Our Greensburg Chase. (links to YouTube clips at bottom)
May 4th, 2007 started off a Moderate risk chase day and our group was pumped up knowing the atmosphere was charged and ready to pop. We left our suitcases at the Dodge City hotel we stayed in the night before because we knew an outbreak would be in the central Kansas area. As the day moved on the risk kept moving east and it drew us with it to Great Bend. There, we stopped and socialized with many other chasers in the Walmart parking lot. It was strange seeing 10 or so chasers in the same parking lot back then. As we began to move east again we heard about the tornado Reed was on in Oklahoma. It was getting late in the day and we felt that painful Moderate day bust about to happen to us. We turned and headed back towards Dodge City on 56 and began seeing two separate beasts on the horizon. One was the Scott City cell to our NW and the other to our SW would become the Greensburg Tornado cell. We always had a rule that we would not chase at night. It was a good rule and it worked. The evening of May 4th, 2007 we broke the rule and 8 of us came close to dying.
We first stopped to take lightning shots on the bend of 183 south of Kinsley. We were blown away by the amount and rate of lightning as well as the size of some of the bolts. I got a call on my flip phone from Sara Austin informing us that they were on a wedge SW south of Greensburg. Her, Paul and the gang were very excited and said the tornado was very visible. This was enticing enough for us to break the rules and drop down 183 to see it.
As we dropped south things took a bad turn (literally). We had some very, VERY good meteorologists in the vans with us. Brian McNoldy, Josh Jans, and Shane Motley were spread out in three vans. Radio discussions became confused as the wind intensity and direction kept changing. We began taking big debris strikes on the lead van as I tried to keep it on the road. Insulation began flying by my windshield in pink flashes. We were in big trouble but did not know why (until later). As we approached 54 the confusion continued as some on the group got a glimpse of a tornado to our right, which did not make any sense (until later). Our attempted escape from mega RFD seemed to last for eternity (10 minutes on video).
We finally pulled out of the danger and was called by Sara in a panic. She was at a house south of Greensburg that had people trapped and needed help. She also talked about the cows being rolled up in the fences (and dying). We saw flashing lights and stopped to notify a volunteer firefighter of the situation the Austin’s came across. The volunteer turned out to be a stunned Fire Chief who had just lost his entire town. We offered to help and he accepted.
We had stopped to help folks after tornados many times before. It always turned out good and we felt good about doing it. Greensburg was much different. Many in the group worked hard through the night and did what they could in a very, very messed up situation. None of us had ever experienced devastation at the level we did in Greensburg, even the professional Firefighters. My personal story of that night is still a bit difficult to think about. There was a point of time in my trek to find rescue equipment that I stopped and said out loud to myself that I did not want to be there. At that same moment, I heard many people screaming for help. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless. It was crushing. It bothered me for years.
An Organized response took hours due to the remote location of Greensburg. The first wave of volunteers all had a family members or friends they needed to go look for so their organized response quickly became unorganized. Kinsley and Pratt Firefighters arrived and began searching through the massive debris field that used to be Greensburg. It is hard to describe trying to crawl through debris and never knowing if you are on a street, in a yard, or in a house. It took hours for the first big city professional rescuers to arrive and assist. Dodge City sent a couple firefighters on a mini rescue and we worked together through the night. Wichita firefighters arrived in the morning. I called my contacts in Texas when I finally got cell service and I asked for them to mobilize the nearest USAR team. I predicted 100 lives lost in the beginning.
We saw many people working their butts off to help neighbors and family members, but we also saw complete chaos. We witnessed greed in folks trying to capture pictures during the people of Greensburg’s worst times. We saw things many of us have never talked about and most likely never will.
The absolute truth is that while we gave it everything we had, there was no real rescuing of people or heroism, we tried our best and the sheer magnitude of the disaster was overwhelming.
This is the reality of a big destructive tornado. Many chasers find themselves in these situations if they chase long enough. It is not fun. There is NO Glory. If you find yourself in one of these situations and are there to take pictures you better think about it and put your camera down. Think about what it would be like for your community to be destroyed and your family trapped or injured and you see someone only wanting to take pictures. I cannot even imagine.
Hats off to those who were there and did your best to try and help. I know there were a lot of you there.
The reason we could not escape the RFD was because it was actually the tornado itself occluding and turning left right behind us. Not only did it nearly hit us on 183, but also 54 after we tried to escape west.
Greensburg Clip 1