PHILADELPHIA — Ashley Thomas thought she'd be spending Wednesday evening happily preparing for the first day of school at her Vineland, New Jersey, classroom.
Instead, along with husband Troy and their two little girls, Ashley — who is due to deliver their third child in a month — cowered in the basement of their South Jersey home. Their phones blared alarms as a swirling black cloud bore down. First it peeled off the second story of their home. Then the floorboards started to cave in, raining debris on the parents shielding their children.
Across the Philadelphia region, the remnants of Hurricane Ida touched down with devastating and terrifying force, its winds plowing through neighborhoods with barely any warning. Over nearly three hours Wednesday afternoon into evening, the National Weather Service issued 14 tornado warnings, many aimed at central Montgomery County. By Thursday evening, seven tornadoes were confirmed.
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, neighbors mourned Maxine Weinstein, whom they said died after a tree trapped her inside her home. "I'm not a weather person, but no one can tell me this wasn't a tornado," said her neighbor Mark Harris.
Countless homes and buildings had their roofs peeled back like paper. Experts were still assessing the data and damage, but likely the strongest tornado came in South Jersey. There, the one that devastated some houses in Mullica Hill was so potent that it carried debris thousands of feet. Its top winds were 150 mph, the weather service said, an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
Tornadoes are hardly routine in this region. Before Wednesday, 26 had touched down on Pennsylvania soil this year, according to the government's Storm Prediction Center. The 30-year normal for an entire year is 16. And normally, only two a year touch down in Jersey. As of Wednesday, 10 had.
"Everything happened so fast," a stunned Thomas recalled Thursday morning, pointing down into a hole in a heap of rubble to show where they hid in their Mullica Hill home.
"The house literally fell on top of us," she said. "Pipes were bursting. We said we have to get out of here before it explodes."
Ashley and Troy grabbed their 3- and 6-year-old girls and felt their way out through a back door. Rescue crews arrived with an ambulance. Debris struck her in the shoulder and back, she broke a few toes — how, she can't be sure — but her husband, daughters, and unborn child are all fine.
"It took me nearly two hours to get to a hospital that's normally a seven-minute drive," Thomas recalled. "It looked like a war zone. The ambulance had to keep slamming on his brakes because there were so many power lines down. The tornado destroyed our neighborhood and all it took was five seconds."
About 10 homes were either mostly destroyed or severely damaged in the neighborhood.
A few blocks from the Thomases, Mike and Joanne Trazzera had just finished dinner about 6:15 p.m. Wednesday when they looked out their front window to see the funnel cloud swirling right at them.
"I said, 'Oh my God, this is really happening,'" Mike Trazzera, 51, recalled.
He yelled to his wife to get inside. The couple headed for the basement. The moment they made it downstairs, a loud roar shook the entire house.
Peering through French doors, they could see pieces of their roof crash to the ground outside.
"It went by in probably 15 seconds and that was it," Trazzera said. "Like they say, it sounded like a freight train. It was absolutely like a freight train. It was terrifying."
Trazzera said the home lost a quarter of its roof and "basically everything" on the right side of the structure. The windows were blown out, and rain flooded part of the house.
"It's going to be a long rebuilding," he added, just after hanging up from a call with an insurance adjuster.
Troy Bonnenberg, 59, and his family heard the tornado warnings on their phones Wednesday evening and went directly to the basement.
They tried to relax. But their dog Ginger's ears moved from side to side, indicating something was wrong.
Everyone dashed to get under the steps because they offered extra structural support. Within seconds, the tornado ripped off siding and chunks of the roof. Flying pieces of lumber rammed like missiles through the side of the home and the Nissan Rogue parked next to the garage.
Other debris shattered the rear window of the family's Dodge Caravan, also parked outside.
"It all happened so fast," Bonnenberg said, describing the sound as a terrifying "thundering." Thanks to Ginger's ears and those basement steps, everyone got out unscathed.
As he spoke outside the home Thursday morning, emergency crews warned him not to go back inside.
His daughter was surveying piles of debris strewn outside and found a crucifix that once hung on an interior wall. Bonnenberg managed a smile at the discovery of a blue bag that held precious family photos.
The tornado plowed across the South Jersey development that was built on a farm owned by the Gangemi family until 2007. Rolling farms still dot the landscape, but housing is the newest crop, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the region.
On one of those remaining farms, winds flattened acres of corn, toppled silos, and slashed the roofs off buildings that house its prize possessions: 1,400 cows.
Marianne Eachus, who owns Wellacrest Farm with her husband, Ward, choked up as she recalled the destruction that she estimated took just minutes.
"We had 150 cows trapped under the rubble," of which three perished, she said.
The farm's workers, dozens of neighborhood volunteers, and other farmers came to help, and stayed much of Thursday rounding up the animals and clearing debris.
The Eachus family has owned the farm since 1943, when deliveries were made door-to-door. Today, it is the state's biggest dairy farm and produces a tanker-truck full of milk each day, roughly 6,000 gallons.
"Now, we are just trying to clean up," Eachus said, shaking her head.