Surviving the Storm: When seconds save lives
In Part 2 of our Surviving the Storm series, we bring you a behind-the-scenes look at how a KTEN storm chaser played a critical role in providing critical warnings about the Bryan County tornado on April 30, 2019.
"I began to head home to Durant, Oklahoma, and just kind of call it a day."
But had KTEN storm chaser Alex Spahn called it a day sooner, there's no telling how many more lives would've been lost on that April day.
"Newly issued tonight, we have a tornado warning for Bryan and Atoka counties."
"People's lives were turned upside-down. People's lives changed forever that day… that night," said Rick Smith, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Norman.
As Texomans in the communities of Blue and Bokchito sought shelter, we had eyes on the storm thanks to a decision made just days prior.
"I had just moved to Sherman and taken this job at KTEN about three-and-a-half weeks before this event," recalled KTEN Chief Meteorologist Mandy Bailey. "So I took quickly trying to hire Alex, and we got that done a couple days before the Blue day."
After chasing storms earlier in the day, Spahn and his camera were working to capture lightning strikes east of Durant that evening.
"It was kind of this eerie building... we knew we could still have storms, but nothing had happened yet," Bailey said.
"I started to realize there might have been a wall cloud; a lowering of the cloud just in front of me," Spahn recalled.
"We had just started our nine o'clock newscast, and I got a text from him: 'I see power flashes, I think there's a lowering.' I remember thinking: 'Okay…are you sure?'" Bailey said.
"I believe that was at 9:06 p.m. at that time," Spahn added.
"The spotter reports, chaser reports — in that case, Alex's report — was one of the key factors that played into our decision to issue a tornado warning," said Smith.
"So he submitted that report to the National Weather Service, and within the next minute a tornado warning was issued," Bailey said.
The tornado would track through Blue to Bokchito and continue up to Lane, claiming two lives. But without footage to trigger the warning, that total could've been far higher.
"It had the potential to be really big," Smith said. "It had the potential to be really more impactful than it was."
"The very first thing I saw on the side road when I got near Blue was a mobile home that was blown apart by the tornado and scattered into the trees," Spahn said. "That's when it really sank in that a powerful tornado had moved through the area. That evening I spoke with a family that who had mentioned they got a warning on their phones; they ran inside, and not even 30 seconds later that tornado had hit."
"The people did take that warning seriously. They did take shelter, and just a few seconds of action made the difference for some of these folks," Smith said.
Morning light revealed widespread destruction across Bryan County. A difference many have been left to cope with for years to come.
"I remember the next day just thinking… could I have done anything better? Could our coverage have saved more lives?" Bailey asked.