Thirty-five years ago, an F4 tornado struck Omaha, ripping through the heart of town. Communications were more cumbersome at the time, and emergency dispatchers weren't sure what was happening.
Among the many people who played a crucial role that day were Omaha Fire Capt. Robert Rockwell (now deceased) and police officer David Campbell. The two individually risked their own lives, tracking the tornado and radioing in dispatches. Their vivid, sometimes block-by-block accounts, were picked up by local TV and radio stations and convinced people to seek shelter.
Only three people died, including a man who was impaled by a board after he climbed on top of a building to see the tornado.
Campbell, now retired from the police department, remembers the day vividly.
For the most part, he was too close to see the shape of a twister. Instead, what he saw was debris flying everywhere. The more intense the debris, the closer he was to the heart of the tornado. Cars rolled and tumbled in front of him, power poles snapped alongside him, electric wires whipped about, turning the air blue. Debris rained down on his cruiser, his windows broke, nails were impaled into the upholstry, "things were just exploding."
"In the beginning, I thought, 'this is not going to get me, I'll just give locations.' But reality started sinking in at 72nd and Western, when I think I was in the heart of it. I thought, 'I could cash in my chips.' But I still had enough of a cruiser left to continue on...."
A few years earlier, Campbell had finished a tour of duty in Vietnam, which he said got him used to "helping in unusual circumstances."
"I was just trying to concentrate on what I was seeing," he said Wednesday.
And what he was seeing was an F4 tornado hopscotch back and forth across 72nd Street, lifting debris and smashing it together in the skies above.
"I didn't get a scratch, other than being soaking wet," he said. "Nowadays, they tornado-chase and make movies."
Source: Campbell, National Weather Service