Day 3 – Tuesday 28th May
Today was the day we never imagined or considered could happen. We know it’s a dangerous ‘holiday’ but we’d taken great care in choosing Roger (Hill) and Silver Lining Tours, a Storm Chase Holiday operator from Denver. He’s a veteran of 35 years, run SLT for over 20 years and he’s never got into any trouble with a tornado……until today.
We’re still in a bit of shock as to what occurred a few weeks back.
The day started as usual, breakfast, a briefing from Roger and an uneventful loading up of the 4 vans on our tour. Roger had told us there was only really one ‘play’ today and that was in Kansas. We were to undertake a long haul of a drive from North Platte in Nebraska to Topeka in NE Kansas. He told us the thunder storms were going to be messy and with large amounts of rain making chasing ‘ugly’ and not very photogenic. He warned they would be HP (High Precipitation) Cells. This would make them difficult to see but there’d be a high likelihood of tornadoes.
We set off from the hotel, east along IS80 to Lincoln, Nebraska and then dropping south on the 75 to Holton where we stopped and picked up some lunch. We drove through a big cluster of storms to get down to Topeka, Kansas and continued south and then further east on the 56 through Overbrook, Ks.
By this time, the storm behind the one we’d driven through was growing into a rain wrapped monster and we strained to be able to see any wall cloud. We stopped off a couple of times to see if we could see anything but the intense rain was making it impossible. As we stopped, side-on to the approaching storm, we opened the doors of the van and I’ve never felt air like it that hit us. It was like a super-heated, stifling, sauna type of air. It was hard to breathe. Air was being pushed towards us by the massive, damp, cold-front fast approaching.
No sign of what was to come!
We continued east with the storm tracking north-east behind us. Roger took our troop of 4 vans up a small side road north, to see if we could get in the ‘notch’ (an area where you can look down the ‘hook’ of a big storm to hopefully see any tornado). We pulled off at a small church and just couldn’t see anything as the rain was intensifying, intense and quite frankly, with the winds picking up to dramatic levels, a bit scary.
Roger came over the radio shouting that we needed to get out of there and fast. We were even more concerned as the radar was showing a meso right above us. (A meso is where the radar is picking up a circulating vortex of air that can lead to a tornado). We were in the wrong place and the limited experience we’d had told us we should never be in heavy rain in the middle of a dangerous storm. We were in what is known as the ‘bear cage’ and needed to leg it, and quickly.
We were frightened. Due to Roger’s urgency, Bill, (our brilliant driver), reversed and then accelerated hard and south, the rain was now extreme to say the least. In a flash, the rain was wrapping and whipping directly in front of us, right to left and we all realised we were in a dire situation. The van was being absolutely pummelled from our front right. The van was slipping left and then right on the road. The rain was so severe we couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of us. Bill our heroic driver, somehow kept going as best he could until the side wind became so severe he had to stop, pointing the van into the wind. Pure luck and fate had us in the slightest of gulleys (the video later confirmed this) with a very small but life saving bank with trees to our right.
We could now see debris flying in front of us, huge branches snapped off trees flying past the windows, the van was being pelted by grass, small debris and mud and we were in huge trouble. Really bad trouble. We crouched down behind the seat in front of us with Hels (my wife) next to me. I’d like to say my life flashed before me or something poetic but I didn’t think of anything other than to get down. I looked at Hels and we were both terrified. My mind seemed to just blank, I didn’t say anything or do anything heroic (not that there was anything to do anyway but…). In fact our whole van (as witnessed by subsequent video footage) was almost silent bar Roger shouting to the drivers on the radio. “TORNADO….RIGHT HERE!”
In the tornado!
The whole thing lasted 44 seconds. Ian (our friend and travelling companion) said he saw a fence post cartwheeling in front of us before lifting over the top of the van. I saw a couple of pieces of huge corrugated iron fly in front of us and we all literally held our breath, in silence, for it to pass.
I was then aware of shouting over the radio and then in our van. My brain couldn’t really make out the words. A voice was saying the same thing over and over, “Are you ok, Roger, are you guys ok”. I think I heard Roger a few times but can’t be sure. He might have said something like “God, I don’t know, we’ve been hit”. (Edit: I’ve subsequently found out that this was James, driver of van 2).
Bill turned our van around and in the pouring wall of rain and still extreme winds, we and the other tour van, drove the 200 yards or so back to the two other vans in our tour party.
We pulled up and to our horror, one van was on its roof in the ditch by the side of the road and the other was on its side in the field 100 yards from the road.
The 2 vans directly behind us! How lucky were we all?
I’ve often wondered what I’d do as the first on the scene of an accident. Without any thought I got out and headed straight for the van in the field. Everyone seemed to be out of Roger’s van in the ditch. I briefly saw Roger, he was bleeding from his head and was very dazed and mumbling but walking, so, I crossed the ditch, over to the van in the field.
When I got there, everyone was dazed, confused and clambering out of the van. But they were all moving, there was seemingly and thank goodness, very little blood or carnage at all. Somehow, there were plenty of able-bodied helpers and we just did what we could. The rain, my god the rain, was still extremely intense, and cold. Unrelenting.
I returned to our van and stood outside with Hels and Ian. We were shaking with cold and shock.
I’ve no idea how long it took but the emergency services arrived, ambulances, police, sheriffs, fire truck and they started tending to the wounded. I don’t think they could believe we’d all come through it alive. At the time, all it did was add to our shock levels and our comprehension about how lucky we’d been. Many of our party in the flipped vans were in extreme shock and a few starting to feel pain as their natural adrenaline wore off. Heads, arms, chests and legs.
James (driver of van 2), was stood next to me, he’d been driving the van that was hit hardest, he said to me, “I’m gonna black-out”, we hurriedly sat him on the step of the van and I rushed to get a Paramedic who came very quickly. (He was to spend 3 days in hospital for observation but was released with no ill effects).
The crumpled mess to the right of the house was a large barn, the house miraculously survived!
We started to help moving luggage out of the damaged vans but other than that, we did our best to keep out of the way.
Looking at the path the tornado took, it’d hit a small farmhouse nearby, destroyed a large barn, a massive tree in front of it was snapped in half and the occupants were extremely lucky as well. The lady home owner even came out, not a couple of minutes after the tornado hit and offered her largely undamaged house as refuge if anyone needed it. What a lady!
Flattened by the tornado, the grass shows the path of the tornado before it hit the vans
We chatted and waited and helped where we could, we also just couldn’t quite believe none of us had any serious injuries given the carnage in front of us.
The head of emergency services made a point of coming up to our van before we left the scene and said that in her 44 years on the job, she’d never had to deal with a tornado strike before. She also said the incident was a “Mass Casualty Incident” for them as there were more victims than first responders available. In all, 17 people were injured by that tornado in Kansas that day, 12 of them had been from our tour!
Hels, Bill (our hero driver), Me (Rich), Dave and Ian, shaken but relieved!
12 of our party were taken to hospital including Roger. Of those, all but two were released on the first night with fairly minor injuries. Roger was totally black and blue down his left side and had abrasions to his head. One British lady had a broken knee-cap. A few were in arm-slings and were nursing shoulder injuries. Others had bruises and were very shaken.
The remaining two, one was James, the driver of the van that was taken into the field, he was released with no problems on his 3rd day in hospital. The other was a guest who’d suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck. He was airlifted to Kansas City Hospital where he underwent an operation and was released a few days later, walking but with a neck brace he has to wear for 6 weeks. There’s no doubt whatsoever that we’d been extremely lucky and got away very lightly considering the possibilities.
Several people left the tour afterwards, unable to continue even if the tour company were going to. We decided to sit, wait and see what the options were and listen to what Roger had to say about our lucky escape.
There’s been a lot of chat on social media about our encounter, Roger and SLT are kinda celebrities in the Storm Chase and weather communities in the USA, so it’s quite big news over here. There’s a general scepticism in the community around Roger’s explanation that we were hit by a rogue ‘satellite’ tornado.
Copyright – KMBC (abc)
Copyright – 41 Action News
Copyright – NWS
Even in the news images, it’s impossible to see the mile wide tornado (all images owned by others, Copyright in above 5 images not mine!)
Hindsight shows us how lucky were were. The tornado we were in had been on the ground for 8 miles before hitting us and was likely an EF1 strength, 86-110 mph winds. It went on to become a mile wide EF4 (166-200 mph winds) tornado wreaking huge damage but missing the town of Lawrence by 4 miles! Had it been just a bit more developed, we might not be here typing this!
We decided to continue on with our second week storm chasing and whilst a bit jittery, had an amazing time seeing sights that will remain with us forever. Now we’re safely back in Chippenham in the UK, we can reflect upon our hair raising journey, even if we now view these storms with even more awe than we did before!