Authors: Steve Thayer
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller
At the anchor desk Ron Shea got his two bits on the air. “It would be wise if everybody watching this headed for the basement. Bucky, I don’t know if you can hear me, but don’t you think you should back off from that thing?”
Andrea chimed in. “Yeah, we’re really worried about you.”
“Negative,” the pilot shouted. “Stay off the radio!”
Within minutes the feed to Channel 7 was picked up and broadcast by the other TV stations. Radio stations plugged into the audio. As Buckridge described what he saw, and Kitt held his camera steady, a hundred sailboats moored at the Lake Harriet Yacht Club capsized, the masts snapping like toothpicks. The park pavilion where the summer concerts were held was destroyed. The tornado continued its dance of death and devastation for three more miles, across Lakewood Cemetery, where Minnesota’s famous were buried, and through the heart of trendy Uptown. It rearranged headstones, ripped off the roofs of houses, uprooted trees, and downed power lines. Cars were all but split in two as heavy branches crashed down on them. Some drivers made it out. Others did not. A tree limb pierced a house wall like a thrown spear.
“Just a big cloud swirling … this really big cloud swirling all over … It sounded like a locomotive, exactly like they say it does, except for that screaming woman. There was this big piece of sheet metal… and it just flew right over me and into the tree, and I saw the tree go right into the house like a missile … It was just unbelievable … I couldn ‘t believe I was alive.”
The tornado skirted the east shore of Lake of the Isles, where stately homes stood. Then it skipped across Loring Park on the edge of downtown. A man-on-the-street theory says tornadoes do not strike at cities. That theory is all hot air and wind. Tornadoes are not impressed by tall buildings.
Bob Buckridge noted his air speed: forty-six knots. The huge twisting cloud sometimes caused the ground to disappear. He checked his altimeter. They had climbed to eight hundred feet. With a quick glance at the monitor he made sure Kitt’s pictures were being fed back to the station. Playing chicken with the twister, he could just barely hear the debris attacking his ship. He feared Kitt, hanging out the door by a seat belt, would be hit. And there were jolts. But he never stopped talking. “Anybody in a downtown building should take shelter immediately-that includes Sky High News. The tornado is on the ground, headed your way.”
In a mass show of bravado, or of stupidity, all newsroom personnel held their positions.
Dave Cadieux, the photographer Gayle the Ghoul had sent to the roof, wrapped one arm around a steel pole, leveled his twenty-thousand-dollar camera on the tripod, and centered the twister in the special four-thousand-dollar lens. He was hanging on for dear life when through that lens he saw Skyhawk 7 swing out from behind the funnel. He almost burst with pride in his attempt not to burst in the wind. If they lived, it would be promo material for years to come.
The tornado tore across the roof of the Sky High parking ramp, lifting a red Honda Prelude and slamming it into a huge green transformer. The explosion was blinding, knocking out the television equipment below the ramp. The murder scene was completely blown away, any last bit of evidence sucked up and destroyed. Pressure shattered the southwest window in the newsroom, every shard of glass sucked outward.
After deflating the roof of the Metrodome, the supposedly weatherproof home of the Twins and the Vikings, the twister jumped the Mississippi River, faked back into the clouds, then pounced on St. Paul. It tore through the drive-through of a Burger King restaurant. Destruction was instantaneous. At an Amoco station it tore the gas pumps from their moorings and sent them whirling through the car wash. It cut across the northeast corner of the capital city, dipping into quiet weekday neighborhoods sucking up trees and homes and lives. Some victims were carried by the wind two hundred yards, their bodies horribly bruised and cut. From there the twister tripped across Highway 36 and set its sights on one of the largest shopping malls in Minnesota. Skyhawk 7 stayed with it all the way.
“The tornado is now on the ground in Roseville. If you are in the Rosedale Mall, go to the basement of Dayton’s department store. If you are watching this at the Rosedale Mall, get everybody to the basement immediately. You are in the direct path of the tornado. You have only seconds.”
A minute later, in one of the most sacrilegious acts in the history of Minnesota, this cyclone from hell audaciously attacked a Dayton’s department store.
“It just tore the roof off Dayton’s!” Buckridge barked into his mouthpiece. A thousand stones pinged off the Plexiglas. He saw Kitt’s head snap back. The vibrations were worsening. “We’re taking hits here! I’m coming around! I’m coming around!” He retreated in a clockwise circle, gained control, and approached again.
“I was driving to the mall when I heard the helicopter pilot on the radio talking about a tornado coming… I guess I should have turned around and gone home, but I drove to the mall instead. As soon as I got in the door I heard the Dayton’s people announce a tornado was coming, and a man was yelling, ‘Get in back! Get away from those windows.” Then the lights went out… and I looked out into the parking lot and saw cars spinning around, so I took cover behind a big couch … Then this train went overhead… and I heard this woman screaming for help … but I couldn ‘t find her … It was pretty scary for a while there.”
Bob Buckridge lined the tornado up with the visible horizon to the northeast and rattled off the communities he knew so well. “If you live in a line along Roseville, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, Mahtomedi, Stillwater, or St. Croix County, Wisconsin, you should take shelter immediately. The tornado is on the ground and coming your way.”
The tornado carved its deepest path through the St. Paul suburb of Roseville, flattening every house in its way. Yards for miles around were littered with neighbors’ homes. Church bell towers were silenced. By now the tornado had been on the ground for more than ten minutes, but with Dixon Bell’s early warning, and Bob Buckridge’s blow by blow descriptions going out over every radio and TV station in town, half of the metropolitan area was either underground or seeking shelter.
In once romantic While Bear Lake, immortalized in the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great tornado wrote a new chapter on urban sprawl, flattening one tacky development after another. As it steam-rollered by, no house, no boal could resisl for even a fraction of a second the tragic ending.
“It was just like a jet coming over the top of our house. Then our house was gone.”
Skyhawk 7 followed The tornado over the woods east of the Twin Cities. Uprooted trees were left sticking in the air. Trees left standing had the bark stripped from their trunks. It twisted across the scenic St. Croix River and into Wisconsin. Then, having spent its fury in a thirty-five-mile path through the heart of the metropolitan area, the Eden Prairie tornado disappeared into the cloud from which it had emerged a half-hour earlier.
Bob Buckridge watched the funnel slip back into the heavens. In the end there was a blinding, unnatural light with a blue tinge to it that lit up the black cloud like a fluorescent bulb. Then it was gone. He threw the broadcasl back to the studio. His once smooth-running ship was bucking. His knuckles wrapped around the control stick were deathly white, scraped and bleeding. He checked his instruments. His eye caught the monitor: a close-up of Andrea. God, she’s beautiful, he thought. Then, like a cruel joke, they quick-cul to Dixon Bell. The pilot chuckled. “From heaven to hell.” He circled around and brought Skyhawk 7 face to face with the back edge of the storm that had given the tornado birth. Home now lay to the west, two rivers and a mountain of violent wealher away. The dark sky was tinged with red. Rainfall was heavy. Hail raked his ship like groundfire. Lightning bolts cracked around him. Below him was the St. Croix Valley, its rolling hills studded with Irees and mined with lakes and streams.
Strong north winds whipped rain through the cockpit. Kitt was loading a new tape into his camera, seemingly unperturbed by events. His hair was dripping wet. His face was red. Blood trickled from his forehead. His hands were full, so he just smiled up at his pilot friend and nodded. I follow you anywhere.
Buckridge knew his ship was hurting. The vibrations would not smooth out. Perhaps his instinct told him he could make it, or maybe his foolish pride would not let him put it down, but he decided to try for Lake Elmo, a small airfield minutes away. He pulled in all the power he could and climbed to one thousand feet.
Ron Shea was trying his best to help viewers understand what they had just seen, what they all had been through together. “The special quality of life we enjoy here in Minnesota has been shattered.” He assured them reporters were on their way to the worst-hit areas and advised people to stay away. Andrea Labore had not spoken a word since Buckridge told her to shut up. Shea tossed it to Dixon Bell.
“The tornado is off the ground, but the storm is not over,” the Weatherman warned. The radar screen was on the air. “You can see the storm cell passing right over the metropolitan area. There are still some powerful winds in that cell, and there’s a lot of debris blowing around. The all clear has not been sounded. Stay inside and away from windows.”
Ron Shea interrupted. “Dixon, we’re going to check back in with Bob Buckridge. He’s in that storm and he may have something for us. Bucky?” There was a pause. “Bucky, are you hearing us now?” Another delay.
Then the feed from the chopper, both audio and video, was back on the air. The resonance of the pilot’s voice was foreign. “This is Skyhawk 7. We’re in trouble here. We’ve crossed the St. Croix heading for Elmo. My ship is out of control.”
Chris Mack sensed immediately what was happening. He was on his feet screaming into the microphone so loud he could be heard on the set. “Bucky, can you put it down anywhere? Put it down!”
The silence that followed was chilling. It was the silence of a newsroom choked with fear … the silence of two cities bracing for even more … and the deadly silence of an airborne helicopter when the engine quits. Even the thunder stopped. The picture displayed on TV sets spun dizzily out of control, raindrops attacking the screen. Then the voice of Bob Buckridge came over the air one last time, hauntingly calm and clear. “This is Skyhawk 7. We won’t be coming home.”
And then they crashed.
In front of a million spellbound viewers, they crashed. With the piercing, heartbreaking sound of twisting metal and snapping trees, over the sound of a newsroom full of friends shrieking in horror, they crashed. Where the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army had failed, the Minnesota weather had succeeded. It brought them down.
It takes a lot to shock and silence a newsroom, they are morbid by nature. At Channel 7 the only sound was of Ron Shea feebly ad-libbing at a red light atop a camera.
Andrea Labore turned to the Weatherman. His back was to the set, his face in a radar screen. Phosphorescent green light flowed through his thick hair. The orange-fire light over the console outlined his huge shoulders. Red digits flashed around him. But the apparition didn’t move. Dixon Bell seemed frozen … almost possessed.
No wind instrument has ever survived the full impact of a tornado, so they are measured after the fact. After this tornado the wind intensity was factored at F-5-winds topping 300 mph. The most accurate barometers fell to 26.97 inches. Canceled checks from Minneapolis floated to earth on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the age of satellites, radar, computers, radio, and television, the Eden Prairie tornado killed seventy-nine people and injured a thousand more. Property damage was over one billion dollars. Trees that had stood proud for a hundred years now lay on their sides, wrapped in power lines, waiting for chainsaws to come and finish what the tornado had started.
The two real heroes of the killer storm were dead in the thick woods east of town, their necks snapped in a crushed helicopter, their bodies tangled in twisted aluminum and broken tree branches, warm rain washing over them. Sirens wailed through the woods, in mourning instead of warning.
In the aftermath it was learned that most fatalities occurred in the early minutes of the storm, at the southwest end of the deadly trail, among those who weren’t watching television. As it moved northeast, homes had been blown into fragments. Leveled with the dust. Gone in seconds. But as neighbors climbed out to assess the damage, there was relief and happiness that they had survived.
Thousands of sightseers poured into the hardest-hit areas, creating additional traffic problems and sparking official warnings about looting.
“Have you been able to salvage anything?”
“No … and we’ve had people who have walked through already and picked up cameras and things.”
“Looters… right… how they can do it, I don’t know. I thought people were different here.”
“What are your thoughts now?”
“I think maybe God sent that tornado to punish us. Or warn us.”
Tornadoes are often accompanied by a high-pitched noise that crescendos to a scream. The spookiest part of this twisted tragedy was that as the tornado roared by, uprooted, maimed, destroyed, and killed, almost all survivors would universally describe what sounded to them like the amplified, terrified screams of a woman in an echo chamber-a horrifying, frightening cry for help they would never forget.
But not all was destruction, ruin, and death. At Channel 7 a legend was born.
Marines never leave their dead or wounded behind. Or so says the legend.
He knew they had called in an air strike, could see the sliver of silver angling out of the sun, but he believed there was still time. He threw his M-16 to the ground, tore the sweat-stained flak jacket from his back, and yelled “Cover me!” the way John Wayne did in the movies. Then, with the speed of a halfback, he ran through heavy sniper fire. He reached the first bloody grunt, shot all to hell, in shock, but still alive. He hoisted him over his shoulder the way a fireman does and ran him back to the eroded ravine that served as a trench. All the time he waited for a bullet in the back. But the bullets passed him by. He dumped the wounded Marine over the dry red dirt and turned again. He checked the silver bullet in the sky. Death descending. Two more grunts lay bloody in the yellow grass just before the tree line. There was still time.