My Closest Encounter with a Tornado – Kalamazoo – 80

At the time I worked as a “Machine Rebuilder”. We worked in a very large steel post/sheet metal building where we restored large industrial equipment. My wife babysat at our mobile home, across the railroad tracks from the oil refinery.

When the warnings went out, and I heard there was a tornado coming, I hopped on my motorcycle and sprinted for home. This bike had a full front fairing and yet, on the ride home I had rain shooting UP and under my helmet’s face shield. I reached home and piled everyone into the station wagon and headed for a friend’s house that HAD a basement. By the time we got there, it was pretty much all over.

Reports were coming in that it had hit downtown. I had left friends at the shop, just East of Downtown. I now had the car, so I quickly drove back to the shop to check on my co-workers. Or, at least, I tried to. The area I had JUST come through on my bike was devastated. The skeleton of a building like the one I worked in stood without it’s sheet metal skin, which was strewn all over the place.

I had to cut down a back alley and slip under a partially fallen telephone pole to get through, but I was relieved to find that the tornado had gone just South of our shop. My project leader, whom I had been working with mere minutes ago, said that when he saw it coming he just backed up to a steel post. While holding on as hard as he could he began praying. He was blessed to just watch it pass by.

Knowing that everyone was okay, I wanted to head back to my family. But my car had two flat tires now, obviously from the debris I had just driven through. The devastation was pretty incredible. I remember the Kenworth Dealership, with those massive Diesel Tractors tossed around like little Tonka Trucks. A Co-op Storage facility, the walls and ceiling completely gone, but the 55-gallon drums were still sitting in neat rows on the floor. Both were in that area where rain was coming UP into my helmet.

It was pretty amazing that only 5 people died. Kalamazoo had a radial bus system, where all the bus routes would MEET downtown so people could easily transfer. Not only did the tornado hit Downtown dead on, but it hit while the buses were downtown as well! And at 4:00 PM lots of people were headed home.

My wife’s cousin had moved to Kalamazoo from California. After the tornado she moved BACK to California. She said she preferred an Earthquake to a Tornado. I got to make my own comparison in while living in Silicon Valley during the 1984 quake. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

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