tree damage and F1 damage to an unroofed barn. After four miles in Fauquier County, the tornado dissipated near Route 211 at 3:25 pm EDT.

The tornado lasted for 22 minutes and injured two people in Jeffersonton. Assuming the path was still continuous between the two mapped swaths of damage, this event had a path length of 12.4 miles and a technical maximum width of 260 yards. However, the width for nearly the entire track was far smaller in the 50-150 yard range. Per the SPC there was $2.02 million in damage. Jeffersonton recovered quickly and was unfazed by the event. The large home destroyed was never rebuilt; to this very day, the concrete foundation remains a scab on the landscape of a grassy field.

A special thank you to the Science and Operations Officer at the NWS Baltimore/Washington Steven Zubrick for his invaluable help.

Tornado Path

SPC coordinates:  Start: 38.57 / -77.98   End:  38.27 / -77.83

Corrected coordinates:  Start: 38.564168 / -77.963362  End: 38.709524 / -77.852359     

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Closer view of the track through Jeffersonton.

Discrepancies:

We gathered information for this event from the SPC & NCDC Databases, the September 2001 Storm Data Publication (SDP), a no longer publicly accessible NWS Baltimore/Washington event page, and Nelson Tucker’s analysis and found the following differences: 

Path Width:

  • The SPC, NCDC, and SDP give a maximum width of 75 yards. The NWS gives 75 yards as the average width. Analysis of the damage indicates a maximum width of 260 yards. 

    Path Length:

    • The SPC, NCDC, SDP, and NWS Give a path length of 10 miles. Curiously, the measured straight distance between the SPC Start/End coordinates is 13.1 miles. Analysis of the damage indicates a path length of 12.4 miles.

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