Four Year Anniversary of the Rochelle/Fairdale Tornado

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April 9th, 2015 will be a day that is remembered by many across northern Illinois as numerous tornadoes swept across the area, killing two and injuring nearly two dozen. 

Today marks the four year anniversary since an EF-4 tornado roared through Northern Illinois, disrupting so many lives, destroying so many homes and businesses, and forever changing the lives of those affected.  I remember thinking to myself, “This is what you see on TV, this can’t possibly be happening in my backyard”.  Nearly every storm that developed that afternoon began rotating.  I remember very vividly when the tornado watch was issued earlier in the day, and saying “Okay, this is it.  We need to be on our guard”.  I just knew deep down in my gut something very big was going to happen that afternoon. 

Meteorologist Kristin Cwynar and I were watching storms in eastern Iowa that had tornado warnings with them, hoping those storms wouldn’t cross over the Mississippi River.  As the atmosphere began to shows signs of becoming more unstable I thought to myself it’s only a matter of time, and shortly after 6pm is when we had our first tornado warning for Ogle, Winnebago and SW Boone counties.  Many more warnings were to follow that night, but the most devastating storm was the one that developed near Dixon and moved towards the Franklin Grove/Ashton area.

“A confirmed tornado was located near Ashton or 9 miles west of Rochelle, moving NE at 40 mph” 

Local storm chasers were all over that storm, relaying valuable information to forecasters at the National Weather Service.  We were able to keep in constant contact with the forecasters as well.  Kristin was monitoring the information coming into the National Weather Service, as well as storm reports, while I was on air doing continuous coverage.  Very often she would cut-in with new information that we had been receiving: where the tornado was, if there was any damage and where it was moving next.  I can remember at one point stepping off camera to go to the radar
and looking into the NWS chat and seeing the words “large wedge tornado” and thinking this can’t be real.  We didn’t have much time to process what was going on because at that point the adrenaline had kicked in, and I knew we had a very dangerous situation developing.  It was our job to remain on-air, remain calm and provide the most detailed information we could on where the storm was heading to keep people in its path safe.

Kristin and I worked like clockwork together and I couldn’t have picked a better partner to be with that night.  We both knew what had to be done…get the information out…and that’s exactly what we did.

“If you can hear my voice, you need to get to shelter NOW”

At one point that night, we had multiple tornado warnings over Northern Illinois.  It seemed as if Mother Nature didn’t want to give up.  A total of 11 tornadoes occurred in Illinois – with 7 of those in Northern Illinois.  What’s even more impressive is out of those 7, 6 tornadoes occurred from the same supercell thunderstorm! 

By now, the main tornado had formed into the massive EF-4 that trapped people in a restaurant, tore through farms and nearly leveled the town of Fairdale.  We had pulled up LIVE streaming coverage from a local storm chaser who was heading north on I-39.  The video wasn’t something we could rebroadcast, but it gave us an idea of what we were dealing with.  I can still picture the tornado nearing I-39, between IL 64 and IL 72.  In the back of my mind I was thinking ‘how can people survive this?  There is no way.  When will this storm end?’

“The town of Fairdale is gone.  There’s nothing left”

That was the phone call Kristin took in the weather center after the tornado went through Fairdale.  She remembers saying “What do you mean it’s gone?  It can’t be gone.  How does a town just disappear?”  But it was.  The once quiet, rural community that so many had called home nearly leveled in under 10 seconds.  How does that even happen?  Even after that storm had passed, there were many other storms to the west that were heading in that same direction.  “My goodness, what else could happen to those residents?”  But, we didn’t have much time to think about that because there were still numerous storms that had tornado threats. 

“People are trapped in Grubsteakers”

That’s what Mimi Murphy came into the weather center to tell us as the newsroom was continuously receiving information.  Again, my thought “This is something you see on TV in Oklahoma, not here in Northern Illinois”.  Immediately I began to think of possible injuries or fatalities.  And to me, it was heartbreaking.  Never before had I been in a weather situation where towns were gone and people were trapped in their homes or restaurants.  Immediately I felt as if I had failed.  But a good friend of mine at the Chicago National Weather Service told me that with a tornado of that magnitude, you can do everything you’re supposed to do, and sometimes tragedies just happen.

Kristin and I were on the air for almost 3 hours that night.  Three hours that seemed to fly by so fast, but at the same time seemed like an eternity.  We ended shortly before our 9pm newscast,
giving us only a little time to recoup and gather our thoughts.  When we went off the air, I walked out of the weather center and down the hall trying my hardest not to cry.  But by that time, I had to go back on air.  Once the 10pm newscast was finished, I knew our work wasn’t done.  That night, I stayed as long as I could to help out wherever I was needed.  Whether it be gathering information, shifting through storm information or trying to inform as many people as possible of what had just happened.  That night will stay with me forever.

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