Looking back: The deadliest night of tornadoes in Florida history

(Dennis Wall, Orlando Sentinel)

When people think of Florida disasters, hurricanes always comes to mind, but tornadoes have cast their deadly pall on the state as well.

One Sunday night in 1998 became the deadliest tornado event in Florida history, with 12 tornadoes touching down overnight from Feb. 22-23, in a swath of destruction from Kissimmee to Daytona Beach killing 42, leaving hundreds more injured and destroying or damaging thousands of homes.

The storms struck with deadly results in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Volusia and Brevard counties, with some storms registering F3 on the Fujita scale with more than 200-mph winds. One of the storms, the deadliest of the night with 25 fatalities, touched down and cut a 28-mile track of damage.

Here's the coverage from the Orlando Sentinel from the days after the disaster.


By Mike Oliver of The Sentinel Staff

Feb. 24, 1998

The death toll from Florida's worst tornado disaster rose Tuesday as rescue workers recovered two more bodies and continued the search for more.

At least 38 people, including three children, were killed. More than 200 are injured, and three are missing.

In the aftermath, the awesome force of the tornado became overwhelmingly clear.

Death by tornado, in the words of a man who lost neighbors, is a "horrible way to die."

"We have different scenarios on each and every case," said Dr. Shashi Gore, Orange-Osceola medical examiner, who had to keep 25 bodies in a rented refrigerator truck. "I think we had three drownings. But I tell you, the most common was blunt-force trauma. For some, it was like falling from a plane."

Some of the victims may have been blown 100 feet into the air and fallen more than a quarter mile away, Gore said.

One of the victims found Tuesday was Penny Hall, 21. Her body was discovered about 3:30 p.m. in a canal near Myrtle Street in Sanford.

The tornado obliterated the mobile home where Hall lived. It also killed Hall's mother, father and fiance. The only survivor of the residence was Hall's 5-year-old daughter, Ashley Himes.

Ashley was found Monday in a daze in woods about 100 yards from the mobile home.

In Osceola County, authorities discovered another victim late Monday in an overturned van in a devastated shopping center near Kissimmee.

One woman was still missing from Ponderosa RV Park, and a man was missing from the Morningside Acres neighborhood as workers employed heavy equipment, specially trained dogs and lots of patience.

Search and rescue teams marked damaged homes to show they had been checked for bodies. Some homes were spray-painted with the names of their owners' insurance companies.

In Volusia County, despite efforts by authorities and friends to scour the St. Johns River, Joel "Lucky" Heaton, 53, still wasn't found after the second day of searching Lake Harney at the Volusia-Seminole line.