Two weeks ago today, a tornado ripped through Illinois. At points it was up to 400 metres wide, and it did enough damage, cracking giant powerlines like toothpicks and yanking old-growth trees right from the ground, that it completely closed the major highway I57 for a 56-kilometre expanse south of Chicago.
I was lucky enough to be travelling that day (on the way to the airport for WWDC) and pulled off the road just in time to intersect with the tornado at its worst. Inside a gas station with no basement and plenty of active fuel lines, it was the first time in a long time—maybe ever—that I genuinely feared for my life, that I thought things were over. Watch that video above. Then know that I was a lot closer.
But as I've played the scenes back in my head over the last several days, it's not the storm that's proven to be the most haunting. It's the way the people reacted. Because in the gas station, I watched a group of 20 scared people not take shelter, but stand in front of a wall of glass to record the event—to make some YouTube clips.
I was going to get off at this exit anyway—I needed gas. But it was just as good since it the rain was coming down too hard to see anymore. I pulled over at a station right off the highway to fill my tank. After swiping my credit card and starting the pump, the city's tornado sirens screamed through the rain.
At the station's entrance, a few of us gathered transfixed by a particularly ominous cloud. In a sky of flat grey, this was a distinct saucer of charcoal hovering just on the other side of the interstate.
While one man impatiently checked his mobile phone for a weather radar update, I noticed what was so peculiar about this one cloud of the countless others I've seen in my life. It wasn't heading in one direction as a unified mass. Instead, occasionally you could make out a wisp heading north or south at random. "That cloud is unnatural," I said. The man looked at me blankly and returned to his mobile phone. Maybe the red-dotted weather map could tell him something his eyes coupled with millions of years of survival instinct could not.
The station's attendant put out her cigarette and headed inside.
I did too.
It was more frenetic in there. People pieced together various weather reports with what they could see through station's large panoramic window.
"It's half a mile wide," someone said. "And heading our way."
I ingeniously opted to move away from the window—a whole three snack aisles back, in fact. My plan was "to duck" and/or run into the bathroom. I knew it was stupid, but death by glass and Bugle impalement has to beat just glass, right? And, as lame as this sounds, I didn't want to be the only one ducking and covering the men's room.
One girl called her family. I reached into my pocket to call my wife, and realised I'd left my phone in the car. The wind was picking up now, a lot, and after seeing my car jostling in the storm, I opted not to make a run for the phone. That wasn't an easy decision.
It's petty, but I was jealous as that girl verbalised her fears consoled by someone in her ear. Would it be poor etiquette to ask her for her phone once she hung up? "I know you might have other loved ones to call, but would you mind letting me have the last familial conversation before we both die?"
Maybe I was just being dramatic. Maybe this was just a bad rainstorm.
Then, almost on cue, three funnel clouds dropped from the dark mass, flittering in the sky. It was almost beautiful.
They didn't reach the ground; the storm was almost toying with us. While my stomach dropped and my eyes began to well, the former hodgepodge of frightened travelers in the window became a paparazzi shooting gallery armed with digital cameras and mobile phones, as if Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were slam dunking their baby in the parking lot. Naked.
The funnel clouds disappeared for a moment as if the storm were taking a deep breath. And when it finally decided to exhale, a giant tornado spiraled into our view. To describe it as dark would be an understatement. It looked evil.
But even with this new development—the worst of our fears manifesting in a fearsomely corporeal way—the people just kept shooting their cameras. Would these videos be their legacy? Were they so resigned to their own deaths that they wanted to leave a record, should mother nature get the best of them? Or did they feel safe, shielded from a force that would be reported to throw a semi clear across four lanes of traffic by a 2.4-inch LCD screen and some silver-spray painted plastic?
I don't know who said it. It may have been me. It may have been someone more composed than me. "Everyone get in the bathroom now!"
The tornado, literally, looked to be heading right for us.
And so we sprinted for the men's gas station bathroom (the group somehow realising that, yes, it's time to put away the nifty gadgets). There I kneeled on the floor with some young teenagers who giggled at our predicament, a few college girls who just wanted to get home and a blur of others. People got very quite as the storm got louder. Suddenly, the power cut. We sat in darkness.
The ground shook for a moment. No one said a word.
I'm not sure how much time passed—probably just one or two minutes. People began to talk again, tentatively. A father impatiently peeked his head out of the room, opening the door and standing in the frame. The sunlight—the little that there was through the clouds—felt like a cancer on my skin. I wanted to be back in the safe, smelly cave. I didn't want to hear another clueless radio report. I didn't need to check the storm in five colours on some guy's EVDO-equipped laptop.
This time I know it was me. "Get in or out but close the fucking door please!" He left along with a few of the more adventurous. The rest of us stayed.
I attempted to reposition myself with the more conservative in the stall, but the tiny bathroom had become quite difficult to navigate in the pitch black. As I fumbled my way along the tile, I feebly called out if there was any room for me. This tornado had sized up my manhood, and my cracking voice was a sad, official measurement of where I stood on that scale.
Then someone turned on his BlackBerry and beckoned me over with a welcoming smile. I could make out the faces in the blue light. A teenage couple hugged one another. And the business man with a shaved head warmly offered me a seat.
Squatting beside them all on the damp floor, there was no where in the world that felt more comforting. We introduced ourselves around our artificial campfire. The boy asked his girlfriend, "Is this the first time you've ever been in a boy's bathroom?" She said that it was.
"It's always this exciting," I assured her.