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Tornado witness from Concord: "tractor-trailers knocked over and tossed around like neglected toys''.

Posted by Your Town  May 23, 2011 08:50 AM

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My name is Chris Curtis and most days I run the West Concord Five and Ten in Concord, but this weekend I headed to Oklahoma to find some tornadoes for the next two weeks. This is my 8th year heading out to chase storms and I will again be with Cloud 9 Tours. I have now seen 40 tornadoes with Cloud 9 (and one on my own here in Massachusetts!). What follows is a diary of the first day of storm chasing with our group.

Hear Chris Curtis from Joplin, Mo.

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Sunday, 1:00pm. I am in the van on I-40 headed east. The Storm Prediction Center has issued stern warnings about the severe potential for a few hours from now. Some of the raw data is in fact off the scale. Within about 2 hours we should have the first periods of convection. Then we go all storm-crazy. Updates will follow......

3:40 pm Headed north to Tulsa and are now on the Turnpike headed Northeast. A storm cell has developed in Southeast Kansas that is looking quite promising, and is moving SE. It is also 'right-turning' which that its forward motion has gone from a straight path to a bit of a right hand turn. This usually indicates that the storm is rotating, which is exactly what we want to see.

Sometimes vacations turn into reality.

Joplin. We chased the storm in Kansas, it was far away, but moving slowly. By the time we got to it we were on I-44 just before Joplin. The radar hook now showed a huge reflective ball, and it was more than any amount of rain or hail could produce. It was debris. And it was right over Joplin. We were looking at the radar image of rubble being thrown about by a massive tornado, and that rubble was the center of the city of Joplin.

The interstate travels south of the city, and the tornado was north of it, but sliding south. It was going to pass ahead of us. The storm was also massively rain-wrapped, it felt more like a hurricane than anything else. Our visibility was down to a few hundred yards, and sometimes less, as we neared the debris field. We slowed, and began to see damage; knocked over highway signs, downed trees, then a few houses without roofs, and then we were at the point where it crossed, only a minute before.

We saw tractor-trailers knocked over and tossed around like neglected toys. Cars were in ditches. We pulled over, and as several of us are trained first responders we went from chase mode to rescue mode.

I ran to the first truck, and was soaked within seconds. Lightning was hitting all around but we barely noticed. I came around the cab of the truck and the driver was standing up in his cab, talking on his cell phone. He gave a thumbs up sign to indicate that he was okay, and was actually now happy to be at least dry.

We had scattered to several trucks, and came back together. Most were ok, but the truck a few yards behind us was giving off smoke, and the driver had a gash on his head.

We got the driver out of his truck, and Michael (one of the storm chasing group), with his hail-proof vehicle, decided he needed to get to a hospital. The driver was bleeding a lot, and probably had a concussion. Some friends of ours who had joined our caravan then got another trucker and the two vehicles went off to get them to safety. We discussed going up into Joplin, a few of us had skills that might be helpful, but the decision was to bot add to the chaos with extra people and cars. We went south, planning to meet up with Michael at the hospital later on.

This was a high precipitation bomb of a storm complex, and the rain never let up as we tried to either get east or south of the rain. We went through the damage path of the tornado a second time then, and saw a ton of damage in the tiny town of Wentworth. Many trees were down, and several houses had structual damage. Eventually we had to give up and turn around to meet up with another van in our group. But cellphone service was out, as was electricity for the entire area and it was hard to get through to him. Eventually Charles, one of the people in our group, got him via text and we discovered that they had gone to the Joplin hospital instead of the one to the south that we had first discussed.

We had heard on the radio that the Joplin hospital had been destroyed. And that it was on fire.

When we finally met them later on, at a gigantic McDonalds on I-44, we heard a bit of what they had seen. And I could see the shock in their eyes. Dead and wounded and grieved in all directions. Whole neighborhoods had been leveled.

Now it is dark and we are headed to Tulsa where we have already secured rooms for all 25 of us. And the conditions for tomorrow are likely just as bad as they were today.

Day one done. Fourteen more to go.

Send a good thought out to the people in Joplin. They need it.

Chris Curtis plans to send boston.com/concord periodic updates of his two week storm chasing trip. "It can be a bit nomadic, as each day we head out with no idea of where we will end up, sometimes not even knowing which state we will be spending the next night within,'' he wrote before arriving in Oklahoma this weekend. "We usually gather at a set time, load up the vans, and go find some food, and then drive to our target area. That area will be dictated by the weather conditions that we find that morning. We try to position ourselves each night for the next day, and can sometimes drive into the wee hours of the morning to do so. Things can change while we sleep, so sometimes we get a surprise five-hour drive to start the day, when we thought we were in perfect shape the night before. It’s as if the weather has a mind of its own sometimes…''

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