I was driving like a madman north of Robinson 30 years ago looking for a tornado when a transmission over the police scanner sent me into a panic.
“I think we might have two funnels now!” the weather spotter said with an urgency in his voice.
The tornado I was looking to shoot with my camera had hit Newton during the early evening of June 2, 1990, and then went aloft, veering to the northeast. I was a reporter for the Robinson Daily News back then and I wanted to get a photograph in broad daylight of a long black funnel guiding across the June horizon. That is why I was driving the newspaper’s Bronco straight north at high speed.
When the report of two funnels came over, I was headed up a steep hill and the sky was turning an ugly dark gray and the wind was bending back tree branches. I had no idea what was ahead on the roadway. As far as I knew my search for a tornado would end when I topped that hill. The hunter would become the hunted in an instant. It is a wonder I didn’t get whiplash the way I was turning my neck back and forth to check the sky during that terrifying moment.
Fortunately, there was no such encounter and soon after the scanner traffic confirmed there was no second funnel descending from the sky over Crawford County. I drove near the northern edge of the county and saw no funnel. Then came a scanner report the twister had crossed over to Indiana where it later touched down again wreaking more havoc.
I turned around and headed back to Robinson, thinking I could go back to my apartment and calm down for the remaining of that Saturday.
Then the scanner announced that Newton needed help from surrounding counties. Many emergency vehicles and emergency services crews from Crawford County headed west on Route 33 to the Newton. I did so as well because this was a big story for my newspaper.
The drive to Newton was interrupted regularly by ambulances, fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicle flying low on the highway with their lights flashing and sirens wailing.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Newton. I had seen a video of what a tornado did to Allendale the year before. I was prepared for seeing the worst in the town where I had lived and worked a few years before for the Newton Press Mentor.
I encountered a roadblock near the high school. I said Hello to Bob Kerans, who was helping with traffic control. He was the first of several Jasper County folks I would meet again that day.
I parked by the high school and soon met some Oblong firefighters. They told me they were helping look for a body that someone said fell into a nearby field. It proved a mistake; it was probably a large piece of debris.
I came to the remains of the Ranch Motel and saw where cars had crashed through the walls. Then walking back to the east, I saw a young man with his son. He told me how they crouched down by a washer and held on as the winds ripped their rental residence apart. They and so many other people in Newton were spared. Serious injuries numbered only a handful. The worst of the them was a woman at the motel where a car landed on her leg, crushing it.
There were trees turned pink or yellow with pieces of insulation. Metal pieces hung from branches or were wrapped around tree trunks. Roofs were stripped of shingles and lawn decorations were strewn far and wide.
I talked to everyone I could. I wasn’t being insensitive. I wanted to know what they went through when the tornado came through and how much damage they suffered to their homes. Some were still in a state of shock. It’s my understanding some residents on that edge of town still refuse to talk about that day.
As I kept up my efforts, I noticed more and more emergency vehicles and emergency crews arriving from different counties. It was amazing how the area was coming to Newton’s aid.
I stayed until late that Saturday night. I forget how many frames I shot that day or how many interviews I conducted mostly outdoors. I felt satisfied two days later when the story and photos were published.
Back then Robinson newspaper only published in black and white. But I still regret I didn’t snap a shot of the perfect sunset many people remember not long after the tornado hit Newton.
And I did learn an important lesson that day as a journalist. When you’re trying to photograph a tornado get behind it, not in its path.