When I headed out on Tuesday's moderate risk for severe weather, I anticipated that I would see general thunderstorm structure (wall cloud, shelf cloud, lightning, hail) and nothing more. My track record for documenting tornadoes since I began following severe weather in earnest back in 2004 has up until now been pathetic. This of course has been fine with me as I personally prefer photographing structure from a safe vantage. Targeting a slow moving tornado warned cell with a hard velocity couplet way out in Pike County which borders the Mississippi River, I figured by the time I made an intercept it would have cashed out to become a mostly outflow dominate mess near or just S of Jacksonville. Storms were forecast to go linear or in other words congeal into a line and become less of a tornado threat versus straight line wind.
Traveling W from Decatur along I-72, new development began going up to the SSE of the original target cell which was now shrouded in rain so at Springfield, I went S on I-55 and exited at Route 104 to head W towards Auburn. Once at Auburn, I continued S on Route 4 till I hit Virden where I decided to go just W of downtown and see what was happening. Heavy rain made this a terrible starting point so I backtracked to get on Route 4 S towards Girard. It was here I noted the greenish hue of everything basking in the little bit of available light that there was. Route 4 is also the former "Route 66" that is popular to American history.
Thinking I might have to bail E from "The Mother Road" and avoid the core of new development which had potential for producing large hail, I saw a ridiculously dark, almost black core to my W while halfway to Girard. Knowing this would likely contain damaging hail (and God knows what else), I continued S only to see on the SW flank a rapidly rotating mesocyclone with wispy fingers dancing underneath. Immediately recognizing what was happening, I quickly triangulated my location in correlation to the direction of movement and parked where I was confident it would safely pass to my NW from just outside of Girard. There was another chaser already parked so I pulled in behind him but not too close as I didn't want to interfere with his shot nor he with mine. Grabbing my gear, the tornado quickly got down to business W of town so I first set up the video camera then went for the still camera.
Despite the pictures it was extremely dark and my customary Av Mode setting of ISO 200, F8.0 was wanting to set a slow shutter. I would quickly correct this but tinkering with settings also cost me precious seconds. Likewise, since it was so dark, the camera wasn't focusing so there too, I flipped to manual and said a prayer. Inflow was screaming, power lines were whistling but I still felt safe.
The tornado had been moving along as I had expected it would however, it decided to really get cranking when it was nearly due W of me. Continuing to have issue with slow shutter, after the following shot I went ISO 800 to gain a faster shutter and it was game on as I still felt safe.
The tornado would continue intensifying and now divert from it's original course taking it due E.
Perhaps the tornado sensed my confidence for it simultaneously grew into a violent monster literally within the blink of an eye. It was at this point I could hear it yet the sound was not like a freight train but an almost an indescribable one that only hell on earth could produce. Keeping a watchful eye on the power lines that were swinging like mad and starting to pull over, I decided that instead of go for my vehicle which would place me in harms way knowing they would fall E, I would position towards the W at the end of a fence line to lie flat and ride out the passage happening just to my N. The RFD came in at speeds I cannot estimate with accuracy other than to say they were much faster than what it is to hold your hand out of the window while flying down the interstate. At ground level though, I felt perfectly safe with minimal wind impact in spite of seeing small debris whizzing overhead. How it is I remained cognizant throughout this ordeal to continue shooting stills despite my settings being all jacked up is beyond me. Though my video camera would not remain upright once I took cover, it continued recording. With the microphone face down and protected from direct wind impact, I was able to pick up incredible audio that simply needs to be heard.
All things considered from the beginning of this event and applying it to the time stamp on my single video clip, the entire experience played out over six minutes and fifteen seconds. The video link found at the end of this blog speaks for itself and contains the entire audio. It is VERY important to note that it was NEVER my intent to be so close. Two things happened that I had not planned for including rapid intensification as well as the right turn of the tornado. I feel that given the situation, I handled it appropriately and have no regrets. At no time did I feel that I was in grave danger of being crushed or becoming a projectile but laying flat of course kept me from being injured by any small debris that may have passed overhead. Approximately 200 yards to my N a farmstead was completely destroyed.
APRIL 19, 2011 - GIRARD ILLINOIS TORNADO VIDEO
Picking up where the tornado literally left off, I made my way back to the vehicle and loaded up but not before changing shirts. It's always wise to bring a change of clothes and especially an extra pair of shoes. With my vehicle pointed S and miraculously, only one downed line to cross, I headed S to the nearest area I could pull off completely to regroup. The only reason I drove over the line with a measure of confidence is because traffic was already trying to maneuver through the tangle of lines, poles and other debris littering the roadway. Looking off to the N, it is here that I realized there was a house up where the tornado crossed. While driving S and paying attention to storm features, I completely missed that I went past a farm. Fire and rescue crews were on the scene almost immediately which speaks volumes for the efficiency of area emergency services. Since no one could get through as evident by the traffic that was turning around, I decided to check out the scene and offer assistance if needed.
Pulling over from opposite the house, the first people I would introduce and explain myself to was a firefighter and the property owner. Shaken for having rode out the tornado from inside the dwelling to take a direct hit, the owner lost his glasses and was having trouble seeing his phone to check messages. I offered to let him try my glasses but they were no good so I checked his phone for him. His number one priority at that time was to find his cows that were scattered about. Aside from flattening the barn that several were in, the tornado took out all of the fencing and there were cows aimlessly wandering around in shock. I told him "I have never rounded up cows before but let's go for it" so we did, well sort of anyways...
Trudging behind him across a muddy pasture in the pouring down rain, at one point I took a step and sank up to my knee. Upon pulling my foot out, my shoe remained stuck. I reached down into the hole and scooped around but could not find that damned shoe for nothing! The owner asked what I was doing and upon explaining, he started laughing. I laughed as well and decided to just leave it for I had another pair in the truck. If giving this man pause to laugh after losing nearly everything meant sacrificing a shoe to the mud gods then so be it.
By this time his girlfriend who rode out the storm with him inside the house was with us. As he went off towards a remote part of the property, I walked with her in the general direction of my vehicle. We discovered two cows including one that was injured and another that was deceased. I then spotted two other cows that were trapped in barn rubble but appeared to be alive. Switching out shoe(s), we later toured other areas of the farm as well as checked her vehicle. For being front and center to receive direct impact, the damage was surprisingly minimal. The car shifted a good 45 degrees from it's original orientation but only the rear roll downs were broken which seemed indicative of a projectile shooting through. The rest of the windows were fine but the interior was littered with debris. I removed a piece of sheet metal that was lodged inside the wheel well but otherwise despite some moderate dents, it appeared intact. Other vehicles on the property sustained more significant damage including farm implements that were completely overturned.
A few people had shown up to help by now so together we walked with the owner as he surveyed the situation and struggled to come up with a plan for corralling his animals. I would find yet another cow only this time it was more of a calf. Apparently there was a pregnant cow somewhere that he was most concerned with but I do not know of her fate. Also around this time a photographer showed up and began taking pictures. The girlfriend's initial reaction was one of apprehension but I could see his press pass and told her he was probably with the media. He was with the newspaper and ended up walking around with us which took a rather unpleasant but somewhat comical turn when we entered the former barn where the cows were once penned.
By now I had gotten used to trudging through the mud as it was well, just mud. Inside what was once the floor of the barn was a near shin deep mixture of mud, water and yep you guessed it, manure. Pressing on, those including myself who didn't have rubber boots would find ourselves balancing on fallen lumber, gate material or whatever else we could use for support. All the while as rounds of heavy rain drenched everyone, I watched as shadowy figures in near total darkness slogged through the muck in search of lost animals. It was an immensely sad scene unlike any I have ever witnessed.
A short time later, some of the people who showed up had corralled a group of cows over by the road. One cow came near me so I tried to guide it but it took off into the field across the street. I thought I did something wrong but a woman who was assisting said I didn't which was a relief. In the distance I could hear the owner calling "skeff!!! skeff!!!" for which the cows seemed to be responding to. I have no idea what that means but in the direction of the one to get away, I hollered out "SKEFF!!! SKEFF!!!" At the risk of not sounding like any more of an idiot than I already did because this cow had absolutely no interest in my pathetic call attempt, I opted to keep my mouth shut and let the others get it. Besides, I couldn't afford to lose another shoe.
By nightfall, the cavalry had arrived in earnest with chainsaw and man power. Positioning their vehicles so to shine light on the barn rubble where the cows were trapped, I did the same with mine. Two cows were pinned under a beam that was as thick as a railroad tie. Three men along with myself pointed our flashlights where one man was sawing with surgical precision. Any measure of kickback and the animal would have sustained injury from the blade. Once they were able to remove the beam, the first animal sprung up and walked out on it's own. Myself and another man would carefully guide it in the direction of the pasture. The second animal did not jump up and the fear was that it's back might have been broken. It was in an awkward side contortion with hind legs in the air. One of the men grabbed it's legs and pulled them around to where it was fortunately able to stand up. Slow to exit the rubble, it eventually hobbled out and again, we carefully guided it where it needed to go. The men believe there may have been more animals in the wreckage but that they would have to possibly wait until daybreak to see. No other sound or movement could be observed and quite frankly, I don't know how there could have been.
Throughout the ordeal, round after round of heavy rain persisted. One cell to go overhead bore elevated supercell structure and at times brilliant lightning would branch out from almost directly above. The accompanying boom seemed more intense than usual but that may have simply been my heightened level of consciousness amplifying the moment. Around 9PM as teams of people worked on different areas, I decided that it was probably good for me to leave. Decatur was over an hour away and who knows what else I might encounter on the way home. I felt a measure of guilt in leaving as the situation was completely overwhelming for those involved. Knowing that no humans were killed, missing or injured was comforting. I had heard reports of area injuries but am unsure of specifics. At one point before I arrived, there was an accident near the property. As I understand it, someone was rubber necking and either slammed into the back of another vehicle or debris in the road. I only saw the vehicle with the badly crumpled front end but the occupants were not around. Perhaps they may have been the injury report? I'll probably never know but either way, the thing to leave the most formidable impression was to watch those guys work. If you ever want to be in the company of real men, just be around a group farmers in the cold pouring rain as they rescue animals from tornado wreckage. Given the gravity of the situation, I felt that my contribution to the physicality of the ordeal was virtually insignificant. I was unfortunately unable to say goodbye to the owner since he was obviously preoccupied but at the very least I will be back down to give him pictures per his request.
This brings me to the final portion of this post in that earlier I had asked if I could document some of the damage whereby the owner approved. In near total darkness with the exception of ambient vehicle light, I did some tripoded 30 second shots. The first image is as bright as you see due to a flash of in-cloud lightning illuminating the scene. Constant rain in near total darkness despite having a flashlight made for less than ideal shooting conditions. The reddish purple hue you see in some of the shots is from the emergency vehicle light being reflected off of surfaces or refracted through the rain.
Carefully pulling away and navigating around power poles that were at least 18 inches thick, I made my way N on Route 4. The truck had been running since I moved it up to help with providing light so the cabin was nice and warm. It was a guilty yet welcomed pleasure as the frontal passage was well under way and with that a cold, stiff, NW wind was settling in over the land. Not far up from the farm, firefighters were diverting traffic to the E for there was additional debris on the roadway. Heading E then eventual N and back to the W again, I made a few calls to find out if other friends in the area were alright as well as begin telling the story. Reception up until this point was not very good but there too, I also left the phone in the vehicle as I was soaked and didn't want it getting ruined. Coming into the town of Virden from the SE, I noted a considerable amount of small debris by way of tree limbs and shredded foliage which seemed indicative of straight line wind and hail. It was around here that the black core mentioned in the beginning that I was wanting to avoid may have passed although I was never able to confirm. Soaked to the bone as well as caked in mud and manure, I decided to do something that is somewhat out of context for me which was to stop for awhile.
Pulling into the Virden Fire Department, I figured this was probably the best place to go after such an ordeal. All I wanted to do was change clothes for I still had an extra pair of pants and believe it or not, another pair of shoes. A few weeks ago when I bought the good shoes to get swallowed up in the mud, I left the retired pair in the truck along with additional "creek shoes" that were already in there. Whenever I go on nature outings I always wear junk shoes and then just wash them later. Anyways, upon entering the building, there were about a dozen guys hanging out waiting for calls to come in. I wish I could have taken a picture of their expression the second they laid eyes on me because it was simply one of "WHAT THE?!?!?". Immediately introducing myself and briefly explaining where I was, I asked if I could change as well as dump my cameras. They asked if I got video of the tornado to which I said yes and that I would show them. The room when you enter the side where I did is a conference setup and the guys already started to take their seats. Going back out to get my gear I noticed a WAND TV vehicle parked down the street but didn't give it much thought. I would unfortunately leave a few skid marks on their nice clean rest room floor while changing but it was good to be out of those pants which felt like I had jumped into a swimming pool.
There was a flat screen TV suspended in the corner of the room so I went ahead and plugged my video directly into it. Together as we watched it for the first time, some were in awe while others joked about it being "definite straight line wind". Seeing their reaction and most notably the humor they were injecting into the moment was like being on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I have never been in the company of firefighters during an active duty situation but I would imagine that keeping a good sense of humor is key to maintaining their sanity when it comes to the types of things they witness. I have always had a great respect for emergency personnel but now an even deeper one for having had the privilege of experiencing a side to their persona that most people don't.
Once the clip was over, I sat down to upload the still images to my laptop. Remember the WAND TV news truck from earlier? It was here that a reporter came in with his cameraman and began setting up. He would speak to the fire chief and get more information on the regional status as well as learn about me. Coming over to ask if I would care to be interviewed, I declined. Unlike many of my chaser friends and acquaintances, being a part of the television media process is not my thing. That being said, while they were setting up to go live for the 10PM airing, I noticed that they were pointed in the direction of the flat screen TV. I told him, "I'm not interested in selling video but I have an idea for your shot." I made the suggestion that right before they went live, I would start the video on the flatscreen so that it would be in frame as they broadcast. He liked the idea so I went ahead and cued up the clip. Once it was time to go, I started the video and stepped aside. The cameraman pointed towards it as he briefly made mention before panning over to the fire chief for an interview. In the meantime, I would quickly text a few people including Ava's mother telling them to turn on WAND TV at which point she saw it. WAND TV broadcasts out of Decatur IL so be that I have respect for our local mets, I thought it was kind of cool to be indirectly contributing to our local station from way down in Macoupin County. Some might argue that I was giving away my video but it was literally three seconds of second generation material from across the room.
Once the broadcast was over, they wasted no time packing up. The reporter said he was ready to get in from the weather and call it a night. Personally, I enjoy being out in all kinds of weather but for this particular event I would have to agree with him. We thanked each other for the mutual opportunity and then he left. By now the firefighters were thinning out a bit. One of the guys offered me some pizza and although I had not ate since that afternoon, I declined for I simply had no appetite. I showed a few men some of the unedited still shots as well as dropped business cards that became so wet and flimsy from inside my coat pocket that they were beginning to disintegrate. Finally packing up my gear and scooping up the sodden mess that was a pair of jeans and shoes, I thanked the firefighters for their hospitality and left.
Heading back N on Route 4, I encountered small debris by way of tree limbs and leaves till I was finally out of town. I would again call people including Dan Robinson who nailed the forecast. Earlier in the afternoon a few small "blips" appeared on radar from just NE of St. Louis and his comment to me was that they would be the main show for the day. He was absolutely correct for they would mature into the supercells to produce both this as well as Honey Bend and Litchfield tornadoes. Once I was off the phone and traveling with the drone of engine, pavement and wind filling my ears is when I began to sort things out.
At a few points along the interstate, I could see distant emergency vehicles shrouded in fog. This was clearly a huge event not just for Girard and Virden but everywhere. Checking and rechecking how I handled the situation as it was presented along Route 4, I knew that for the decisions I had made, there would be some fallout. Among the many aspects I would have to sort out, this date was the 15 year anniversary of the F3 (old scale) tornado to lay waste to the west end of Decatur in 1996. What are the odds a chaser from Decatur would encounter another EF3 at close range from such a remote location yet at almost the exact time? Upon arriving at home and entering the apartment, I dropped my gear and went straight back to where my daughter was sleeping. Wrapped up in my blanket and with her head on my pillow, I leaned over and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
The following morning as I escorted my daughter to the bus stop, she said "Daddy what's wrong with the truck?" I started to say "Nothing..." and then I saw what she did. The vinyl cover over my spare tire was missing. It had been there for years and although not absolutely secure, was never in danger of flying off while driving. To remove it you had to lift it straight up which is exactly what those winds did. The loss doesn't bother me for my truck, like the old barn, is near the end of it's life as well. Further examination of the vehicle would reveal pieces of debris including wood chips and hay that were lodged in my vent visor.
Macro of tornado debris, a photography first?
Everyone who witnessed not only this tornado but also others to develop around the region went home with their own unique experience. For as much as people forecast, discuss and logically observe thunderstorm phenomena from a safe perspective, to be up close is on a completely different level. Besides the obvious physical implications of a close call, there are psychological ramifications as well. It's become easy these days for many of us to go through life and be distracted from the bigger picture. I wish there were a rational explanation for the how's, why's and most of all, meaning behind the things we experience but there isn't. I do know that for myself, I have learned many valuable lessons, not the least of which is a slightly better appreciation of this life and the good people in it, some of whom I have been taking for granted lately. I have heard it said before that "a tornado changes everything" and for the first time in my life, I genuinely understand what that means. With a record number of tornadoes setting down across the Central and Southern US, April 2011 is one that few will ever forget.
Thank you for your time. p