TAYLORVILLE — The day had barely begun when the first inkling of what would happen Dec. 1 in Taylorville came through to two meteorologists manning the midnight shift at the Lincoln office of the National Weather Service.
At 1 a.m., the NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., dispatched its daily severe weather outlook: a slight risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes from Peoria down to St. Louis.
At the time, the risk was marginal in the minds of meteorologists because of the recent cold front that included November snowstorms, according to Ernie Goetsch, the meteorologist in charge of the Lincoln office.
The seed the report planted in their minds would bloom into 28 tornadoes in Illinois — the largest one-day December outbreak in the state since 1957. One of the 28 — an EF-3 — would plow through Taylorville and the adjacent unincorporated village of Hewittville.
When the report was issued, the 500 homes in Taylorville area that were eventually damaged were still standing tall. The 25 people who would be injured did not yet know the pain and broken bones and grief the tornado would sow.
Taylorville Fire Chief Mike Crews didn’t yet realize how his town would be transformed. And the much beloved Twilight Christmas Parade in downtown Taylorville, which Marcia Neal labored for weeks to organize, was still on.
As the tornado drew near, the actions and tough decisions meteorologists, Crews and Neal made that day — some unprecedented — were pivotal in helping residents realize the seriousness of the storm. The fact no one died would be hailed a miracle by some.
The morning of
Like the weather, the National Weather Service office in Lincoln does not sleep. Before 4 a.m. Dec. 1, a briefing package about the day’s weather was blasted out to all 35 county emergency managers it works with, as well as the state emergency center in Springfield.
It included mention of the storm prediction center’s warning of a slight risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Meteorologist John Parr came at 4 a.m. to start his work day and get the office’s first weather balloon launched. The large, tan, hydrogen-filled balloon floated into the upper atmosphere at about 6 a.m., while Parr tracked its movement through GPS. An instrument tied to the balloon began to feed information back to the office an hour later.
By 8 a.m., Parr would report all the information to the storm prediction center. High up, the behavior of the winds would be another clue of what was to come. The wind directions showed a strong change. Wind speeds were more than 60 miles per hour.
In Taylorville, Crews had been awake for less than an hour when he received an updated daily weather briefing in his email inbox at 7:44 a.m. Also serving as the Christian County emergency management director, it was Crews’ job to keep an eye on the weather. He took screenshots from his phone and posted the photos on the Christian County Severe Weather and Disaster Recovery Facebook page three minutes later.
The multi-page report included a section called “The Bottom Line Up Front,” breaking down the risks. What? Severe thunderstorms. Where? Central and southeast Illinois. When? This afternoon and this evening. Impacts? Lightning hazards. Damaging winds and large hail possible. Also: isolated tornadoes.
Neal was awake at the time but hadn’t seen Facebook. She ate her usual piece of toast for breakfast and wondered about the warm weather.
It was going to be a great day for a parade, she thought. No need for a winter coat and no complaints from shivering onlookers.
As the executive director of DowntownTaylorville.org, she was in charge of the annual Christmas parade.
City crews had spent weeks decorating downtown Taylorville. Light poles around the square were encircled with evergreens and big red felt bows. Sixteen concrete planters held different decorations hailing the holidays. Red banners illustrated with white snowflakes wished “Seasons Greetings.”
The biggest attraction — Santa’s house — sat in front of the courthouse. Half of a plastic Santa peeked out of the chimney. Inside, a Christmas tree surrounded by presents and stockings added to the atmosphere. A rocking chair was ready for when the real Santa would sit and listen to the wishes of the several Taylorville children who would attend the parade.
She posted a message on the Downtown Taylorville Facebook page reminding folks the parade began at 5 p.m. and that the route would come up Main Cross Street and around the square.
“We wish each of you A Very Merry Christmas!!!” she wrote.
Neal’s bliss lasted only until she received a mass text from Crews. There was a chance of severe weather later in the day, it said. Hopefully, it will come after the parade, she remembered thinking.
Back at the National Weather Service office, there was an 8 a.m. shift change. One meteorologist had been asked to come in specifically to launch another weather balloon at noon.
Balloon launches usually happen at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The findings of the first balloon, though, prompted the storm prediction center in Oklahoma to make a special request to send up another one.
Meteorologist Matt Barnes let another balloon fly and waited for results.
An hour later, the data began trickling in. The second balloon’s findings were more extreme than the first.
The atmosphere, which had moisture in the morning, was dry and warm air was pushing upward. Wind speeds were more than 100 miles per hour.
Almost textbook tornado conditions, Goetsch would later say.
A normal day
Since Crews didn’t hear from the weather service after the initial briefing in the morning, he decided to keep his plans. Every few weeks, he made it a point to visit his 19-year-old daughter, Lauren, in Decatur.
About 1 p.m., he hopped in his car and drove 25 minutes to Decatur, where he and Lauren chatted over hot chocolate. They didn’t talk about tornadoes. Afterward, he got back in his car and headed back to Taylorville.
Quite a normal day, he later said.
Around 2 p.m., information about the widespread nature of the storm was coming in quickly. The storm prediction center held a conference call with offices in Lincoln, St. Louis and Davenport, Iowa. It was time to put out a tornado watch, they said.
The Lincoln weather service office called in more staff. The office has six stations with three screens each, where meteorologists can see reports from National Weather Service offices across the country and scan social media for any word of severe weather.
Barnes, who was assigned as the warning forecaster, put out a tornado watch for the Illinois River Valley near Beardstown and Havana a little after 2:15 p.m.
James Auten, who would later lead the damage assessment team for Taylorville, was charged with decision support. His role was to talk to any emergency managers who had big events that day and give them information they needed to decide whether to cancel.
The time was nearing to make a call on the parade. Floats and participants would begin lining up at 4 p.m.
Ever since getting Crews’ text message, Neal monitored the weather in her living room by watching the local news and checking weather apps on her phone. Her fear was lightning and rain, not tornadoes.
She hated to cancel. The children so looked forward to seeing Santa, she said.
Neal called Crews at 3 p.m. He had asked her if she had a reschedule date. She replied no. “Call me back at 4 p.m. for an update,” he told her.
“We were all just hopeful at that point,” Neal later said.
Neal, dressed in her Santa sweater and light fleece jacket, headed to the square from her Kenton Court home.
At 3:11 p.m., Crews posted on the Facebook page again.
“The National Weather Service has posted a tornado watch until 7 PM this evening,” Crews wrote. “At this time, Taylorville is still planning on the twilight parade at 5:00. We will post a cancellation immediately if that occurs.”
Neal first stopped at the corner of Clay Street and Main Cross Street to drop off a banner with Gary Merker. Clad in a bright orange hat and gloves, Merker had directed the parade for more than 15 years.
At 3:45 p.m., a handful of people lined up for the parade, some where they were supposed to be and some where they weren’t, Merker said. A handful of county fair queens and princesses waited in their parents’ cars.
There was the new attraction: a 1930s REO Speedwagon Fire Engine, restored in honor of the firefighters who had died in the Chicago Fire. The local VFW chapter had come with a pickup truck to collect toys along the route.
Driving past the square, Merker said he saw people had come early to snag the best viewing spots. Some were tailgating in their truck beds. A woman and a child stood outside of Santa’s house, angling to be the first to greet him.
Taylorville Mayor Bruce Barry, the parade’s grand marshal, stood with Merker and fielded questions from participants about whether the parade would go on. The sky was getting darker.
Reaching the square, Neal stopped at U.S. Bank, whose lobby was decorated for parade-goers who wanted to come in for a complimentary hot chocolate. She had the judging sheets for the six people who would rank parade participants and determine who won the prizes.
The judges bombarded her with questions about the weather, and Neal told them she was due for another call with Crews.
Around 4 p.m., Crews was on the phone with Auten, who warned of lightning in the area. The St. Louis office had just issued a tornado warning for Montgomery County.
The lightning alone was enough for Crews to cancel the parade, but he also had personally heard from a spotter in Montgomery County.
“It’s a quarter-mile wide,” Crews recalled the spotter told him. “It’s the real deal.”
Crews said the radar showed the tornado would head toward Taylorville.
Once Crews hung up with Auten, he called Neal.
“Marcia, we got to get those people out of there,” Neal recalled him saying. “There are two tornadoes sighted in Litchfield.”
Neal immediately conveyed Crews’ message to the judges, which included two aldermen, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, the senior citizens director and the bank president.
She called Merker, telling him to tell people to head home and take cover.
Starting from U.S. Bank, Neal walked one way around the square and Alderman Larry Budd — one of the judges — and his wife walked the other way, warning at least 100 parade watchers to go home.
Neither Neal nor Merker had to force people to make haste. They saw the sky.
At 4:18 p.m., Crews posted on Facebook the parade was canceled.
“Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, so we are postponing the Christmas Parade until next Saturday,” Neal posted on Facebook nine minutes later.
The focus now was to get eyes on the tornado and warn people.
Crews alerted law enforcement and firefighters to act as the county’s tornado spotters.
He also made a call to the firefighter manning the desk at the Taylorville fire station, telling him to activate the tornado sirens. Christian County was within the risk area of the tornado. Likened to a missile launch, the firefighter had to turn a key, hit “arm” and click a button on a computer screen.
At 4:21 p.m., the sirens rang out.
Once Auten hung up with Crews, the information did not stop coming. A second line of tornadoes, apart from the Illinois River Valley, were forming in the Lincoln office’s jurisdiction. Auten was assigned to become their warning forecaster.
Auten tried to connect with Crews again on the phone to warn him a tornado warning could be called for the area.
Once he got a hold of Crews, the fire chief said he had already canceled the parade and sounded the sirens.
At 4:39 p.m., Auten issued the first tornado warning for Christian County. The warning pinged on the thousands of phones connected to Christian County telecommunications tower.
An EF-0 tornado, which started near Litchfield, crossed the county line at 4:47 p.m. It was moving 30 to 35 miles per hour.
A spotter put in a report that a tornado was seen north of Morrisonville. Crews posted a picture of it on Facebook at 4:57 p.m.
Auten sent out a severe weather statement, tagging it with the likelihood of considerable damage. Reports from spotters started to come in furiously. Almost every person in the office was taking calls.
After swinging around the south side of town to see if he could see anything on the horizon, Crews made a beeline back to the fire station, which sits on Main Street two blocks away from the square.
In between listening to the countywide radio, he popped his head out the window to see if could hear the tornado. He saw quarter-sized hail.
Assistant Fire Chief Andy Goodall monitored the radio frequency for spotter reports and would push the information to Goetsch in the National Weather Service office. The reports were marked on a large map of the county in the fire department.
In the weather service office, the radar started to pick up debris — a rare phenomenon — whipping around in the wind. The storm was getting stronger.
Knowing the tornado was tracking toward a heavily populated area, Auten upgraded the event to the rarest of warnings: a “tornado emergency.”
The use of “tornado emergency” began with the 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. Dozens were killed.
“It’s almost never used,” Goetsch later said.
The seldom used enhanced warning coincided with another break from the norm.
It was against policy to sound the tornado sirens for a second time because of the chance that someone might think the second siren was all-clear signal. Though sirens are meant to alert those outside, Crews knew many default to hearing a siren as their primary warning.
And like the several photos and videos of the tornado would later prove, the urge to sit outside and capture video of the tornado was high, Crews said.
Crews looked out his window and saw the sky looked troubling. He figured the weather conditions would be enough for anyone to eliminate an all-clear signal from their mind.
At 5:15 p.m., he ordered for another round of sirens.
By that time, Neal had seen to it that everyone had left the square. She took the traffic cones for reserved handicapped parking and stored them in Santa’s house.
She reached home before the second round of sirens went off. In the coming days, she would wonder about how close the tornado came to the parade route.
Two blocks away from where the parade participants lined up, huge oaks along Main Cross Street fell into the street. Visible damage could be seen starting at Main Cross and Shumway streets. Her own neighborhood, a five-minute drive away, would get a taste of the tornado.
When Neal got home, she grabbed her 9-year-old Pekingese-Shih Tzu mix, Murphy, who was quaking. She held Murphy and huddled in the bathroom with a flashlight and blanket. She couldn’t bring herself to get in the tub.
At the fire department, Crews sent six firefighters on rigs to the lake to get out of harm’s way. If the tornado decimated the department’s equipment, responding afterward would be impossible.
The doors of the fire station, though locked, began rattling in their frames.
Crews didn’t take cover.
“The radio was at my desk,” was his simple explanation.
At 5:21 p.m., the tornado hit the edge of town.
Contact Crystal Thomas: 788-1528, [email protected], twitter.com/crystalclear224.