[personal profile] accozzaglia
After seminar this evening, Ben, visiting from Toronto, and I joined my classmates at the pub for beers.

During our conversation, the Albertan at our table brought up her childhood experience of seeing a tornado nearby her home. Depending on how long you've known me, you've probably heard the St. Peter EF3 tornado epic at least once. For unfortunate souls like [livejournal.com profile] svairini, [livejournal.com profile] maatnofret, and [livejournal.com profile] saraewing, they've heard it at least a dozen times. Tonight took on a chilling twist.

If ever I might be online when I retell the story, I always run a quick image search for this lousy-quality VHS screen capture of the massive funnel some forty minutes before I found it:

Roy Janni

This storm contained a long-lived tornado — that is, on the order of hours — which cut across several counties. It did, of course, exact a heavy toll on both the college town of St. Peter, Minnesota, and most its old growth trees.

What made tonight different was that a Google Image search yielded a photograph of a view I had never before stumbled upon, and it was of a view long ruminated over with much regret. My purpose for driving all that distance from home that afternoon was to capture onto film anything meteorologically worthy of doing so. In other words, I used to be a storm chaser — particularly between 1998 and 2000 during my first years in Minnesota. I made a few decent shots, but I have always regretted being unable to document this personally sobering event.

So when I clicked the thumbnail, whose colour palette looked really familiar the moment it came up, the image that appeared freaked me the fuck out:

Jerry Hawbaker

[Another poorly exposed shot was also made.]

This shot was featured on a Minnesota Public Radio web special air in 2008 on the tenth anniversary of the St. Peter-Comfrey, Minnesota, tornado outbreak. I really wasn't aware of it before tonight. So earlier this evening, I sent [livejournal.com profile] svairini the photo with a backgrounder on what is actually happening during this shot:

This may the the only picture out there of that moment, maybe 30–45 seconds before I realized "Oh fuck, I'm in serious danger." This clearly didn't come from me, as I'd thrown those two cameras onto the passenger floorboard, but it might as well have.

Whoever shot this, which is at the U.S. Highway 169 crossing, was doing so probably no more than maybe five or seven blocks south of where I was at that exact moment. I was still travelling south at this point, just about to enter the St. Peter city limits. The outer wall you see is maybe five or six blocks from the highway and headed literally toward — and just to the right of — where the photographer was situated. I'm guessing they were either standing or inside their car with the window rolled down.

This shot, which faces west-southwest, is virtually exactly what I was saw — that is, it captures the illumination and a glimpse of the outer wall. It captures the moment in the way all those words could not. This photo is the rightmost/northern half of that outer vortex wall, if not sixty percent of it. You'll notice how the windows in that foreground building are really bright. That was sunlight reflecting off huge storm clouds well to the east. By contrast, it was an incredible dark blue-slate-green mix to the west. This outer wall would later envelop my car about a minute later. Because I know that it read 5:38 on the dash clock as I was trying to outrun the outer wall, it is probably 5:36p here.

So this was likely shot either by the people in the gold Acura Legend I blazed past some three minutes after the U-turn northward or possibly, quite possibly, it was that white car pottering north from town at that ridiculously slow pace. In what seemed like forever, I waited at that turnaround, banging my hands on the steering wheel, and screaming at them to just "GO! GO! GO! GO!" This turnaround was where the "Twenty Seconds" photo of the ruined lamppost base was later shot.

It nearly goes beyond words to unearth this almost thirteen years later and see that it mirrors verbatim what I saw. But even this is tamer than the moment when everything went completely mad. Now I really want to know in which car the credited photographer was sitting. If he was driving that white car, then he has some explaining to do.
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