Saturday, May 2, 2015
Officer David Campbell kept pace with the twister, relaying critical details to be shared with the public. Cruiser 360 took a beating: broken windows, rooftop lights ripped off, car floor filled with rainwater. After limping back to the precinct parking lot, one of the tires blew — and the car died. THE WORLD-HERALD
Campbell survived his six-mile drive in and out of the tornado without a scratch. "Cold and soaking wet ... was the worst that I got." REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD
Police Officer David Campbell had one thing on his mind the afternoon of May 6, 1975, as he joined the chase for the tornado approaching Omaha: Find it, follow it and radio his updates to 911 so that other police and firefighters wouldn’t rush into harm’s way.
What the 23-year-old Campbell didn’t realize was that the chase would lure him into the center of one of the costliest and most damaging tornadoes in U.S. history.
Nor could he know — in an era when weather radar was primitive and communications limited — how crucial his dispatches would become to Omahans’ safety. Some 30,000 people were estimated to have been in the path of the monster.
Luck, circumstance and the determination of numerous people like Campbell were why Omaha survived with only three dead and 157 seeking help at hospitals.
Omaha’s luck had begun six weeks earlier, when the National Weather Service and Omaha emergency officials “blew” a tornado. On March 27, a twister dropped to the ground, damaged several southwest Omaha homes and bounced back into the clouds. The weather service hadn’t seen it coming in part because its World War II hand-me-down radar system was still shut down for the tornado off-season. Volunteer storm spotters, whose job was to verify a threat in real time, weren’t on the lookout because they hadn’t been alerted. Storm sirens weren’t sounded until four minutes after the tornado lifted.
So on that muggy Tuesday in May, with the weather providing a classic setup for tornadoes, everyone was determined to avoid a repeat. Their resolve was strengthened by tornado and funnel reports that afternoon in northeast Nebraska. The towns of Pierce and Magnet had been hit, and the makings of a perfect storm were headed toward Omaha.
“It (March 27) was in the back of everybody’s minds,” recalled George Matuella, the weather service meteorological technician who worked the radar system that May day. “People say Omaha was lucky. We were lucky. But you know something else? We make our own luck sometimes.”
More photos: The aftermath
Although 30,000 people were in the tornado's path, only three died. Above, the Lindsay family tearfully unites; Tom Lindsay embraces his 17-year-old son, Tom, while wife Delores and daughter, Roseann, 13, look on. Scroll through dozens of photos of the tornado and its aftermath.
By the time Officer Campbell eased Cruiser 360 onto the Omaha Interstate for his afternoon shift, the skies over he city were roiling. A tornado watch and severe thunderstorm warning had been in effect most of the afternoon. Offutt Air Force Base and the National Weather Service had each deployed its teams of volunteer storm spotters.
Civil defense officials across the metro were primed to hit the sirens — if they got the then-required visual confirmation of a tornado in their community.
Council Bluffs was the first to sound an alarm as a funnel dropped out of the clouds.
It was 4:07 p.m.
Would the Bluffs funnel touch down and track west across the Missouri River to threaten Omaha? In Omaha, 911 asked Campbell, who was now on I-480 at Martha Street, to scan the skies above Council Bluffs.
Campbell looked east and saw “the tip of a tail of a tornado” return to the clouds without touching down. He radioed in his report.
Next up, Sarpy County.
Storm spotter John Tracy
From his storm-spotting site known as Checkpoint Kilo, a hilltop northwest of Springfield, Air Force Lt. Col. John Tracy noticed that the mass of dark clouds was lowering. Seated in his black Mercury Marquis, Tracy radioed civil defense officials in Sarpy County that he was seeing a “protrusion” — storm-spotter lingo for the beginnings of a tornado.
Within seconds, other storm spotters were radioing in reports of the funnel.
Sarpy County sounded its sirens. It was 4:09 p.m.
The F4 that would hit Omaha was developing.
National Weather Service meteorological technician George Matuella, seen here in 1995 with more modern radar, spotted a grainy hook echo that led to an early warning for residents. JEFF BUNDY/THE WORLD-HERALD
12:37 p.m.: Tornado watch issued for eastern Nebraska.
1 to 2 p.m.: Spotters activated.
2:05 to 2:45 p.m.: Tornadoes slam Magnet and hit Pierce; touchdowns also reported near Bloomfield and Stanton.
4:07 p.m.: Pottawattamie County sounds sirens after funnel spotted above Council Bluffs.
4:09 p.m.: Sarpy County sounds sirens in La Vista and Papillion after storm spotter reports funnel near Springfield. Additional spotter and citizen reports follow.
4:14 p.m.: National Weather Service issues tornado warning for three-county area, including Omaha.
4:25 p.m.: Storm spotters report touchdown in Ralston.
4:29 p.m.: Omaha sounds sirens after citizens call 911 with confirmed touchdown near 90th and Harrison Streets.
4:30 p.m.: Mayor Ed Zorinsky is handed a note as he speaks to a grade-school class visiting his office. He immediately tells the children he’s going to show them a part of the building few visitors see: the basement.
4:33 p.m.: Tornado hits 96th and Q Streets and heads into Omaha. Reports of damage accelerate as tornado moves north, northeast. National Guard is activated by Gov. J.J. Exon, who was in Omaha at the time.
4:40 p.m.: Bergan Mercy Hospital struck; injuries reported on Interstate 80, and the highway is closed.
4:42 p.m. Omaha patrolman David Campbell is following tornado, radioing its location, movement, damage.
4:45 p.m. Search operations begin for 96th and Q area.
4:46 p.m.: Reports of damage and search and rescue calls cascade.
4:50 p.m. More search operations begin in damaged areas. Numerous streets are blocked.
4:58 p.m.: Tornado lifts and dissipates over Benson Park.
5:15 p.m.: Reports come in of gas leaks, power lines down.
5:27 p.m.: All police officers busy, no cruisers available for additional calls.
6:15 p.m.: Guard help requested for Westgate area.
6:22 p.m.: Public Works crews called in to help clear streets.
6:30 p.m.: Police report additional problems with traffic, risks from downed lines, potential looting; Guard help asked for 72nd Street from about Grover to Blondo Streets.
6:45 p.m.: City begins clearing damaged areas.
Sources: World-Herald archive, National Weather Service, City of Omaha
While Sarpy sounded its sirens, Matuella, at the weather office, was feverishly coaxing the radar to focus on the same part of the storm cell that had caught Tracy’s eye. Matuella, 36, had seen something odd on the screen, but it would take a painful few minutes for the radar beam to swing back into the right position.
“The Holy Spirit was guiding my hands,” the retiree now says.
As Matuella focused the radar on a gap in rainfall, he saw something he had not seen outside of training: a hook echo — the signature of a potential tornado.
“I was kind of awed by it,” he said. “I thought ‘Am I seeing what I’m seeing?’ ”
Matuella hollered to his boss, and the National Weather Service fed a prepared, generic tornado warning into the teletype.
Radio and television stations, which had been relaying the worsening conditions throughout the afternoon, broadcast the warning.
Earnest reports began to flow into Omaha 911.
“This is Mrs. George Newman. ... Tornadoes are swirling all over out here,” she said from her home near the Sapp Bros. truck stop.
And then came pivotal confirmations along Harrison Street between 90th Street and 102nd Streets: “There’s a tornado on the ground ... it’s coming right at us,” one breathless caller told 911. Another eyewitness report immediately followed.
That was enough for 911 supervisors. Omaha sounded the sirens.
It was 4:29.
All hell was breaking loose, and the first ambulances and firetrucks began screaming toward the injured.
By now Campbell was headed west on I-80 to intersect the tornado. As he neared 72nd, he saw a fat wedge filling the horizon to the west, heading north.
It had hit apartment complexes, neighborhoods and a bank in the northwest corner of Ralston (along 84th Street at about L), crossed I-80 and was demolishing sections of Omaha’s Westgate neighborhood.
Swirling around it was debris from those homes and businesses.
Within minutes of exiting onto 72nd Street and heading north, Campbell saw cars swirling and part of Bergan Mercy Hospital explode.
“(It is) tearing the hospital all apart,” he said, remembering the images as he retraced the route recently with The World-Herald. “I can see things flying.”
Inside the hospital, nurses, doctors and family members had been working feverishly, mostly since the 4:14 p.m. weather service tornado warning, to move each of the hospital’s 425 patients out of harm’s way. Expectant mothers, 22 babies in cribs, critically ill heart patients — each had to be walked or wheeled to safety.
The tornado slammed the hospital at 4:40 p.m. The entire building seemed to sway, windows burst, debris spewed into hallways, and lint and grit pulsed through the vents.
Even though the hospital had been hit, one of the miracles of the day was occurring. The northward turn of the tornado that sent it into Bergan Mercy also pulled it away from the nearby Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, where nearly 8,700 race fans were gathered in the grandstand.
Campbell radioed in the destruction, and 911 operators cleared a channel for him. Anyone in the community with a scanner could eavesdrop on his communications.
At the weather service, an intern copied Campbell’s dispatches and relayed them via teletype across the emergency broadcast system.
Local television and radio broadcasters, who were listening to Campbell’s reports on their police scanners and receiving confirmation from the weather service teletype, were sharing his updates with the public.
Even Campbell’s parents listened to him on their scanner — from under a table in their Benson Gardens basement.
As most spectators at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack sought shelter, track photographer Bob Dunn snapped this image from the winner's circle. More photos.
The May 6, 1975 Omaha tornado
Strength: An F4/EF4 on the Fujita scale, with wind speeds likely 166 mph to 200 mph
Outbreak: 10th of 12 tornadoes to touch down that day in South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska
Rarity: About 1 percent of tornadoes are F4/EF4 or greater
Dimensions: On the ground about 15 miles (six miles in Sarpy County and nine miles in Douglas County), generally one-quarter- to one-half-mile wide
Time frame: Funnel spotted at 4:09 p.m. in Sarpy County; confirmed on the ground at 4:25 p.m.; lifted at 4:58 p.m.
Fatalities: 3 (Pamela Myers, 23 ; Roy Lester Kremer, 38; Margaret Baker, 86)
Damage: Ninth-costliest in U.S. history (2,459 residences affected, with 572 heavily damaged or destroyed; 153 commercial properties, with 36 heavily damaged or destroyed; 23 industrial sites, with 19 heavily damaged or destroyed)
Injuries: 157 people sought help at local hospitals
Cost: $1.1 billion in inflation-adjusted damage
Sources: Brian Smith, National Weather Service; Greg Carbin, U.S. Storm Prediction Center; World-Herald archive
As Campbell approached Pacific Street, the tornado intensified. There was no way for him to know that a young woman was dying just a few blocks away.
“It was awful at Pacific,” he said. “The air was filled, cars were sailing about, the (power) lines were flying ...”
Pamela Myers, a 23-year-old waitress at El Matador Restaurant at 78th and Pacific Streets, had just taken her teenage kid sister home and returned to finish her shift when the tornado touched down in Sarpy County. She and two others sought shelter in the women’s bathroom. The other two survived, but Myers was the storm’s first victim.
As Campbell continued toward Dodge Street, buildings — one after another — exploded. A Sidles Distributing Co. warehouse, the U.S. Post Office, Nebraska Furniture Mart. A postal Jeep sailed through the air. A car tumbled across 72nd Street behind Campbell.
In the post office, worker Rose Marie Jackson took shelter against a wall under a steel table with a co-worker, only to have the tornado pull the table and her co-worker away. The wall collapsed on her, breaking her back and leaving her paralyzed. The co-worker survived. Jackson died in 1996, without ever walking again.
In the Furniture Mart, employees and customers found salvation in a Cold War bomb shelter. The handful of people who didn’t make it to the shelter grabbed for any protection they could find.
Dick Carlson, then a 20-year-old stock boy, remembers clinging to a dresser as his feet were pulled into the air.
“I remember screaming the whole time, but I couldn’t even hear myself because the roar was so loud,” he said.
The tornado sent cars sailing, with a few landing on, but not killing Omahans. Above, cars lay smashed against the rear of the the Nebraska Furniture Mart, 700 S. 72nd St. More photos.
This aerial photo shows homes moved off their foundations at 72nd and Seward, just east of Creighton Prep. More photos.
And then there was the rain.
With his ears popping, Campbell had lowered the car window to ease the pressure.
Sheets of cold rain, blown in at perhaps 150 mph or more, filled his cruiser. Every once in a while he had to open the door to let the water drain out.
For the first time, he wondered about his own fate. With water filling the cabin of the cruiser, could the falling power lines electrocute him?
Rain turned the roadway into a river. Between the water, the darkness of the tornado and the debris swirling around him, Campbell said, he struggled to make out a path for the cruiser.
When transformers blew, the sky lit up in an eerie green and he could see just how surreal the scene was — and where he was. With one explosion, for just a moment, Campbell could see the giant Hereford’s head atop the sign outside Ross’ Steak House on 72nd Street.
“Then I knew I was going in the right direction,” he said.
A chunk of Creighton Prep flew apart before his eyes and houses flew off their foundations as he passed Western toward Blondo and then Maple. Closer to Blondo, the tornado strengthened yet again.
Wooden utility poles began snapping and collapsing around him. As Campbell steered his cruiser from side to side to avoid them, he feared for his life.
“A wire came down and it grabbed the top of the cruiser and tore the landing light, as they call it, and the siren. Tore it back, and I heard an explosion, and the back window blew out. I got a brick through the windshield and a two-by-four through the front grille.
“I really thought I was going to cash in my chips. But it didn’t happen, so I continued on.”
It was as if the tornado was in its final rage before letting loose of its grip on Omaha, and it was here that the storm claimed two more lives.
Roy Lester Kremer, a 38-year-old worker for a moving company, had clocked out from his job with Benson Transfer & Storage at 4:30 p.m., just as the sirens were sounding in Omaha. A co-worker had dropped him at the corner of 69th and Maple Streets, where he was to catch a bus for home, near 23rd and Leavenworth Streets. The rumor was that Kremer had climbed atop a gas station for a better view of the twister.
His boss doubted that. “I just can’t believe he’d do something like that,” James Westerfield said.
At 2012 N. 70th St., the home of Margaret “Maggie” Baker was ripped off its foundation.
Baker, 86, was hard-of-hearing and had a love of books. Her nephew later wondered if perhaps she was engrossed in a book when the twister struck.
Her body was found in a neighbor’s yard.
The tornado still had another two miles on its nine-mile rip through Omaha. (Its path through the then-largely rural Sarpy County had covered six miles.)
Finally, at 4:58 p.m., Campbell radioed that it was over. The tornado had lifted and dissipated over the Benson Park Golf Course near Ames Avenue.
Campbell turned around and headed to Bergan Mercy. Along his route back down 72nd Street he saw an army of emergency responders and citizens who had rushed in behind him to help.
The rest of that night he watched as the miracle of Omaha’s healing began in the midst of pain.
“Everybody helped,” he said. “This was the best. It rose above all the hard times that anybody had ever had.”
This story was built from archive reports, new interviews and research by World-Herald librarian Jeanne Hauser.
Correction: The 911 Communications Center moved out of the Omaha Police Department Headquarters and into the basement at Omaha’s City-County Building in 1978. A reference to the location was incorrect in the timeline in this story. (A combined Omaha-Douglas County 911 center has operated at 156th Street and West Maple Road since 1998.)
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• Survivors of 1975 tornado in Omaha share memories of dark day
• Account of tornado from neighbor of victim Margaret Baker
• More reader-submitted tornado memories
• Reader-submitted tornado damage photos
• Read the May 7, 1975, World-Herald tornado coverage (PDF)
• More World-Herald tornado coverage from 1975 (PDF)
• 2010: Tornado forecasting today vs. day of ’75 tornado
• 1995: 20 years after the '75 tornado (Weather Service tells the story)
• 1995: 20 years after the '75 Tornado (residents tell their stories)
• 1985: 10 Years after the '75 tornado
• NWS webpage on 1975 tornado
• NWS report: "The Omaha Tornado" (PDF)
• Nebraska National Guard's response to the 1975 tornado (PDF)
• Listen: Area residents write songs about the tornado
• Video: OWH weather reporter Nancy Gaarder discusses the 1975 tornado on The Bottom Line