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Rare Utah tornado kills one, hurts dozens in Salt Lake City

A rare tornado slammed into downtown Salt Lake City without warning shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday, killing at least one person and injuring more than 100.

The twister struck the city from the west, inflicting the most destruction around the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz basketball team, and then slashing through a residential area near the state Capitol.

Mayor DeeDee Corradini said 121 homes were damaged, 34 of which were uninhabitable.

Witnesses described a terrifying few minutes at the height of the storm, when they said the air was filled with rain, hail and swirling debris.

"It looked like the city dump was in the sky," said Kim Bramble Valles, 26, who watched the tornado with her children. "It was pretty freaky."

Early Wednesday night, downtown Salt Lake City remained a scene of chaos. Alicia McGregor, public information officer with Utah Emergency Management, said state and local law enforcement officers had blocked off the area, much of which was without power, as emergency crews tried to untangle the mess.

McGregor said there was one confirmed death from the storm. Allen Crandy, 38, of Las Vegas was killed when he was hit in the head by flying debris. Crandy was an exhibitor at an outdoor retailer tent.

She said 50 people were hospitalized, 12 with moderate injuries and two in critical condition. Between 100 and 150 more were treated for minor injuries at the scene.

At the University of Utah Hospital, spokesman John Dwam said most of the injured treated there suffered severe cuts from flying glass and debris.

"The movement and the magnitude of the funnel was just extraordinary," said James Gomez, spokesman for LDS Hospital in the Avenues neighborhood, the hardest hit residential area. "I kept telling myself, "We are not supposed to have these things inUtah. We have mountains.' "

Gov. Michael Leavitt viewed the scene from a helicopter and announced he will issue a state disaster declaration.

"It was one of the most awesome things I've ever seen," Leavitt said. "Homes in the Avenues had their roofs torn off, and the damage to the Delta Center from above is incredible." Several witnesses said the roof of the Delta Center had been blown off.

But by far the most significant damage occurred at Salt Lake City's Outdoor Expo, a temporary tent structure set up for a retailers show of a variety of goods.

As winds tore through the circus-like tent, "people were diving under the tables and pretty much panicking," said Chase Nash, a security guard. "I saw the roof fall off, and then the metal beams supporting the structure started flying everywhere.

"It was very quick and very sudden. We only had about 15 seconds from when we first saw the tornado hit the Delta Center until it hit us."

Jim Campbell, deputy director of the National Weather Service western regional office in Salt Lake City, said his office issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 12:48 p.m., about five minutes before the twister touched down. Campbell said he classified the tornado as F-2, on a scale in which F-5 is the strongest. He said the tornado was on the ground for about 1{ miles and stretched 300 yards wide in some places as it moved at about 100 mph.

Tornadoes are so unusual in Utah that no one had ever been reported killed by one there until Wednesday. The state ranks 40th in the country for twister occurance, averaging only about two a year since 1950, when records were first kept. Thirty-two have been reported in the last 25 years, said Tim Shy, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Oklahoma recorded 1,326 over the same period.

"Sometimes we get a Wizard of Oz mentality that they occur in the middle of nowhere," Shy said. "There have been enough counter examples here recently as Oklahoma City, Nashville and downtown Miami got hit in the last few years."

_ Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.