After combat duty in Vietnam, police officer David Campbell wasn’t too worried on that afternoon in May 1975 when he radioed 911 that he would chase the Omaha tornado.
Communication and forecasting was primitive by today’s standards, so an eyewitness account from someone like Campbell would be lifesaving.
The 23-year-old figured he was far enough away that he could parallel the storm by driving north on 72nd Street.
“It seemed like it was going to be a good idea.”
What he didn’t know was that the tornado that had formed in Sarpy County and had touched down near 96th and Q was shifting to meet him.
The F4/EF4 tornado would cause $1.1 billion in inflation-adjusted damage during its nine-mile rampage through the city. Yet only three people died, fewer than typically happens today when a tornado of that power hits an urban area.
Campbell’s harrowing account, relayed to the public in real time by TV, radio and the National Weather Service, saved lives.
For some six miles, the tornado pummeled Campbell’s cruiser as he steered it through the dark chaos and torrential rain.
At the peak of its violence, Campbell feared he might die. Utility poles snapped around him, wires grabbed at the cruiser lights and siren, his rear window exploded and a brick smashed through the windshield.
“I thought I might cash in my chips. ... It didn’t happen, so I continued on.”
Coming Sunday on Omaha.com and in The World-Herald: Find our 40th anniversary report with Campbell's story, dozens of photos of the tornado and its aftermath, survivor video interviews, an interactive map of the tornado's path, and more.