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1953 Warner Robins tornado and a myth put to rest

Guy Yocom

One of the most dramatic pieces of tornado footage ever is the 12-second clip of a tornado tearing through an apartment complex in Warner Robins, Ga. on 4/30/1953. At the time it was only the third motion picture of a tornado ever taken, with only Cuba in 1933 and Corn, Okla. in 1951 preceding it. It’s an amazing piece of film, showing large apartment buildings being blown apart and one only feet from the cameraman beginning to collapse before the camera shudders and the film ends abruptly. It was a particularly nasty tornado, killing 19 and injuring hundreds along its relatively short (1 mile) track and narrow path.

The most interesting aspect to me was the widespread rumor that the cameraman was killed by the tornado. The rumor was repeated in the first place I saw the film—an edition of Tom Grazulis’ outstanding Tornado Video Classics series. I’ve spoken with Tom several times over the years, always small talk as I purchased coffee cups and t-shirts over the phone. Tom wasn’t sure how well-founded the rumor was, but we agreed it would be a lot of fun to track it down.

Over the years, a name was attached to this cameraman: Vince Rupert, an airman reputed to have been serving at Robins AFB. I’ve performed a great deal of research at newspapers.com in my career as a golf writer, and at one point went in search of this Vince Rupert fellow. Nothing at all came up, though my interest was intensified when I found in the Atlanta Constitution a listing of the 19 people killed. Lo and behold, the list did not include the name of a Vince Rupert. Three years ago, I posted that clipping at NWS Peachtree City’s Facebook page, which features one of the several film clips posted of that tornado.

Last month, a guy on YouTube made quite an entertaining video on the tornado, and the Vince Rupert myth. Using aerial photos of the damage path, he makes an extremely accurate guess as to where the photographer was located. Young people especially know how to get clicks, and it‘s “#death” and “viewer-warning” peppered everywhere. Death sells. He included in his video the article I’d posted years before showing that “Vince Rupert” was not among the victims.

The day the video was posted, I began searching more in earnest at newspapers.com for the identity of cameraman. And I was very excited to find, after several hours turning page by digital page, an article in the Macon (Ga.) News that appeared two weeks after the tornado, revealing the identity of the man who actually filmed the tornado. It was not “Vince Rupert,” who probably never existed. The cameraman was Sgt. Lewis Prochniak, a Minnesota native and amateur film enthusiast who filmed the tornado and then dove for cover inside his home. He obviously was not killed or injured, and neither were his wife, teenaged son and daughter, who were at home with him when the event took place.

Sgt. Prochniak tried to sell his 8 mm color film and I‘m not sure if he was successful. The first mention of a public showing of the film happened at a woman’s auxiliary meetin in November of that year. Here is the newspaper story I‘m proud to have discovered after it being “lost” for almost 70 years. The one unfortunate aspect to the tale is that several individuals have shown up claiming credit for discovering it, which I fell is dishonest and unethical.

Here is a link to the NWS Peachtree City page where I posted the newspaper pieces originally: US National Weather Service Peachtree City Georgia


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