Today marks 20 years since the biggest tornado outbreak in state history struck Illinois - including a destructive F3 tornado that struck portions of Urbana around 8:30 PM on Friday, April 19th 1996. I was only a few days away from my 9th birthday at the time, but remember the day vividly. I was already a raging weather nerd and had the jitters all day long. This ended up being the first tornado I saw in with my own eyes, and solidified my lifelong passion for severe weather. I wrote up a blog post detailing my story from the day and I will share it below:
The News-Gazette shared some video along with Emergency Management radio audio clips as storm spotters tracked the tornado, and emergency officials responded to damaged areas.
Written in 2012:
As an 8 year old kid I would always nag my dad for information regarding potential severe weather in central Illinois. The second my dad would walk in the door I would stop and ask him if we are "in the slight risk today", referring to the Storm Prediction Center's convective outlooks. Friday April 19 1996 was forecast fairly well in advance, though there was some debate early on whether or not it would actually be a tornado outbreak, and not just a heavy rain event. By the time the day rolled around though, I found myself in a High Risk, with an impending tornado outbreak likely.
Back around this age, me and my best friend from across the street, David Bellmore, would ride our bikes to the school yard around the block to watch the sky. I'd bring a binder that had various county maps that I would draw all over, keeping track of storms on radar and any watches and warnings were in effect. I remember riding out to the school yard that evening and he and I agreeing on one thing - we would see a tornado tonight. I'm not sure how we came up with the conclusion, but it was the only time we made such a forecast. Clearly at 8 years old I wasn't basing this off of some in depth weather analysis, but it's still pretty fun to think about. Eventually it started getting dark so we rode our bikes home for the night. It was a Friday night, so my family was just hanging at the house. I mainly paid attention to the weather, while my family did typical Friday evening things. We had the X-Files on, back when it would air every Friday night on Fox. That was and still is one of my favorite shows!
Eventually, the storm was near. After producing numerous damaging tornadoes, it progressed down Interstate 72, aptly named the 'I-72 Supercell', hitting both Springfield and Decatur along it's way. A warning was soon issued for Champaign County as the supercell took aim on Champaign-Urbana. The original mesocyclone that was producing a very large tornado near Monticello, IL looked to miss the city. However, meteorologist extraordinaire, Ed Kieser at WILL saw what was happening. In a classic mesocyclone hand-off, the Monticello tornado finished it's business and a new circulation developed and moved into southeast Urbana. Ed is still thanked to this day for the comments he made on the air on WILL that night as he warned residents in Urbana about this new circulation before a warning was issued and had many people under ground.
While sitting on the couch watching the X-Files, the outdoor warning sirens began to blare. I was instructed to head to the basement, but of course resisted as long as I could. My dad remained upstairs, hanging out the back door. The core of the storm passed and things grew still. I remember him saying several times that he didn't see anything, before suddenly yelling "Funnel cloud!". I'm willing to bet that in all of the years living in that house, I never once made it up those stairs faster than at that moment. I'm pretty sure my mom objected, but I didn't care at the time. I joined my dad in hanging out the back door as a ghostly white funnel cloud about half way to the ground glided by our backyard, illuminated by both the city lights and the incredibly frequent lightning. The tornado passed only about a mile away from our house, but at the time we could not confirm it was on the ground. As the storm moved off to the east, still illuminating the night sky like a strobe light, emergency vehicles began racing by our house heading in that direction. It became obvious that what we had seen was not simply a funnel cloud, but that a substantial tornado had actually ripped through the sub-division to our southeast.
We made the obligatory phone calls to family and friends in the area and luckily everyone checked out. There was actually only one fatality with the entire outbreak of tornadoes, unfortunately being caused by the same supercell moments after it hit Champaign-Urbana as it blew a semi off Interstate 74 while producing the monster that hit Ogden.
While the tornado did do F3 damage in town, Champaign-Urbana escaped fairly well, considering. Both the Monticello and Ogden tornadoes that formed before and after hitting Champaign were much larger tornadoes that would have created a wider damage path than the relatively small Urbana tornado. The subsequent Ogden tornado was almost a mile wide, devastating most of the town. Had this, or the original Monticello tornado moved through Champaign-Urbana, potentially hitting the University of Illinois campus on a Friday night could have been disastrous.
That said, no one was killed or seriously in town, this sky addict had his first tornado