Leading up to April 9th, the models were in good agreement with a severe weather outbreak occurring across Northern IL and Southern WI. The plan became apparent a few days out – Finish out my work week on the midnight shift, then blast southwest at 7am on no sleep and see what happens. I HIGHLY suggest no one does this. I really don’t know how I was operable at the end of all of this, but luckily I made all the right decisions that day and I now know I can push myself much futher past my breaking point.
Anyway, as I left work in Midland, I had to run home to get my gear then hit the road. I stopped in Greenville, MI and picked up Charles Russell, who would ride along in the Nitro with me for the day. It was the first time we met, although we had been around eachother numerous times here in Michigan.
We preceeded south in Lower MI through Grand Rapids down US-131, jumping to I-94 then I-80/90 in Indiana. After some discussion, we decided to skip the whole mess that is the Chicagoland area, moving slightly south on I-65 then jumping off to some country roads, jogging our way into central IL. We encountered numerous cool small farm towns, and eventually made our way westward. One of the eery things about this is the fact we drove through Coal City, an area which would later get hit with a tornado on June 22nd.
A few showers began popping up on radar, and eventually a cell fired north of Peoria that would get tornado warned. We began heading towards this cell, only for it to die off just as we were beginning to gain a visual – In fact, we could see where the inflow got cut off, and the remnants of what was a nice storm became a small thin layer of low level clouds that we simply drove under.
After this, the waiting game began. All of the triggers were still off in Iowa, so we wandered around small towns, monitoring the weather and watching the initiation and death of about 5 or 6 small cells. Things struggled much of the day, but we soldiered on.
As things began to move farther east, we wanted to wait and see if storms popped in front of everything coming out of Iowa, while still leaving another play open on the later storms. Not much was happening, so we ultimately made the decision to move northwest towards a tornadic cell near the Davenport, IA area. Once we committed to that – The atmosphere got VERY angry.
We approached Dixon, IL – Hometown of Ronald Reagan! This was a bit ironic as we were talking about presidents and mentioned him earlier…so..maybe that was a clue? As we moved out of Dixon, we were treated to a beautiful cell that was evolving to the north – A low topped supercell that had some phenomenal structure. The problem was the road network leading to it was not that great, and it wa simply too far ahead of us to keep up with. We stopped for a few moments and enjoyed the view.
While underneath that storm, we were also monitoring the cells firing to our south, which became severe warned very quickly for hail. Driving south and moving east now, we were cored for a brief second with strong rain, some light hail and a very scuddy and rapidly rising updraft base, but no signs of tornadic activity – yet….
As we let it move to position again, we began to head towards Oregon, IL. As we got halfway between Oregon and Dixon, we were now watching two storms….The one to the west, which was tornado warned earlier and reorganzing, and the cell that just went over us merging together with another cell to the south..We stopped to access the situation, and a had a strange funnel like cone to our left, when we noticed a well defined stovepipe funnel to the southeast! What was a simple cell merger had quick become a violently rotating updraft, all the while we have another rotating storm to our west.
At this time, we sat, getting pictures from both sides of what was going on. As the cell to the west appeared to gust out, our decision became to move east to reposition for the cell to our east – which we had now lost visual on. As I pulled forward, the Extreme Tornado Tours van passed us, which ended up being great as I didn’t have great service at this point and was struggling to get GPS.
Following ETT through Oregon helped a ton, and both cars moved eastward. We come out of Oregon, which was a somewhat wooded town, to a break in the treeline and a field over a hill…finally coming out of the tree line and….there it was. A large wedge. Our jaws pretty much immediately dropped to the floor. I don’t know whether it was because it was so large, or because it went from a little needle/cone funnel to THAT, but we were amazed. At some point ETT accelerated far ahead of us, as we were filming and shooting pictures. I left a police officer in front of me, as I had that bad feeling knowing what was in front of us, and continued east behind the police car. This led us to another area with a little mini hill.
Coming up over this hill – An intersection. Damage EVERYWHERE. Trees, telephone poles, wires, a house that missed the brunt of the damage but had major barn damage, and then another building which had appeared to be a large polebarn was severely damaged on the northeast corner of the road – Absolute HELL on earth. As I came to a stop on some power lines, my main concern was getting off those, so we crept forward. I was 100% sure the chase was over at this point, so I just moved and wasnt sure what to do. I turned right, only to have the axle from a semi-truck laying in the middle of the road, so while pulling a U-turn; Charles noted the road was clear to the north – We looked right and saw the police car stopped at the building on the northeast corner, and began to move north.
We later learned that restaurant was Grubbsteakers, where some people were trapped inside. I didn’t know the area very well and it didn’t look like a business at all at that point, just a pole barn with an eighteen wheeler thrown on top of it. I felt kind of bad learning this later, but police WERE on the scene, and no one was seriously hurt.
As we moved northward, we were still in amazement. The tornado was so well defined, had violent motion and was just BIG. At some point we turned back east, then north, then east again…only to get cut off by tree damage down a side road. At this point we stopped and watched it move off into the distance near a house, getting some amazing shots of the entire storm structure as it moved off. The residents of the house were okay, and the only thing on the property damaged was the tree that fell in the road…otherwise the tornado just BARELY missed them to the east. This ended our chase somewhere (2-3 miles) south of the village of Fairdale, which was almost completely destroyed by this tornado. Unfortunately two lives were lost in Fairdale. Thankfully many more lives weren’t taken as this was a very bad situation.
As the thunderstorm complex continued to move north and east, we stopped in Genoa, IL to take a breather. Nearing the downtown area, we were stopped – By a neverending parade of firetrucks and ambulances heading west towards Fairdale. It was a kick in the gut. All day you prepare yourself for the possibilty of the worst happening and having to see horrible things, and then the tornado happens and you have the mixed emotions of “this is incredible” and “oh no, people are probably dying” – A struggle I think almost everyone who does this as a hobby has at numerous points – But you are just equipped to handle it. The positive in all of this is how well this event was in retrospect to forecasting, local TV/media coverage, and all the spotters around watching the situation evolve. It could have been MUCH, MUCH worse, but it wasn’t. So a major kudos to EVERYONE on this day.
This will always ultimately go down as what was probably the best first chase of a major tornado. I learned a lot and the images will forever be burned in my brain.