April 27, 2011 will go down as one of the worst days in the history of the state. To date, almost 200 deaths have been reported from the wave of killer tornadoes that swept through the state. I was very nearly one of those deaths. I am going to share this experience with you, not to bring any notice to me but to help me get it out of my head and on paper so I can sleep again. Sometimes you live through something, maybe you shouldn’t have, and all you can do is play the scenario over and over again in your head. I got to get it out of my head and maybe in the process someone can learn something that may help them down the road.
Arriving at work Wednesday, we were hearing about severe weather already. I left the office and headed to Limestone County. Tornado warnings were already being issued and I had a great shot of what appeared to be a funnel of rain in the midst of a swirling cloud base. I got back to the office and got the photo online. It was not a tornado but it was a beautiful photo. I thought that must be it. As soon as I finished getting that photo posted, the second wave of storms blew through.
I had returned to Limestone County and was parked on Ingram Rd. just off of Highway 31 south of Tanner. I was watching the most frightening cloud formation I had seen in years rolling toward me. It was an awesome spectacle. I later heard the surface wind speed was peaking at 80 mph. When I could barely stand up anymore I got out of there thinking I had seen the worst of it. These straight line winds caused damage all across the county and I spent the next couple hours chasing down damage. I returned to the office to get these photos out for the afternoon news budget meeting. By this time it was just about 4 pm and we began hearing about the third wave.
I heard on the scanner that a confirmed tornado had already ripped up two communities west of us and was still on the ground heading toward Trinity. I knew this storm track was leading right back into Limestone County and I raced across the river watching a cloud with an ominous drab olive green color swinging across the river parallel to me. I found a position near Pryor Field in southern Limestone County and got on the phone with my brother Rob. He was watching the weather on TV and feeding me storm movement projections. I was not in a good place. I asked him to give me exactly where the weathermen were saying it would cross Highway 31. It was Tanner crossroads, a few miles north of my position. I began moving north.
I crested a small hill on Highway 31 passing just under the electric transmission lines running out from Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. Looking down the lines I could see blue flashes as the lines were snapping and transformers blowing. I knew what this meant. There was a for real tornado on the ground and it was close. The sound was like a huge vacuum cleaner but with a much deeper bass note. It was thrumming. At the crest of the hill, I saw a Limestone County deputy sheriff who had been storm spotting blowing south on Highway 31 as fast as he could. I looked left and saw the monster tornado as it approached a tree line west of the highway. I shot the first frame at 4:20:54 pm. I shot a burst of 14 frames with my last frame being fired at 4:21:13 pm on April 27. Within the next 45 seconds three people lost their lives inside of a half mile from my position.
The inflow of air rushing toward the tornado appeared to be moving at a minimum of 45 mph. I learned later the tornado was moving at a ground speed of approximately 60 mph. Two days later I took a rough measurement of the distance and when I shot the last frame the funnel was about 7 tenths of a mile away from me. It was coming directly at me. The tornado got to the spot where I was shooting from within about 45 seconds from the time I shot my last frame. The alarm clock in my head was ringing loudly. A wall of clouds was advancing toward me faster than anything I had ever seen. I sprinted my car back south on US 31 as fast as it would go and still stay on the road. I was driving over 85 last time I looked and the wind speed was approaching a velocity that would roll my small car. My ears were popping from the rapid pressure change. It was very close. I figured later that, had I waited ten seconds longer, I would not be here to worry about it. I cleared the worst zone and pulled into a crossover lane and shot a few frames as the storm rolled over what would be Swan Creek Trailer Court. The time on that first frame was 4:23:37 pm. Three people were now dead or dying in the area I had just been photographing. Three more were being injured in the trailer court.
Three cars made it down Highway 31 after me. One motorist did not. Her car was thrown from the highway into a field. Ten seconds. That’s it. Ten lousy seconds. I have to ask why the alarm sounded in my head and not hers. You wonder if maybe her vision was shielded, maybe she didn’t know what she was driving into while I did. Lots of questions. No answers. No reason I am alive and they are dead. Just doesn’t make any sense at all. Good people died, many, many good people. It breaks my heart. I sat in my car shaking, trying to decide what to do. I have always been good under stress. This time I was just shaking. But I was not done working. I should have turned around right then and gone north on 31 to the trailer court but instead I called my brother to get a track on the storm. I wanted to parallel it. That was dumb. The storm was moving at 60 mph. I couldn’t go nearly that fast and I would have to use winding roads. Not thinking, just shaking.
That decision cost me a lot of time. I didn’t shoot another significant frame until I arrived on McCulley Mill Rd. east of Athens at 5:43:57. I was boxed in every way I turned by blinding rain and hail, high winds and roads blocked by fallen trees and power lines. There were times when you couldn’t see a hundred feet and all you could see was a wall of white water blowing hard. Another tornado warning sent me scrambling north to get away. North sides of storms are where you get killed. You can’t see the tornado. I had one close call. That was enough. Whatever road I was on led me to Highway 72 just east of where the tornado crossed.
I walked into the McCulley Mill Rd. subdivision which had been leveled. I shot two rescues and several other people who were storm victims displaced when their solidly built brick homes were completely leveled. A couple of these pictures have received wide play all over the world. It doesn’t matter. When stuff like this happens you shoot frames that get a lot of play but they get a lot of play because there was a disaster. People lost their lives, their property, everything. I was still shaking but at least now I could do something. I helped a deputy get an elderly man out of his home. He was wounded on his arm but otherwise ok. The tornado had blasted his walker somewhere. No one knew where, may never know. We helped him out until a paramedic could check him.
Now a different clock went off in my head. The deadline clock was ringing now. I had walked over a mile into the McCulley Mill Rd. area and now another hard rain was falling. I called my editors to let them know what I had and found out we had to drive to Florence. All power was out in Decatur. I didn’t get to Florence until after 9 pm. After working images up for the paper and getting help from Times Daily photographer Daniel Giles who uploaded a number of images to AP it was finally time to go home. I got home sometime after midnight. Couldn’t sleep. Haven’t slept much yet. Maybe tonight now that I have dumped all this on you guys.
Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.