For a couple days now I can’t seem to stop thinking about that day.
I was just starting my junior year in college at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL. It was a Tuesday- I can’t have been moved back into the dorm more than a few days. I was outside Cody Hall, one of the few coed dorms at that time, ostensibly studying molecular biology- but really just hanging out with the sunbathing girls. It was a strong sun, very hot for Illinois standards (but not unusual for the Carolina summer days I now experience)- in the 90’s with dewpoints in the upper 70’s. It was like being down in the Florida Keys.
About 3:30 pm the sky got very dark in the west- as if Hell itself were opening up out over there. I went inside, and decided I wouldn’t walk to campus in the rain for dinner, so I called out for pizza.
What I didn’t know then was that it actually was Hell opening up. I was four miles or less downrange of the worst killer tornado the state has ever seen– an F5 tornado that was leveling the nearby towns of Plainfield and Crest Hill. It scored a direct hit on Plainfield High School, where the football team had been out practicing. 29 people were killed, including the father of one of my classmates. He was killed when he and his car were picked up and thrown by the twister.
This was before Doppler radar. We had no idea what was happening. I hadn’t the slightest idea that I had seen a tornadic storm, much less the monster this one was. The tornado was rain-wrapped so it was impossible to see a funnel cloud. The local radar could not see the tornado for several reasons, none the least of which was that it was confused for ground clutter. Despite having tornado sirens everywhere, they never fired. No tornado warning was issued until about 30 minutes after the storm had passed. The first clue I had that anything had happened was when I started getting the phone calls from friends and family asking if I was OK and telling me to turn on the news. My immediate area and the campus were not hit by the storm.
Since then I have seen four more tornadoes- a couple of F3’s that did damage in Lemont, IL in 1991 and Urbana, IL in 1996 (I was a medical student who helped with the emergency response in the ER for this one), and a couple in Champaign, IL some other time in the 90’s that did no damage- but I’ve not had such a close encounter with a killer like this one. F5’s are so rare I will almost certainly never see one again- especially living in North Carolina, where I believe there’s been F4’s but never an F5. I don’t care to.
Having been so unaware of what was happening, I swore I would never be caught unaware again. I educated myself about severe weather, and I have been a NWS SKYWARN spotter for 15 years. Ironically enough, I have not seen a funnel cloud or tornado since I have been a spotter. The closest since then was a supercell that formed out ahead of a squall line on April 16, 2011 in Richmond County, NC, then headed northeast, began to rotate practically above my house according to the radar (though I saw no rotation), became tornadic somewhere near Carthage, NC- knocking down a 100 year-old tree on Dowd Rd, then heading on to Sanford where an F3 destroyed the Lowes hardware store. It then went on to just miss the Shearon Harris nuclear plant and did F2 damage in Raleigh in the Saunders St. area near downtown Raleigh. This storm was part of a tornado outbreak that was one of the the worst on record. I followed the storm from a safe distance and did a damage survey of Moore and Hoke Counties (Hoke was hit by a different tornado).
My heart breaks for all those out in Moore, Oklahoma tonight, and I will light incense in the memory of those who were killed.