Tornado, KARE-11, 1986

KARE-11 and TC Media Now

Remembering the July 18, 1986 "KARE-11" Tornado

The Most Remarkable Day of My Meteorological Career

Paul Douglas
July 18, 2018 - 11:05 pm
Categories: 

I've been blessed to be able to turn a hobby, a passion - into a lifelong career. I've chased tornadoes, flown into the eye of Hurricane Frances, weathered raging blizzards, flash floods and wild storms that would make a grown man tremble, but NOTHING prepared me for what I would encounter coming to work on July 18, 1986, while working as Chief Meteorologist at KARE-11.

Tornado, KARE-11, 1986
KARE-11 and TC Media Now

It's been 32 years since an EF-2 tornado touched down at the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley, Minnesota. It was late afternoon on July 18, 1986, a hot, sultry day with temperatures near 90F and a tropical dew point close to 80F. Not terribly remarkable for the third week of July: steamy and tropical. No watches, no warnings - I was preparing for the 5 PM News on Channel 11, when the assignment reporter in the newsroom yelled out that a tornado was forming in the northern suburbs.

Say what? My first reaction was "Knock it off. Not funny!" I thought the guy was joking. There was no severe weather in the area. It had to be a hoax, fake-weather news. I remember being irritated when I heard the first report. And then I looked at his face and realized he wasn't kidding. I ran to the studio and as I walked in I saw raw video from Sky 11, our TV news helicopter, on one of the monitors. It showed a funnel cloud, a dark rope-like embryo of a tornado writhing on the screen. I gasped as I put on my wireless microphone.

We threw out the scripted newscast and decided to go live with the video being streamed from the chopper. I looked over at anchorman Paul Magers, who appeared to be just as baffled as I was as the news open rolled. "Live from the Action Center of the Twin Cities..." It felt surreal, like being stuck in a bad dream. A tornado forming during a newscast, with live video from a helicopter less than half a mile away? There was no script for this - no contingency plan. We would have to make it up as we went along.

Here is a link to a video recording of the 5 PM newscast on July 18, 1986, courtesy of KARE-11 and TC Media Now:

Here, in no particular order, are some of my memories of what happened next. The tornado was on the ground for only 16 minutes, but it seemed longer. I remember looking at Paul and shrugging. "Keep talking" the producer barked into my IFB, my earpiece. "Just talk!".

-   Sky 11 pilot Max Messmer and photographer Tom Empey were on their way to another story when they saw a funnel forming in the north metro. They immediately deviated from their destination and began circling the developing tornado, sending back live video. Raw video - no time to edit for family-friendly viewing. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, what happens if we show live video of a tornado ripping through a tornado? Do we stay on the air - no matter what happens?"

-   Tom Empey was taking a new "gyro-zoom lens" for a test drive. This allowed him to zoom into the tornado without the normal jumpiness of a video camera lens. The video was smooth and captivating, almost mesmerizing, as the ghost-like funnel danced around, touching down on the ground over what appeared to be a wooded area east of Brooklyn Park.

-   Max Messmer began narrating what he was seeing as Paul Mager, Kirstin Lindquist and I watched with a mixture of fascination and horror. "This is spectacular!" he yelled into the microphone. "I have to move to a safer area!" I was scared to death that a tree limb or other source of debris would fall into the chopper blades. I remember pleading with Max, on the air, to stay a safe distance away from the tornado. Which would be Kansas. But he insisted on getting as close as he could to the tornado. In fairness, Max flew in Vietnam and rescued mountain climbers in the Alps, so he was accustomed to a fair amount of danger on the job. His poor photographer, Tom Empey, was not. Rumor has it that he kissed the ground when the chopper finally landed less than an hour later.

Historic Tornado
NOAA

-   Most tornadoes move at 20-40 mph, cloaked in a veil of hail and wind shear. You just don't fly up next to a tornado without risking life and limb. But Max and Sky-11 were 1/4 to 1/2 mile away from the tornado, which appeared white at times, due to the sun shining on the funnel. The tornado was nearly stationary, allowing Max to completely circle the vortex of swirling wind, time after time. The video was almost hypnotic - fully grown trees being pulled out like weeds. I couldn't believe what I was witnessing - live.

-   Every time KARE-11 lost the live video feed they would come back to me, and I would point to the green screen (Chroma Key) and show where the tornado was on radar. This was before Doppler, wo we couldn't see the wind field within the supercell. It just looked like a big, red stain over Fridley. At times I looked a little lost. It felt otherworldly, surreal.

-   The tornado was nearly stationary over the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley, carving a path of almost complete destruction through the canopy of trees. My fear was that the tornado would eventually reach a neighborhood with homes and businesses and vehicles (it was the height of rush hour). How could we possibly keep this going if we were witnessing (live) the destruction of a town in the north metro? Should we keep the live video going - no matter what we saw? Was this the journalistically-responsible thing to do? Should we cut away?

-   At one point Paul Magers asks where Max is. He hesitates, and then a few minutes later tells us his location. After the fact we learn that Max brought the helicopter down to street level and READ A STREET SIGN to know exactly where he was. Not exactly an FAA-approved maneuver, but in the heat of the moment he did the only thing he could do to keep the flow of information going.

-   It almost seemed like the tornado wanted to be videotaped. Max and Tom continued to circle the twister,  beaming back live footage.

-   By this time many people are stopped on highways, climing up on their rooftops for a clearer view of the tornado. Many people remember exactly where they were, and what they were doing when that tornado touched down. Many were parked in front of their TV sets, others defied conventional wisdom and tried to get as close to the tornado as possible for a better view.

-   We held our collective breath, relieved to discover no serious injuries from this EF-2 tornado, with winds estimated as high as 130 mph. It was a reminder that large tornadoes can hit the immediate Twin Cities metro area.

-   Hundreds of requests come in, from not only media outlets, but scientists around the world, hoping to analyze the footage to get a better understanding of how tornadoes form, strengthen and weaken. At times the funnel was nearly transparent, allowing researchers to track the speed and movement of individual trees sucked up in the maelstrom of wind and fury. The raw video was a treasure-trove of meteorological evidence, and scientists would take years to dissect the video frames, to try and get a better understanding of what makes these storms tick.

At the end of the 5 PM news I remember being in a mild state of shock. So were Paul and Kirsten. I remember walking off the set, shaking my head, incredulous and shaken by what I had witnessed. I had no recollection what I said on the air, either. For all I know I was babbling incoherently. I remember feeling a mix of fear, fascination and anxiety. We had been in uncharted territory. No TV news crew had ever narrated a live tornado on the air, much less during a newscast.

For the next 10 years I would take a videotape of the July 18, 1986 to schools for assemblies. The video was an amazing ice-breaker, and every time I watched it I picked up something new, some detail I had previously missed - and then explain to kids what to do if a tornado ever approaches their home.

July 18, 1986 was a day like no other I had ever experienced, or experience since. I can think of no similar live broadcast of a tornado during a regular newscast. We were in the right place, at the right time, with the right technology and the right team to cover this remarkable tornado. It was, without any hyperbole or exaggeration, the highlight of my TV meteorology career.

Jordana Green and I discussed this on our WCCO Radio show Wednesday. If you missed it, here is an audio clip of our discussion:

My memory isn't what it used to be. But I will never forget that day, when for a few minutes the Twin Cities metro shut down, and almost everyone seemed to stop what they were doing, transfixed by what they were seeing on television. It was a reminder of the power of live video, and the power of nature. Lifelong lessons that still resonate today.

- Paul Douglas