SR SSD 2000-13

Technical Attachment

Three Meteorologists Experience the Fort Worth Tornado Firsthand
Charlie Paxton and John McMichael, NWSO Tampa Bay Area
David Hotz, NWSO Morristown

(Ed. Note: It seems most visitors to Southern Region Headquarters are impressed with the intensity of activity around here, but few have experienced quite the level of excitement the authors did. We invited them to share a summary of what started out to be a pleasant dining experience atop one of the tallest buildings in town. )

The authors were in Fort Worth, Texas, during the week of March 27 to modify a fire weather computer program for use on AWIPS. Tornadoes struck the city on Tuesday, the 28th, and they ended up in the middle of one! The day began for Charlie, John and Dave with breakfast at the Clarion Hotel and a discussion of the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) moderate risk bulls-eye over the Dallas/Fort Worth area. During their walk downtown to the NWS Southern Region Headquarters in the Federal Building, the sun was shining brightly with not a cloud to be found. They discussed how the cool air with dewpoints in the 40s would have to change considerably to support severe thunderstorms.

Upon arriving around 8:00 a.m., Jud Ladd, the Regional Aviation and Fire Weather Meteorologist, was preparing for the daily 8:30 a.m. map briefing. As Jud gave his briefing to the regional office personnel, he stated SPC's concern within the moderate risk area for large, damaging hail later in the day. After Jud's briefing, Charlie, Dave and John worked on the fire weather program for a while, then departed for the Fort Worth NWSFO across town to speak to meteorologist Jason Jordan who had completed some AWIPS modifications to the fire weather computer program. Upon arriving at the WSFO Charlie, John and Dave talked to Jason and other office personnel who were preparing for the possible severe weather episode. Appropriate wording was included in the WSFO's convective outlook for the day. After finishing business, the three departed for lunch around 11:30.

After lunch they returned to the regional office where they resumed work on the fire weather program. As the day went on, around 2:00 p.m., SPC issued a Tornado Watch which included much of north Texas including the Dallas/Fort Worth Area. The WSR-88D was now beginning to show developing convective rain showers far to the west of Fort Worth. As they continued to work on the fire weather program, the area of convection increased in coverage and moved eastward. After analyzing surface observations via AWIPS, moisture transport was evident with low-level winds increasing from the south, dewpoints rising into the 60s, and dynamics and stability becoming more favorable for strong thunderstorms over north Texas. As the afternoon continued, the first severe thunderstorm warning was issued by the Fort Worth office for a county north of the Fort Worth area. Around 5:00 p.m., the WSR-88D revealed an ever-increasing area of strong convection west and southwest of the Fort Worth area.

At that point, Charlie, John and David's computer work evolved into watching the radar as storms developed along the dry line. As the storms neared, they observed conditions worsen and decided it was time to leave the building before the rain started. They decided a short walk to the Reata restaurant about two blocks north, on the 35th floor of the Bank One Building, would provide a superb vantage point to view the developing weather. The Bank One tower is an all-glass high-rise office building in the center of downtown. They left the computer room but then, luckily, Charlie ran back to get his 35mm camera.

They arrived at the Reata about 5:45 p.m. and were seated next to a window facing to the north and northwest. While they were dinning, the sun was setting and the sky to the north became very black; occasional lightning flashed in the distance. Clouds were generally moving from southwest to northeast when they arrived. While the waitress took their order, Charlie mentioned that they were meteorologists and had chosen the restaurant for the view. Jokingly, Charlie then said they were there to see the windows blown out by hail and wind! She just shook her head.

Dinner arrived quickly and, as they were eating, they noticed a change in the low-level flow. Clouds appeared to be sinking rapidly nearby and then clouds in the distance were developing, lowering, and backing southward against the flow. This evolution in storm development signaled the onset of a wall cloud. David noticed a well defined "beaver tail" form - evidence of strong inflow into a developing storm. Within minutes, Charlie noticed two distinct flashes roughly five miles away. These flashes were probably electrical power line transformers exploding in the distance. Although low-angling clouds were rotating, they did not see a funnel extending to the ground. Being meteorologists, Charlie, John and Dave, were fascinated with Mother Nature's spectacle. sing a manual camera shutter, Charlie began taking photographs of the developing tornado as they continued to monitor its movement. Rain, haze and the onset of darkness reduced visibility, but several more vivid transformer flashes occurred and a distinct path of destruction was in progress. Then a funnel began to take shape, noticed first at the base of the low clouds.

Being meteorologists, they finished dinner and pondered whether to have dessert. Although a funnel was not clearly evident, they were now seeing many transformer flashes, wisps of smoke, dust, and debris near the base of the tornado. They stood at the windows and watched for another few minutes. By this time, several patrons and wait staff asked what they were looking at and then began watching the tornado, by now about two miles away. They then shifted positions to windows with a western exposure. The tornado still did not exhibit a significant funnel, but the debris cloud was growing and transformers were flashing. At this point, the tornado appeared to be one-quarter mile wide. A patron mentioned that a tornado warning had come across his pager, but with the wind and the height of the building, tornado sirens were muted to people in the restaurant.

As the tornado came closer, more people gathered at the huge windows of the restaurant which were approximately 3 feet wide and 15 feet tall. Patrons at a large round table seemed oblivious to the crowds gathered at windows. The tornado, now about a half mile away, began to exhibit more of a funnel shape. It was moving fast, and it was now apparent the spinning mass would come close. Curiosity turned to concern. The tornado was only a few blocks away and on a course for the Bank One Building! Patrons and staff were still at the windows, seemingly in a daze, mesmerized by the spectacle. Large pieces of debris were spiraling around the tornado just outside the windows. People in the restaurant clearly did not realize the impending danger at this point. John, David and Charlie realized at the same moment the serious threat and began shouting to people to move away from the windows. One man argued that it was not a tornado!

As people left the windows, the restaurant manager guided them to the stairwell in the building's interior. The last few onlookers evacuated the restaurant as the windows began to bow in and out. By now, the recently occupied section of the restaurant was empty, and a huge funnel was just outside the building. Charlie held his camera up and took one last photograph before dashing to the stairwell. The camera flashed and imprinted an image of a serene empty dining facility. What it didn't show was the black, menacing, debris filled funnel outside and the massive windows bowing, shuttering, and creaking like thin plastic.

John and Charlie hurried to the stairwell together, unsure where Dave was. Within seconds, the building shook, one of the stairwell fire doors sprung open, and wind rushed upward filling the normally stagnant stairwell with dust. A woman and a man standing by the door tried to close it but couldn't. As people stood in the stairwell some were expressionless and silent, others were saying their prayers, and one woman was crying. Just a few seconds later, the worst part of the storm was over.

Meanwhile, Dave and one of the waiters closed the restaurant doors and propped them to keep the impending explosion of glass and debris from blasting into the building's interior and stairwell. Dave's last glance out the window before helping to secure the doors was a black mass of debris rotating rapidly just outside the building. At that point, he was in shock with a high level of anxiety of the expected devastation to follow.

Just seconds before the tornado hit, Dave and a few of the restaurant wait staff rushed into the stairwell. Just barely into the stairwell, the restaurant windows crashed in and the doors Dave had just secured were blown into the interior of the building. For several seconds afterward, Dave felt a sense of numbness from what had just transpired. He and several waiters then moved back up the stairway to the restaurant to search the area. Dave peered into the dining area where the three had been sitting. All the windows were gone. Chairs and tables were piled like matchsticks on the interior wall. They called out and no one answered. The restaurant owner then secured the area.

As Dave began his journey down the 35 flights of stairs, Charlie and John descended the stairwell ahead of him, checking floors to survey damage and look for injured people. Offices on every floor looked similar: broken windows, furniture tossed about, ceiling tiles and light fixtures down, and papers strewn everywhere. Most of the offices had closed for business for the day, but on one floor a woman was standing in her office with her back to Charlie and John. Charlie asked if she was all right. She signaled that she was, but as she turned around, tears were streaming down her face. On another floor, a man and woman stood dazed but otherwise unharmed. Charlie and John slowly made it to the lower atrium level and heard and saw windows from upper floors crashing onto the lower level sections of the building which stuck out at a 45-degree angle - similar to a pyramid.

Dave and several waiters from the restaurant walked down the 35 floors together. They aided an elderly lady with bad knees who had been terribly frightened by the tornado and was overcome by the number of stairs she needed to climb down. Their conversation down the stairway was one of praise since no one from the restaurant was injured or killed by the tornado. After about 30 minutes, Dave, the waiters, and the elderly lady reached lower floors of the Bank One building.

Charlie and John didn't find Dave in the atrium and decided to go back up a few flights. They climbed to the ninth floor, surveying damage, and then back down. There Charlie and John met up with Dave again. People in the atrium were amazed at what happened in just a few seconds. All were thankful to have made it through the harrowing experience. Showers of glass and rain continued to fall outside, therefore the group found phones on the lowest level, away from areas exposed to the broken glass windows above. Significantly, the building did not lose power or phone service as a result of the direct tornado hit. They called their wives and families to tell of the experience and give thanks that no one in the building appeared to have been seriously injured. Charlie called Jud Ladd at the regional headquarters to inform him of the severity of the event. After about an hour, the building security personnel and Fort Worth Police allowed people to exit the building through a tunnel entrance to a parking garage across the street.

On the street, Charlie, John and Dave could not believe their eyes. It looked as if a bomb had gone off downtown! Damage and debris were everywhere. The streets were littered with glass from the high rise buildings. The amount of glass on the ground was unbelievable. Most of the windows were blown out of cars parked in the outside parking lot, and many cars were smashed by debris and other cars. Many street signs were blown down or completely destroyed. Then they looked up at the Bank One Building and saw the heavy damage. Just about every window was either blown out or cracked. Other buildings also suffered significant damage. Charlie's initial impression was this was an F2 tornado and had caused up to $1 billion in damage. [The NWS survey the following day rated the tornado F2 immediately west of downtown, and the most recent damage estimates approach $500 million. Most of the 5000 windows in the Bank One Tower will have to be replaced, and several other adjacent high-rise buildings suffered likewise. ed.]

People were walking the streets dazed, confused, and amazed. But the three were also impressed by the rapid mobilization of fire, police, rescue, and cleanup personnel. Tow trucks removed damaged cars, rescue personnel searched buildings, and the cleanup began immediately. Charlie took a few more pictures of the damage as they slowly wove their way through glass, debris and roadblocks to their hotel. They made it back to the hotel about 8:30 p.m. and were very grateful to see that it had not been damaged. They returned to their rooms and watched frantic news coverage of the extraordinary event.

They met again at 9:30 p.m. to survey the damage, but most streets were cordoned off by police, so they stood on a street corner and reviewed the experience. It seems the tornado intensified near the downtown area. This may have occurred for a number of reasons, but one possibility is the location of Fort Worth. Downtown is perched atop a bluff which may have acted to compress and increase the circulation as the tornado moved up the hill. Miraculously, only two people died as a direct result of the tornado. Fort Worth NWS personnel issued a tornado warning and sirens sounded 10 minutes before the tornado roared through downtown. Interestingly and sadly, these were the first two recorded tornado deaths in Fort Worth since the city's inception. If this tornado had struck only a half-hour or so sooner, at the height of rush hour downtown, and with no warning, more deaths and injuries would have to have been a certainty. Charlie, John and Dave tried to imagine what a stronger tornado - F4 or F5 - would have done and what their chances of survival would have been.

In hindsight, Charlie thought, pulling a fire alarm might have evacuated the restaurant and offices in the building more quickly, but it's possible to imagine more serious negative consequences. A call to 911 or the Fort Worth NWS office may have lent credence to the NWS tornado warning. A pocket-sized digital video camera certainly would have captured the event better than a 35mm camera in manual shutter mode.

Charlie, John and Dave will never forget this experience and they have learned much. They were relieved no one was injured or killed in the Bank One Building. No one could have imagined that an evening quest to observe storms would become life-threatening, and they counted their blessings that no one received a scratch through the entire event. Besides being thankful for their own health and well being, they felt a sense of purpose in being there. They feel they helped to save lives in the Reata restaurant by being aware of the situation, issuing verbal warnings, and then helping to evacuate patrons from the restaurant. Although they have mixed emotions about the experience, they agree that if it happened again, they would do the same to help people.