Late Thursday afternoon Sam Smith happened to be driving from Minnesota to Indiana in a company truck. Then this happened:
A YouTube commenter called Smith “the calmest person ever to sit thru a tornado.” I can’t really argue with that.
The tornado in question, which struck about 80 miles west of Chicago, was rated EF-4 by the National Weather Service, with winds estimated at 200 mph—a strength the NWS calls “quite rare” for the area. It was the strongest tornado so far in 2015, and the strongest tornado in the Chicago area in the last 25 years. It destroyed parts of Rochelle and Fairdale, Illinois, causing two deaths.
It was also strong enough to hurtle this Smart car more than a tenth of a mile:
I reached out to Smith to learn more about this remarkable tornado encounter.
“I was on a business trip from Minneapolis to Indiana and happened upon the tornado,” Smith said. “I was not out tornado chasing. I live in North Carolina and have never encountered a tornado in my life.”
As you can hear in the video, Smith’s voice was eerily calm as the gigantic tornado roared just a hundred feet or so beyond his windshield. “In my defense, I was terrified inside,” Smith told me. Smith is a retired police officer, and he says his 18 years of experience prepared him for that moment. “In very tense situations, I take a deep breath.”
As the tornado approached, Smith called his 14-year-old son and says he tried to make peace with the fact that he may never see him again. “I felt I needed to remain calm for him.” Besides, at that point Smith figured “there’s nothing I can do but hold on.”
When the tornado appeared, Smith’s instinct was to back up and “get to cover” under a highway overpass. He backed up so quickly, his truck touched the bumper of another vehicle behind him, which was beneath the same overpass.
Next to being in a mobile home, being underneath a highway overpass is probably one of the worst places to be during a tornado, but people continue to do it. An infamous video from April 26, 1991, shows a young family in Kansas climbing an embankment to seek shelter under an overpass as a tornado passes overhead, which many weather experts think sparked a dangerous trend. The phenomenon reached a horrific peak during a 1999 Oklahoma tornado, when a woman died after seeking shelter under an overpass. There are reports of people actually leaving their homes during that tornado to seek shelter under a highway overpass.
Beyond the potential for creating a traffic jam in a dangerous situation, parking beneath an overpass during a tornado may actually expose your vehicle to higher winds. Smith says he’s gotten an earful since Thursday about his decision to stay in his vehicle beneath the overpass as the tornado passed by just a few feet away. “I’m not stupid, but who the heck knows what to do in that situation?”
So what should Smith have done instead? Even the experts don’t have a firm answer. According to the Storm Prediction Center’s tornado safety tips, “there is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones.” Many experts, including the National Weather Service, recommend leaving your vehicle and seeking shelter in a nearby sturdy building, if you can find one. (Unsuspecting motorists caught between exits on a divided highway like the one Smith was on don’t have that option.) Some recommend staying in the vehicle with the seat belt on and your head ducked down, though flying debris can quickly turn a car into a pincushion. Leave your vehicle to take shelter in a nearby ditch only as a last resort—people have drowned while seeking shelter in ditches.
Asked what he would do if he could repeat the day, Smith says, “I would have tried to do everything I could have done to not be where I was.” Smith says even though he had his radio and smartphone on, he didn’t get any official warning of the tornado until after it passed. “I’m not saying I should have, the thing came up quick.”
Smith told me he’s been surprised at the amount of interest his video has generated, and he wishes he’d never agreed to a co-worker’s request to post the video in the first place. “I know a lot of folks are grateful to have their 15 minutes of fame. I am not that guy.”