Wachs Talks…My Experience in Moore, 5-20-13

I’ve wanted to be a Meteorologist ever since I was 3 years old. I was scared to death of thunderstorms when I was young. When I was 10 years old, I was home alone during a tornado warning. It was so dark at 3pm on that July day that I saw my reflection in the window (like it was midnight). That was one defining moment in my life. That fear turned into a fascination over time. I began storm chasing in high school and college.

My Dad and I

My Dad and I

In May of 1999 I went down to Norman, OK for freshman registration at OU. On the way down, my Dad and I drove through Moore, OK…two weeks after a monster F5 tornado killed 41, scoured pavement off of I-35 and changed so many lives. I remember seeing the National Guard checkpoints and a church steeple that collapsed when that awful tornado paid a visit that day in Moore.

Fast forward 14 years…almost to the day my Dad and I were driving through Moore. I have been an avid storm chaser through my college days at both OU and Wisconsin. Amazingly, despite driving thousands of miles over that 14 year period, I never saw a tornado…until May 20, 2013.

Radar from central OK 5/20/13. Courtesy: Radarscope

Radar from central OK 5/20/13. Courtesy: Radarscope

I left Kansas City on that Monday morning heading south to Oklahoma. My plan was to storm chase and shoot video for a story I was going to put together on storm chasing. With two cameras mounted on my dashboard, I saw the supercells developing as I drove into Oklahoma City. I made my way through heavy rain and hail in downtown OKC around 2:15pm, with the hail pelting my car. I plunged south of OKC, getting stuck in snarled traffic from time to time. I was in contact with Gary Amble and Chris Suchan in Kansas City, as they were helping guide me south. As the rain beat down, I heard the Meteorologist simulcasting on the radio talk about a large wedge tornado west of Moore, near Newcastle, OK. I was shocked as seemingly stronger supercells were located down to the south and those were more likely to go tornadic. I raced south of the rain into northern Moore. I could see a faint gray wall off in the distance, I figured it was the tornado, still a good 15-20 miles away. I randomly picked the SW 4th st. exit off of I-35 in Moore (which turns into 134th st. when you get west of Moore). I wasn’t exactly sure where the tornado was, I didn’t want to be too far north, but I also knew I might not have time to get south (likely to get stuck on the interstate).
beforeI was stopped at a red light on 4th street, where a 7-11 stood on the southwest corner. The sky was getting darker, so dark in fact, that the lights on the 7-11 sign turned on as I approached. Little did I know…that 7-11 would come to haunt me.
mooretornadoI continued west on SW 4th St. for about 5-8 miles, when I looked south near 134th and Penn. I saw the monster tornado about 10 blocks to my south. I continued tracking it as it slowly tore a path east heading into Moore. Hats off to the Moore Police Department, they were corralling traffic, preventing cars from driving into the tornado. I continued slowly moving east, watching the storm tear up Moore. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School a few blocks away, where many children lost their lives. I slowed my eastward progress as I saw the tornado curve northeast, eventually hitting the Moore Hospital and that 7-11 I drove by 5-10 minutes before.
steepleAs I was driving toward the hospital and the 7-11, I couldn’t help but notice a church steeple blown over by the tornado. Eerily reminiscent of the 5/3/99 Moore tornado when I saw the exact same thing.
trampolineI headed back to that 7-11 just a few minutes after the tornado hit, before any ambulances arrived on the scene. I snaked around a trampoline in the middle of the road, a huge tree branch and insulation from houses.
AfterOnce I reached the 7-11, I saw the horrible damage. I pulled into a parking lot across the street, the first entrance was blocked by debris, the second had a power line sagging above it. I was able to get into the parking lot across from the main damage area. I saw people running into the damage zone, including across the street at the gas station. I didn’t notice the 7-11 when I drove by the first time (until watching it on video later). I thought it was a parking lot, there was nothing left. I ran across the street with a flashlight, but was at a loss for how I could help. It looked like 10 people were pulling rubble off of a section of the parking lot. Turns out, it was the freezer to the gas station. Suddenly I heard them yell “get an ambulance!” I ran into the street along with many others, as an ambulance was approaching, to try to get the ambulance’s attention. I heard a police officer yell “we have 4 seriously injured.” As it turns out, it was a 3 people and a baby…they all passed away.

I made my way back across the street as more rain started falling. It was a helpless feeling that will forever leave me asking “what more could I have done?”
folksI talked to folks gathering along the street and heard their stories of survival. Sirens whined through the streets as police officers yelled at drivers who tried to drive over the debris. It was chaos. A Mother, who might have walked for miles, was running across the street toward 2 damaged daycare centers yelling, “my baby, my baby.” I met what looked to be a 2 year old little guy, dazed, in his Mother’s arms right after she got him from a destroyed daycare.
The CBS station in Oklahoma City pulled up to my location and parked a live truck about an hour after the tornado. I chatted with them for a while as they did off-and-on live reports during their wall-to-wall coverage. Another local Kansas City storm chaser pulled up a short time later as well. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere until our KCTV5 crew could make it down, as I had a flat tire from the debris. I went into more of a reporter mode during our newscasts, providing live phone interviews to KCTV5 throughout the night. I was also contacted by an Atlanta radio station for live interviews, as this story quickly went national…and international.

Late that Monday night, we made it into the damage zone (police had blocked off access to it). I talked to a man who was camping out in a tent in the front yard of what was left of his house. He was afraid looters would take his things. He told me he rode the tornado out in a  closet with his dog. I looked at the house and saw that closet…it was one of the only parts of the house remaining. All I could do was tell him that help was on the way, he was shocked when I told him that this was not just a local story, but a national and international one.
bathtubA few days later, I discovered that just across the field from the gas station where 4 lost their lives, a family of 5 rode out the tornado in a bathtub. The entire house was blown off of its foundation, except for the toilet and the bathtub. The 5 family members survived.
Before we left Moore, we drove by Plaza Towers Elementary school. I witnessed enough in my time in the damage zone, but I really felt it was important to see the school, as I talk to elementary schools about storm safety all the time. It turns out, the damage by that school was some of the worst.The houses around the school were all gone, no walls standing. It was awful knowing that children lost their lives in that building, but also amazing to know how many survived and the heroes that saved those children.

24 people lost their lives in this tornado, and in my opinion, had the tornado hit at 7pm instead of 3pm, the death toll would have been much higher. I think many folks were at work, so many people weren’t home at the time.

In my opinion

Helmets…I watched a family of 4 (Mom, Dad and 2 kids) walk out of the damage zone wearing bicycle helmets…before the emergency crews arrived. I read a statistic that 22% of the fatal injuries in the 2011 Alabama tornadoes were from head injuries. I’m ordering helmets for my wife and I.

Severe Weather Coverage…The Meteorologists in Oklahoma are the best of the best. From the National Weather Service to Television, they are all excellent. They saved many lives that day. Again, the strength of that tornado took us by surprise. I certainly expected most of the tornadoes to be south of OKC. That being said, being a TV Meteorologist is not easy. I received an email a few weeks ago after making a viewer angry by cutting into a show who said, “if you have a conscience, you would quit your job.” People can be extremely cruel, but this event in Oklahoma brought back the reason why I do my job. Thankfully, we haven’t seen a major tornado in KC in several years. The more the years tick by, the more people forget. Tornadoes are nothing to mess with. That being said, less than 2% of tornadoes are the strong EF-5’s. However, it seems that more EF-5 tornadoes have moved through populated areas in recent years, which is why we’ve seen these horrible stories in Alabama, Joplin and Moore. It is so important to be prepared. What I’ve learned from this tragic event is that there are rare times when weather can be life-threatening. I wasn’t able to save those 4 folks in the gas station, but you better believe I will do everything I can, from social media to traditional television to help save lives during severe weather.

Storm Chasing…A lot of folks have asked me if I will ever storm chase again. I am convinced that there was a reason this was the first tornado I ever saw. Tornado chasing isn’t a sport (as it seems to have become). It’s not about the best video or how many tornadoes you see. These storms are serious and deadly. I fully expected to see a tornado in a field, not in a major city. If you ask my wife, she will tell you I won’t be chasing ever again. She was scared to death that day, especially because cell service was down for hours and I couldn’t get a hold of her. But there is a real purpose for trained storm chasers/spotters. They are essential in the warning process. We can’t see down to the ground on radar, like trained spotters can.

God Bless the people in Moore, OK. As with Joplin and Alabama, communities come together to get through this. I am so proud of our Kansas and Missouri communities, sending water and supplies to those in need. Thanks to all of you, you make this community a great one.


Tom Wachs
Kansas City


2 Responses

  1. My daughter, her husband and 4 small boys were among the lucky ones because they had a ‘safe room’ in their master closet… I was on the cell with them during the entire event.. Bless the weather people who warned them… My prayers go out to all involved in that monster storm… They too will get helmets for next time..” I’m praying there will never be a next time”…. good story.
    Clearwater, Fl

  2. Sandy,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad they are okay.

    Thank you again,

    Tom Wachs

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