'This must be what hell is like' - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Twenty years ago, Valley temperature reached record 122 degrees 'This must be what hell is like'

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Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2010 1:49 pm | Updated: 12:31 pm, Mon Mar 14, 2011.

Working in a warehouse near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Dan Howell had a sweltering, front-row seat for the Valley's day of inflamy.

At 2:47 p.m. on June 26, 1990, the airport temperature reached a number that is seared on a metropolitan area's collective memory, immortalized on T-shirts and countless dry-heat jokes: 122 degrees, an all-time high in Phoenix.

The heat prompted Howell's bosses to send employees home - or elsewhere - for relief.

"All of the local watering holes were packed that day," said Howell, now coordinator of signage and special projects at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa.

"If you have never tasted an ice-cold Budweiser after driving 20 miles in 122-degree heat in a pickup truck with no air conditioning, you don't know how good one can really taste. The next two or three weren't bad, either."

No toasts are expected on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of airport jets grounded, record-setting utility-power usage and a steady stream of heat-related ailments in hospital emergency rooms. Three people died.

"Stinging - that's the best way I can describe it," said meteorologist Craig Ellis of the National Weather Service. "I wouldn't call it like being attacked by bees or anything, but the air had a stinging feeling to it."

The stage was set the day before, when the high in Phoenix was 120 degrees, a short-lived record.

"For people who make a living watching weather, it was amazing to us," Ellis said. "Before that week, it had never been above 118 degrees in Phoenix. And now we were four degrees above that. That was shattering the record, really."

At Sky Harbor, planes were kept on the tarmac, primarily as a precaution because performance charts at the time did not account for temperatures that high.

"We still had arrivals, and they had no gates to go to," said John Sawyer, Sky Harbor airside operations superintendent. "Things got stacked up a bit. The air conditioning does not work very well for a plane sitting on the ground, so you can imagine how miserable it was for people sitting in there."

Darlene Owens, a charge nurse in the Banner Desert Medical Center emergency room, recalls several cases of extreme heat exhaustion and skin burns.

"We had elderly people with no air conditioning in their homes coming in with 106- and 107-degree temperatures," said Owens, who has worked at the hospital for 26 years. "And people made the mistake of walking in their bare feet, or they had burns from falling on asphalt ... I'd never seen a day like that up to that point."

The mercury has approached the June 26, 1990, level just once since. The high on July 28, 1995, was 121.

That could be considered a surprise, considering that development has brought much more concrete to the Valley than in 1990. Also, the 2000s were the warmest decade on record, according to a NASA analysis of global surface temperatures.

To gauge those effects, Ellis said, look to low temperatures, not high. The 14 highest minimum temperatures in Phoenix have all been in the last eight years, including the record 96 on July 15, 2003.

"The concrete and the urban-heat effect have a bigger impact on night-time temperatures," Ellis said. "The heat is going to stick around longer and into the next morning. There's talk that we could have a low of 100 one day, and with all the growth we've had, that wouldn't surprise me."

Among the Valley's most miserable summers are 1989, with a record 143 days of triple-digit temperatures, and 1993, when it was at least 100 degrees for 76 consecutive days.

But even in an area used to extreme heat, the 122-degree day stands out.

Is there really that much of a difference between, say, 112 degrees - the forecasted high on Thursday - and 122? Many of those who sweated through that June day answer "yes," emphatically.

Laura Radford of Chandler remembers discomfort on two fronts: It was incredibly hot, and she was three months pregnant.

"I thought that it somehow looked different outside," Radford said. "It was almost like a haze of heat was covering the city. I know I spent the entire day inside, just looking out the window, thinking, ‘This must be what hell is like.' "

6/26/90: Temperature progression that day:

2 a.m. --- 95

5 a.m. --- 92

8 a.m. --- 99

11 a.m. --- 112

2 p.m. --- 120

2:47 p.m. --- 122

5 p.m. --- 120

8 p.m. --- 112

11 p.m. --- 101

Morning low on 6/27/90 was 93 degrees. All-time high was 96 on 7/15/03.

Highest temps in Phoenix

122 --- 6/26/90

121 --- 7/28/95

120 --- 6/25/90

118 --- 7/16/25, 6/24/29, 7/11/58, 7/4/89, 6/27/90, 7/27/95, 7/21/06

Source: NWS

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