Written by storm chaser, Chris Dickerson.
JUST FOR YOUR INFORMATION: The Tornado mentioned in this story was the F4 that stuck Bright, Indiana, continuing through Fairfield, Ohio (OH), before dissipating on the edge of Mason, OH – were Dickerson lived.
So without futher ado, here is Dickerson’s story.
“June 2nd, 1990: It was a day that seemed no different from any other late spring Saturday for fifth-grade me. There was one week of school left, and I was champing at the bit to get my summer vacation underway.
It was also my grandfather’s seventy birthday and we were set to jump in the Mercury and head to Columbus to join the rest of my family in celebration.
I was never much for collared shirts at that age, but I found compromise with my mom in the form of a white shirt with negative shaded dolphins against turquoise spray paint patterns; pretty standard fare for the twilight of eighty’s dude culture before it was swept away in a tidal wave of flannel and Seattle slacker chic.
Being the first one ready, I decide to go outside and amuse myself in the front yard with some of my toys, making sure to heed my mother’s instructions not to get dirty.
I didn’t stay outside for long, though.I couldn’t. It was the most humid day I had ever experienced. Even at that age, it seemed like an anomaly to me.
I had always grown up outside, playing in the woods, the creeks near my house, and running around in nature through all four seasons.
My folks always encouraged me to go out and explore what I read about in my nature magazines and science classes, and I had fully embraced that as far back as I can remember.
Even as a child I had developed a sense of being in tune with my outdoor surroundings, and I knew right away that there was something different about that day.
There was an oppressive haze that instantly caused sweat to bead up on my face, exacerbated by the sun beating down with a relentless intensity that was unheard of that early in the spring.
While strange, it didn’t register as a warning, and I retreated to the air conditioning thinking only that it foreshadowed a nice hot summer with plenty of days spent at the YMCA pool, sprinkler runs, and squirtgun fights…
…and how I would be having a lot more fun if I could change into my bathing suit and enjoy the gift of an August day presented two months early.
What I couldn’t see, couldn’t know at that age, was that the blanket of moist air saturating the landscape was instead a warning sign.
High above and to the west, ingredients were being poured into an atmospheric gumbo, and the burner was set to high.
The party was pretty standard fare for me at that point in my life. Being the oldest of the grandkids, I was always disappointed at being relegated to the kids’ table with all my younger cousins who, though only a few years younger.
It seemed miles away to almost-eleven-year-old me. Though I tried, my appeals to join the adults at their table once again went unheeded. After we finished eating, we all took a family photo that still hangs in my grandmother’s house.
The party went late into the evening and the sun had long since set by the time we returned to the car for the two-hour trip back home.
There was never really much to see along the stretch of I-71 between the Cincinnati suburbs and Columbus, even during the day, and much less so at night.
So between the boredom of an uneventful night drive and exhaustion brought on by the oppressive heat that stretched even to Columbus, I fell asleep.
It wasn’t a sound that woke me up, it was the light. In the fog that surrounded me as I slipped out of sleep, it seemed as if I had closed my eyes in front of a television in a dark room, the flickering and pulsating growing with intensity until I finally found my way back to consciousness.
Half awake, and slumped across the middle of the back seat, I remembered that I was in the car and figured we must be getting close to home.
All those flashes, the intensity, the constant strobing could only mean one thing; the fireworks finale as King’s Island closed for the night.
At that time, the massive amusement park was one of the only landmarks in my town, and every night the fireworks were visible from my house.
I always knew exactly when ten o’clock struck because the sky would illuminate, followed by the low booming that shook the summertime sky and signaled curfew for us neighborhood kids, our own nightly send-off after days full of of baseball, skateboarding, and frog-hunting.
But there was no sound. Half-asleep, the expected report and rumble never came. The car was virtually silent aside from the hushed conversation between my parents and barely audible radio, both reduced in volume in consideration of the sleeping kids in the backseat.
Eyes half-open, I inquired to my dad, “are those the King’s Island fireworks?”, he replied, “No son, that’s lightning” and, as if I were struck by a thunderbolt myself, I was instantly awake and sitting straight up. It was indeed lightning.
The most fantastic lightning I had ever seen. The sky was as if it were midday, the darkness outside lasting mere fractions of a second as the landscape was illuminated by the incredible power surging within the clouds above.
I have always had an adversarial relationship with lightning. At times, it seems that we are destined to be intertwined throughout the course of my life, like a hero and villain who require and respect each other to even exist.
For the longest time I was crippled by a fear of lightning, stemming from a strike to our house in Colorado that imprinted my early consciousness as a toddler.
Seeing it shatter a massive oak in a friend’s backyard in a shower of sparks and a deafening bomb blast of thunder a few years later didn’t help.
Later, as a teenager, I would watch in horror as a lightning bolt struck down a man mere feet from where I was standing while working at a waterpark.
I will never forget being first to rush out with a lifeguard as we tried in vain to perform CPR; the look on his face, eyes half-rolled back in his head, burn marks above the left eyebrow, gone from the plane of existence before he even hit the ground, all while lightning continued to flash overhead in a taunting, threatening manner.
But as a child, my parents, ever encouraging me to learn about the natural world, pushed me to read about storms; that the more I understood them, the less I would fear them. And I devoured any reference material I could.
While most kids were reading comics and spending their allowance on baseball cards, I was wearing out my library card on every weather book I could find and begging my mom to go to the mall so I could spend an hour in The Nature Company devising a plan to maximize my lawn mowing revenue.
At first, it didn’t really help. The tornado book I read and re-read hundreds of times (Disaster! Tornadoes by Dennis Fradin) first gave me nightmares.
I imagined myself in Wichita Falls, Texas on April 10th, 1979, the still image of the multi-vortex tornado from the book bearing down on me with no place to hide.
Waking up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding like a machine gun and then awakening my parents almost banned that book in my household, but those nightmares soon subsided.
That book made such an impression on me, and I too on that book in the form of a number two pencil with the name ‘Chris Dickerson’ repeatedly scrawled in adolescent chicken-scratch in the checkout catalog on the rear binding.
I returned to my elementary school as a high school student and the librarian actually let me keep the book as a memento…
…and maybe because it was obvious that I was really the only person that ever read it. I still have it to this day. In the backseat of the car, I was transfixed by the awesome display of energy erupting all around me.
My sister, always a heavier sleeper than me, was still oblivious and fast asleep in the seat beside me, while I was simply staring out the window, speechless. Nature was flexing her muscles and I was in awe but at the same time perplexed.
Why wasn’t there any thunder? Why couldn’t I hear anything? And where was the rain? I had driven through many storms and even with the typical din of a family of four I could always hear the thunder outside.
Here I was in an almost silent vehicle, and the fireworks that seemed relentless made almost no sound.
Like many midwestern kids, I had grown up with the misnomer of ‘heat lightning’, which is actually just regular lightning too far away for the thunder to audibly travel. But this was different.
This wasn’t a flash or two on the distant horizon, a faint flicker off the summertime haze heralding a distant storm.
This was something different, something menacing. As the landscape rolling by presented itself in an eerie fluorescent staccato, I recognized landmarks ten minutes from home and came to a sobering conclusion.
Whatever was coming was big, and we were on a direct collision course with it. But at least I would soon be home.
We exited the interstate and entered our neighborhood close to midnight, the familiar shapes of the houses and yards that were my summer playground now appearing foreboding as the shadows ricocheted in different directions underneath the electrical maelstrom.
The scene that usually accompanied a nighttime storm, the sky drowned out by the low glow of the streetlights and homes was gone.
The streetlights weren’t even on. The lightning was so bright and constant, their solar sensors were confused into thinking the sun had returned.
The neighborhood, as was typical for that time of night, had mostly retired for the evening, turning out the welcoming interior lights, creating the uneasy surrealism of pitch black punctuated by electric white.
When we pulled up into the driveway, I stood for a second, just staring at the surreal landscape above me.
I wasn’t paying attention to the chime from the car signaling that mine was the last door open, nor did I immediately register my parents commands to follow them inside before the inevitable arrival of a deluge of rain.
I just stared up, mesmerized by the thrashing, low-hanging clouds racing eastward. Where normally the sky was not visible beyond the ground clutter, I could now see directly up into the black heart of the approaching storm.
The clouds were lower than anything I had ever seen in my life, roiling, turning, and advancing with a speed and ferocity I had never seen.
It almost seemed as if I could reach up and grab a tendril from the world’s angriest cotton candy machine churning just above my head.
Maybe it was only a few seconds, but it seemed longer, and I then turned and shut the door. As if right on cue, I heard the most ominous sound I knew. Less than a mile away came the unmistakable wail of the tornado siren.
Even though the thunder had begun to catch up to the lightning and the wind had picked up, whistling through the trees and bushes, the banshee scream of the siren cut through, its crescendos rising and falling while it circled high on its post.
The sound, normally competing with typical midday background noise when testing, was now amplified in the absence of human activity in my small town.
It seemed like it was right across the street. Never in my life had I heard the siren activated other than during testing. First Wednesday of every month, noon, five minutes or so.
It was always sunny, humid, a nonchalant reminder that it was still there, but never more than a cool sound on an otherwise innocuous day.
Not this time. In those days, tornado forecasting was still in its infancy. The first prototype Doppler Radar would not see installation until months later, with an operational weather Doppler not seeing action until two years had passed.
Meteorologists relied on radars designed in 1957 and 1974 to gauge the severity of a storm and the process was far from perfect or even conclusive.
Confirmation was dependent on interpreting old technology and reports from trained spotters. Warning time could vary from ten minutes to a few seconds, and that was if a warning could even be issued in time to save property and lives.
While far more advanced than the days of the early fifty’s and prior, when the government explicitly prohibited on-air use of even the word ‘Tornado’ for fear of inciting panic, 1990 is primitive compared to the advancements we take for granted today.
Every one of my worst fears seemed to come true at that moment. All the images from the books, all the scenes of destruction, houses ripped away, cars mangled…
…flooded into my brain. I feared that any second, a monster tornado would appear from between the houses across the street.
That it was nighttime and we were the only ones outside, the only people that seemed to even exist right then and there in a neighborhood devoid of human presence, seemed like a nightmare that had suddenly come to life.
How much time did we have? How bad was it going to be? Would I live or die? These aren’t usually things that cross your mind at ten, but beneath that ominous sky, lightning all around, siren howling that somewhere in the black churning waves was a killer on the loose, these thoughts arrived.
Standing there, not knowing what direction it would come from, or when, but knowing it was out there somewhere, I have never been more scared of anything, ever, as I was at that very moment.
Thankfully my parents were prepared and we had a plan. My mother took us to the basement in the alcove that served as my dad’s office.
We had some extra mattresses that my dad positioned to protect us just in case. My dad went back up to turn on the TV and I followed, though scared out of my mind, because I wanted to know what was going on.
There was no local programming on Channel twelve that night. Tim Hedrick had pre-empted everything with a live broadcast regarding an ongoing tornado outbreak across the region.
While the normal breaks alerting the citizens of Cincinnati to severe weather were usually bland, dry and at times unwelcome, there was a sense of tense urgency in this broadcast as confirmed tornadoes were slicing across the Tri-State at the most dangerous time possible.
My dad sent me back downstairs after I caught a glimpse of the radar displayed on the television screen, the usual green and yellow replaced by large splotches of red; confirming my suspicion that this was as strong a storm as I had ever experienced.
I pleaded with my dad to come downstairs with the rest of us and he followed.
We huddled in the basement listening to the NOAA weather alert on a small radio we kept for fishing trips at the lake with my grandfather whose party we had just recently left.
The broadcast seems almost campy by today’s standards, but there was no ambiguity about the situation at hand (Below is a clip of the NWS broadcast about forty five minutes before we turned it on).
We remained in place for about an hour. The silence that had preceded the storm was shattered by the repeated explosions of thunder as the storm moved right overhead.
The power failed, and the basement was transformed into a frightening cave of strange shapes as the lightning lashed through the small windows at ground level, casting shadows from boxes and various items at infinite angles while I struggled to hold onto my little Siamese cat.
The rain, swirled around the updraft and held aloft as the storm marched east, now came roaring down in a deafening torrent that lashed the sides of the house like a jet engine on full power.
At any second, I expected to see the ceiling torn apart, to be sucked into that inky blackness, and for my nightmare to follow me into real life and take me away.
But nothing happened.
Gradually, the roar of the rain and wind subsided, and the thunder became more distant. The cacophonous wail of the siren had ceased.
The reverberating barrage now replaced with an almost ghostly silence of wind-blown water gently hitting the windows, interrupted only by the sump powering up and pumping water out into the side yard.
As a freight train approaches full of sound and fury, high pitched and screaming, but leaves only faint echoes as it recedes into the distance, so was this storm as it continued on its rails eastward into Clermont County and beyond.
I walked out into the back yard to watch it on its way, the lightning retreating but still snarling and the clouds still low and evil.
The wind had shifted and the hot humid air mass that seemed so thick only hours before was replaced by a brisk, cool wind from the north that made the remaining showers feel much more chilling.
I had survived my first tornado warning, and I had emerged completely unscathed. I wondered how lucky I was compared to others that night.
After feeding off nothing but adrenaline and fear I was completely exhausted and decided to spend the night on that mattress in the basement, just in case.
I knew the tornado threat had passed, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Looking back at archived information available online, that day was quite a significant day for severe weather in the United States.
While today I use the SPC outlooks daily, I was unaware of their existence at age ten. On June 2nd a high risk level, the highest possible, was issued, warning of almost certain widespread severe weather.
From June 2nd, overnight into June 3rd, there were sixty six confirmed tornadoes across the Ohio Valley from Illinois through Indiana, southern Ohio, and northern Kentucky.
Although my house was not hit, the tornado that prompted the warning for my town lifted only about a mile from where we gathered in the basement. This tornado was rated as an F4, the second most powerful rating a tornado can garner.
Overall, this outbreak would produce thirty seven tornadoes in Indiana alone, the most ever for that state in a single day, even breaking the record of the ‘Super Outbreak’ of 1974. Seven tornadoes were rated as F4, and nine people lost their lives.
For me, June 2nd began innocently enough, but ended with me confronting my greatest fears. Little did I know how much that fear and adrenaline would drive me over the next twenty five years of my life, nor did I anticipate the impact of that night on my future.
Never did it cross my mind that only five years later I would embark on trips in my little Mazda pickup, no longer the hunted, but the hunter.
The tables would soon be turned. What had once chased me underground, fearful and uncertain, would soon become my quarry and the object of countless pursuits against reminders to be careful and sideways comments of others who could never understand my passion.
I had always been interested in storms, but June 2nd, 1990 was the day they became a part of me.”
An incredible story, thanks to Dickerson for sharing it.