Thursday, January 28, 2010
No, it didn't sound like a freight train.
So, until last week, I had never seen a tornado. I was close to the '89 tornado, (a mile wide, they say) but it was wrapped in rain. I'd seen a number of waterspouts - weak, sinewy twisters over water. I've seen people pulled from wreckage moments after the twister passed. Close many times, but I had never seen a tornado.
Last week that changed. It was warm and rainy - odd for January. After dodging the worst of the storm by tending to paperwork in the office, I decided I'd head out and see if I could get a rain feature for the next days paper. The sun was coming out to the west, but a storm was still over Huntsville. I thought I might get a nice feature - umbrella with sunset or something.
I was shooting a student walking and the cloud behind him got lower and lower. It looked like the familiar wall cloud, but I couldn't see any rotation. I kept telling myself, this can't be a tornado. The tornado warning was going off. Well, this must be a tornado. Sure enough the tail started to lower and it took the more traditional "V" tornado shape. It was absolutely quiet. I grabbed a few more shots and figured I'd better give chase.
I jumped in my car and started to drive after the tornado to try and get another shot. There was always something - utility poles, hills, or a building blocking my shot. I raced over Holmes Avenue trying to keep the tornado in sight. I bounced over a lane divider and stopped the car in some mud near Butler High School. I jumped out of the car and grabbed a few shots as it moved over downtown Huntsville.
By now, reports of damage were coming in from all over downtown. The twister cut a six-mile path through town, injuring a few, damaging some homes, but sparing lives. The all too familiar scenes made it apparent the tornado had hit - flipped over cars, tangled power lines, trees snapped. There were the odd things, too: twigs stuck into walls, trampolines flying overhead never hitting the ground, and dogs rescued form treetops.
But, after 22 years in the newspaper business, It was way cool too see my first tornado - from formation to destruction then back to a cloud. It's a awe-inspiring thing. It frightens and inspires in the same breath. But, no, it didn't sound like a freight train.