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Riding the storm out: A reporter’s eye-witness account of the tornado

Posted on 05/20/2018
Riding the storm out: A reporter’s eye-witness account of the tornado

By Adam Chodak, former KUSA northern Colorado bureau reporter and current evening anchor and managing editor Rochester NY’s WROC News 8.

That morning shortly after 11:00 a.m., Gary Wolfe and I were driving south on Highway 257 with our minds on the story of the day, which if memory serves focused on a new traffic tool to monitor speeding, when a message crackled over the scanner that caught Gary's ear: a tornado touched down in Gilcrest. That was to the south of us. We hadn't heard of any tornado warnings and the sky around us was gray, but appeared calm.

We decided to head in that direction but didn't think too much of it given that small funnels formed and scraped the ground on the plains all the time with little to no impact. As we were cresting the Highway 34 overpass, I remarked on how low the clouds were hanging that day.

Gary, having reported on tornados before in Oklahoma, pointed out that the wall of clouds was rotating. We were roughly a half mile from an EF-3 tornado. He immediately parked on the southern side of the overpass and told me to get in the driver's seat. He said he was going to shoot the tornado from the back of the live truck. Should the tornado turn from its northerly course and head our way, he would jump in the back and I'd take off.

Seconds after he set up, the wind and hail attacked us. I looked east over Highway 34 and saw cars driving straight into the tornado. The car shook and the hail pummeled the car. Gary was struck at least twice in the leg. A baseball-sized piece of hail shattered the windshield. My foot literally shook while pressing down on the break. I filmed what I could on my phone. And then it was gone. Heading north.

Gary and I immediately called the station to tell them what was happening. Noon was approaching. We sent the video in immediately, and before I had time to compose my thoughts we were live, and I was holding up a ball of ice to viewers.

Windsor. That's where I said the tornado might be going. Maybe Fort Collins, but likely Windsor. After the live shot, we screamed north. Before we entered Windsor, we saw giant train cars blown off the rails. We were following the tornado's path. We saw the destruction to the daycare center first. Broken 2 by 4s shot up from what roof was left. We were by far the first news crew on scene. We remained live in front of the daycare for some time getting bits of information as to everyone's safety. Much relief came when we heard the kids had been hustled over to the bank next door. It wasn't until much later that we learned of one person dying not far from 34. That was the only fatality.

I ran on adrenaline that day. I obviously feel grateful to have seen such a display of nature's power, but I'm also grateful I was with Gary whose professionalism won the day - and helped us win an Emmy.

Watch the raw footage Gary Wolfe shot from the Highway overpass.

Watch the tornado approach the State Farm Operation Center in Greeley - from the State Farm camera.

(Photo of Gary Wolfe and Adam Chodak by Ulysses Photography.)