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June 5th, 2010

For those of you (probably just a few) that follow the blog, you know that there were a couple interruptions in updates.  One happened during the baseball season, and the other during the football season.  The interruption during the football season can be explained to an unsure work schedule, and the craziness of trying to catch up with that.  And yes, the baseball season interruption was also on a work-related reason, but it was much bigger.

The title of this blog post is the day that would change a lot of things, and it is slightly referenced here.  On June 5th last year, a tornado plowed through the town that I work in, Streator, and left a lasting legacy on the city.  In this post, you’ll learn about my experiences about an event that one rarely thinks they will ever encounter in their lives.

The story actually begins a day before, on June 4th, a Friday.  I had taken the day off work for two reasons; to take my wife and child to O’Hare so they could board a plane to meet relatives in Europe, and for a potential side-trip to Joliet beforehand to go to the IHSA Class 1A Baseball Finals, in case my alma mater made it (they did not).

It was also the birthday weekend of my friend, Blair, and with perfect timing, I was going to attend a birthday party at his apartment after going to O’Hare with his Chicago friends, and stay the night with him.  The party was fun, and enjoyed my time with his friends.  It went very well and I was invited to a housewarming party with the same group the next night.  Honestly, I was a little surprised that I was asked to come to that party, and was on the fence.  But I decided that since I received an invitation, I should go and enjoy more time in Chicago.

The next day came, and I enjoyed take-home lunch from Chipotle with Blair.  But after lunch that day, something felt weird (not Chipotle-related).  This feeling came over me that something was wrong and amiss, and I should address it immediately.  It lasted throughout the entire afternoon, and into the night.  Even at the housewarming party, I felt like something was off, and that I should head home.  The feeling was that my apartment had been broken into, and my stuff long gone.  Despite the impending doom feelings, I soldiered on, and tried my best to enjoy myself at the party.

Then I got a phone call at 9:00…

I looked down at my phone, and it was my boss calling me.  I had no idea why I would be getting a work-related phone call on a Saturday night.  I answered the phone, and was informed about reports of a tornado touchdown in Streator.  That was a shock to hear.  I immediately called the police department to find out anything.  After introducing myself, I was asked to call back later, since they were flooded with phone calls.

That’s when it hit.  That was the bad feelings I had.

I instantly went to Blair, and told him that I had to get home ASAP.  After leaving his place (and getting lost in Chicago for an hour trying to get out, my fault), I floored it and was flying home to Streator.  During the drive home, I was trying to get whatever information I can.  Our sports guy told us it hit the south side of the town, which was good news for me since I lived on the north side at the time.  I was calling others who worked at the station to try and get more information.  I was listening to WBBM on the way home, because they had good coverage of the tornado.  Since the tornado hit not only Streator, but Magnolia and Dwight, my cousin (who works on the Lacon-Sparland Fire Department) was trying to get information out of me.  It was a frantic rush to get home, which was more frustrating since we had no one at the station anchoring live coverage.  It was bad luck, but one of my biggest regrets.

As I was flying home, rumors were flying; houses totaled, multiple dead, fires, and everything else one could think of.  Nothing would get confirmed until I came into Streator at 11:45 P.M., where I caught a break since I was coming in on the north, the only part of town that was not closed off.  I stopped at the station to grab my recorder, made a quick stop at the apartment to make sure all was well, and bolted to City Hall to get information.

The next couple hours was a mad scramble over Streator to get information for stories and come back to anchor whatever I could.  We did not get to go live with anything until 1:45 A.M., due to everyone being out of town that night.  I was running all over town, trying to get information and pictures, visiting all the affected sites, looking for anything for a substantial story.  I wasn’t able to take a break and get back home until around 3:00 A.M., and with rumors of a morning press conference, there was no way I would risk going to sleep that night.  So I pulled an all-nighter to make sure I did not miss anything.

Not only were we on the story, but the Chicago media came down in swarms.  WGN-AM called me a few times in the aftermath of the tornado to give them what I could (the second time I did something like that, the first in August 2007 on FOX Chicago for a gun incident at Pontiac High School), with one of the calls coming from a former professor I had at Western Illinois.

The next day was just as crazy.  The press conference was not until 8:00 A.M., so I had time to kill by updating my story and driving around the town to try and get as close to the damage as possible.  A second press conference was called that day for 11:00 A.M., and after that, a tour of the damage was finally open for the media to see.  Here’s a look at a few photos I took on my cell phone of the damage:

A full street of house, and baseball fields were destroyed in the path of the tornado.  A tornado is something that people think will never happen to them in their lifetime.  It’s something that only happens to other people.  Sometimes though, you’re ‘other people’ to the rest of the world, and the events happen to you.  Seeing the damage up close was surreal, and I consider myself lucky that I was not involved in the damage.

After the tour, I updated my story and was told by my boss to head home and rest up.  The week ahead would be even more jam-packed.

Monday showed what kind of routine would happen for the rest of the week, though it was busier than most.  Every story I did that week was tornado related.  For Monday-Wednesday that week, there was a 11:00 A.M. press conference to update everything.  That following Monday, even without the tornado stuff, had its own dramas.

To begin, not all Chicago media types are like this, but some of them can be pricks.  They roll into a story in a small town, and think they run the show.  Here’s my example.  City officials were running late on the 11:00 A.M. presser, about 15 minutes late.  I was getting antsy because I still had to return to the station and prepare for a noon newscast, one of the more content heavy newscasts.  City officials were about ready to begin the briefing, when a hippie-looking cameraman for ABC 7 strolled in with his equipment.  The city officials paused to allow the asswipe to set up his camera, which takes a while.  It was annoying to say the least, but I was able to get one back on him.

That afternoon, Governor Pat Quinn had a press conference scheduled in Dwight at the site of their damage (mainly a trailer park.  Here’s a couple photos….

When I arrived, a truck had been set-up with a box that was plugged into a microphone, located where Quinn was going to speak.  The box had multiple plug-ins so media can plug in their records and record from the box.

….I do not trust those boxes.

I set up my own microphone on the ‘stage’, and was ready to go.  Not everyone was happy with that decision.  A TV reporter from Champaign, and douchebag hippie cameraman from ABC 7 were annoyed that I decided to forge ahead with my own recording methods.  I did not care what they thought.

Quinn goes through the press conference, and I go up to gather my equipment.  On my way back to my back, douchebag hippie cameraman decides that he does not want to let the issue go.  To paraphase him:

Guess you radio guys just don’t seem to care.

I kept my dignity and moved on forward, gathering my equipment and heading back to my vehicle so I could head back to the station and write my story.  In a perfect world, I would have fired back.  What I would have said in response…

Yeah, you’re right.  I don’t give two fucks right now about you and your precious TV angles.  Maybe next time, you’ll finish up your bong hit earlier and not hold up a press conference for everyone else.

But like I said, I kept my dignity and moved on.  And, after viewing the same exact footage on the ABC 7 website that next day, my microphone had NO effect on his shots.

The rest of the week was gathering every possible angle on the tornado in Streator.  A normal week would see between 15-20 stories written from me for my job.  That week, I wrote at least 30.  Streator’s June 5th tornado will be something that I will never forget.

And if you are curious, the National Weather Service report on the tornado.

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