A grim-faced policeman stood in front of a yellow barricade. He was stopping anyone from passing. When I showed him my press pass, he let me go, but said I would have to leave my car and walk the rest of the way.
The fast-moving F3 tornado, with peak winds between 150 and 206 mph, had swept through the development late the previous night, killing a 10-month old baby and her parents, injuring 25 others, and destroying 20 of the 27 homes. When I think back on the scene, close to 27 years ago, the thing that sticks out the most was the eerie stillness walking through the neighborhood.
When the sun rose the next day,, my editor called and asked me to get to the scene. Another reporter was already on site and would be writing the main story, I was supposed to fill in the gaps with comments from first responders, neighbors, surrounding town folk, and anyone else who would talk.
When I walked the half-mile through the neighborhood and arrived on the scene, everything seemed surreal. You’d look one way and, off in the distance, you would see normal everyday traffic. Of course, you’d look in the other direction and, where new single-family homes had stood the day before, you saw what looked like a war zone. Trash and 2×4 pieces of wood were strewn across the grass. New homes looked like they had been crushed like aluminum cans. You couldn’t tell where one home ended and another began, it was one giant mess.
When emergency personnel and neighbors talked, they chatted in hushed voices, like they didn’t want to disturb the living or the dead. You could tell that people were shaken. They weren’t sure where to go, they weren’t sure what to do. On top of everything, they couldn’t believe that something like a tornado could happen in their neck of the woods.
I took notes and talked with as many people as I could and raced back to the newsroom. Our office was usually a loud and raucous place, with many different people coming and going, but, on that day, I’m not sure I even noticed. I typed up my story and sent it quickly for my editor to take a look. While he looked it over, I remember calling my wife. I rarely called her in the middle of the day. We were recently married and just starting to talk about a creating a family of our own, but I needed to hear her voice and for her to know that I loved her.
When I put the phone back into its cradle, I think I even shed a tear.
Local media outlets regularly run anniversary stories on the tornado. I hadn’t thought much about it in recent years. A rush of memories, however, came flooding back recently. I had made a wrong turn and had to drive by the neighborhood to get back to the main road.
The wrecked single-family homes were long ago replaced with new ones. I would expect that many of the local folks in that development have moved or passed away. As I reflected on my memories of that day, I thought again about the neighbors standing on the street, not sure what to say to each other. I thought of a little girl I saw when I was talking with her mother. She was in pajamas and was holding a doll by the arm and wondered aloud about what happened to her friend up the street. Finally, I thought about my wife and my kids. My kids weren’t even alive back then, but I’m grateful all the same for their safety and wellbeing.
I’m sure many folks have forgotten about the tornado. They’ve naturally moved on. I, however, will never forget.