NILES - The Top O' The Strip Roller Rink was one of the hottest local hangouts for junior high and high school students in the 1980s.
Many of them, like 1989 Niles McKinley graduate Melissa Simko, were getting ready to go to the rink just a short time before the May 31, 1985, destroyed it, the adjoining plaza and hundreds of homes in the Niles and Weathersfield area. The powerful F-5 tornado also took out large portions of Newton Falls.
''I was doing my hair and makeup, getting ready to go skating just like I did every Friday night,'' Simko said during a recent gathering of Facebook friends.
Tribune Chronicle file photos
Firefighters sift through debris at the Niles Park Plaza — near the Top O’ The Strip skating rink — in the aftermath of the 1985 tornado.
The social networking site has sparked a reunion of Howland and Niles high school graduates from the 1980s and 1990s who frequented the roller rink as teens. It also led them to a Facebook page dedicated to Top O' The Strip Roller Rink created by 1985 Niles McKinley graduate Murphy Miller.
Recently, Miller recalled the tornado which destroyed the roller rink 25 years ago this weekend. More than 10 people died in the tornado that swept through Trumbull County and into western Pennsylvania.
Nearly 70 houses were leveled in six communities, and more than 65 more were severely damaged. Most of the victims in Trumbull died when the twister roared down on the Niles Park Plaza on U.S. Route 422 near Vienna Avenue. The City of Niles was hardest hit by the storm. Newton Falls also suffered devastating losses. Damage estimates put losses at more than $60 million.
Miller, now a Niles firefighter, said when the tornado hit, he lived on state Route 46 across from Buckeye Beverage, which was outside the most heavily damaged area. His last day of high school was the day of the tornado.
Miller said he started the Facebook page around Christmas, filling it with old photos from the rink and newspaper photos of the rubble left in the tornado's wake. He said soon after creating the page, fans started posting memories of the rink and photos of their own.
''I was bored and I started thinking about people I had not seen for 25 years. Top O' The Strip was a big part of my high school experience, so I dedicated the page to it. I thought I would get 20 or 30 people to sign on, but there is now more than 800. Almost everyone on the site has some sort of connection to the skating rink or knows someone who does," Miller said.
He said he worked at the Top O' The Strip for one year before it was destroyed by the tornado, and he was supposed to work that night. As it turned out, only one woman was inside when the funnel cloud hit and Miller said she survived by hiding under a desk.
Cindy Weiss Rogers, a 1990 graduate of Niles McKinley High School, said she started a separate Facebook account last summer and found old friends from high school and the Niles neighborhood where she grew up. She said a core group of them started meeting once a week in the fall, but participation dropped off as winter approached.
Weiss Rogers said the group was trying to plan activities and a discussion about skating and the Top O' The Strip began. She said they found Miller's Facebook page and planned an alumni skating party with a 1980s theme.
Weiss Rogers said 187 people from Niles, Cortland and Howland, as well as guests as far away as Michigan and South Carolina, attended the skating party in January at Cortland Roller Rink. Many of them dressed in '80s attire, including concert T-shirts, punk wigs, metallic spandex pants and Jordache jeans, Weiss Rogers said.
She said Cortland Roller Rink owners Jimmy and Ruth DiGiacobbe provided the rink and donated a pair of Chicago freestyle skates as a door prize. DJ Chuck Abbot played top hits from the '80s and there was '80s trivia throughout the night.
Weiss Rogers said Tristan Liptak, a former local champion skater from the 1980s and several former Top O' The Strip employees also attended. She said she was on the roller rink's speed skating team and was there three or four nights a week.
High Pointe Restaurant and Tavern owner Tom Crator and manager Courtney Philibin provided a before and after mixer for the skating party attendees and attended the party as well. The High Pointe is located across the street from the plaza that adjoined the rink. The Niles AAA office now stands where the Top O' The Strip was located.
''Many of the people at the skating party regarded their skating years and friendships as the best of times. We planned to get a small group of us together to skate, but postings all over Facebook made the word spread quickly and what began as a small group of us turned into a great big skating reunion,'' Weiss Rogers said.
Some of those who attended the party still meet on a monthly basis and have several events planned, including a summer picnic, a bowling night and a trip to Put-in-Bay in July. Weiss Rogers said she also is hoping to pull together another skating party.
Miller said he was working the night of the reunion, but he is glad they did it and hopes he can make the next one. He said he also is pleased his Facebook page helped it all come together.
"I skated there every night it was open before I worked there. What else was there to do? I still have a shirt from the rink and there was a picnic table salvaged from the rink behind the fire station until last year when it finally deteriorated and had to get thrown away," Miller said.
Tom Douvis, a 1987 Niles graduate, said he was at the Niles YMCA when the tornado struck.
"I came out and started walking down Route 422. The houses were just flattened and I realized I could see further down the strip than I ever could because the plaza was gone and the rink was no longer there," he said.