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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003 02:20 pm

The lingering storm

Recalling the Cantrall Twister of 1995

The Cantrall twister of May 9, 1995

The afternoon of May 9, 1995, was clear, hot, and humid. A tornado watch had been issued, but Charles Bishop, an engineer at Garrett Aviation, continued to mow his lawn. At 4:45 p.m. he suddenly saw a funnel cloud across the road from his house four miles southwest of Cantrall. Bishop, 44, told writer John Jermaine he can recall that afternoon as though it were yesterday.

"My story begins with me out in the yard cutting grass. It was just another beautiful day, shortly before 5 o'clock in the evening. I was constantly looking down at the grass and paid no attention to the sky. I came into the house to check my messages on the answering machine. There were two: The first was from my sister-in-law. She was in a state of panic, informing us that a tornado had been spotted out in the Koke Mill area. They said it was moving toward Athens, so she was warning us the twister was coming our way. I thought the whole thing was silly because I had been outside all day and hadn't seen a thing. The second message was from her again. She said, 'I hope you are in the basement because a tornado is definitely coming your way.' I walked over to the front door thinking, 'That's silly. If there is a tornado where they say it is, it would be right there.' I opened the door, and there it was directly in front of me. The twister was still a couple of miles away. It was just a little 'stinger' type at that time. The tornado had a small funnel and was high in the sky, nowhere near the ground. It didn't seem very dangerous or life threatening.

"My camcorder had a dead battery, so I grabbed my camera, which had a brand-new roll of Kodak Gold 200 film in it. Even though I knew I was shooting into the sun, maybe I could still capture something interesting on film. I couldn't auto focus on the tornado, so I locked on a house near the funnel and just slid it on over to capture the image of the cloud. So there I was, standing on top of my picnic table shooting picture after picture. At one point I ran in and yelled at my wife to run a yellow extension cord out to me; then I could plug the camcorder in and start videotaping it. She took one peek out the door, and I heard the door slam (laughs).

"A black state police car suddenly came rushing up to the corner. Two men jumped out. One was clearly photographing the cloud too. At that point, the 'stinger' went up into the clouds. I figured that was it; the show was over. The two men stayed and watched things a little longer. Maybe two minutes had gone by, and the clouds slowly continued to roll in. All of a sudden, the men quickly jumped into the car and took off. Then the officer noticed I was photographing them taking pictures of the storm. He got on his public address system, telling me to get in the house and seek shelter. There was a touchdown.

"Touchdown? At the time all I saw was big dark clouds slowly rolling in. Apparently they saw a clear vortex, but there was no debris within it to give it any color. Five or six horses, just west of my house, stampeded across the pasture, like horses will do before a major storm. They apparently knew that something was coming our way. So as I walked into the house, I kept on shooting. Then I noticed one cloud dropped down a bit, forming a big bulge on the bottom, like a droplet forming on the bottom of a raised, sweating glass. There was a small tail. I still didn't think it was a tornado. Some experts have examined my pictures and estimated that the big cloud was around two miles in diameter. This is normal in a high plains-type of tornado, like the ones you see in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. But it's very unusual around here.

"I went inside the house, making sure my wife and kids were OK in the basement. Then I went out the back door to see what was going on. The big cloud had moved a bit to the northeast. Interestingly enough, I didn't hear anything throughout the whole incident. For a moment, I wondered why I didn't hear the sound of a freight train, because many people say it sounds like one. The 'bulge' gradually acquired some dirt and debris, making it look like a huge 'dustdevil' or a brown cloud of dust blowing across the fields. Remember, this was all taking place maybe 200 yards from where I stood. The debris continued to color the clear vortex brown, and there were white wind clouds around it. Maybe five, six minutes have gone by. Then I believed the officer actually witnessed the touchdown.

"People think twisters start high and dip down; in reality, they only become visible after a touchdown. Then they suck stuff into them, making the whole funnel more and more visible to the observer. The structure had a wide trunk, about a quarter of a mile around at the bottom. But it didn't initially have the classic funnel shape. However, the faster the winds got, the more you could see the funnel. It continued to grow larger, while the winds became more violent. High in the vortex, I saw what I thought was a gunny sack going around. A few days went by before I found out what I had actually seen. It was a pull trailer that someone later discovered way out in a cornfield somewhere. That shows you the amount of energy this force of nature was wielding. The storm intensified and slowly moved on into Cantrall.

"I saw fire off in the distance and thought it might be my neighbor's house going up in flames. So we grabbed up some shovels and gloves, drove a short distance, and saw the roadway filled with downed powerlines, telephone poles, trees, and assorted debris. The house was still standing, so we went back home.

"The whole incident had lasted 30 minutes. Afterward, the sun came out very brightly, and it was one of the most beautiful afternoons I've seen to date. As far as storm damage goes, we had several shingles knocked off the roof. Cantrall was not that lucky. I believe nine homes were completely destroyed; at least 30 houses, the Methodist Church, and the local grade school were badly damaged. A number of cows, pigs, dogs, and cats were also killed by the storm. But luckily no human beings were seriously injured. The clean-up process took several weeks.

"Jim Edgar, the governor at the time, landed his helicopter at the Cantrall Grade School and examined the destruction there and in Elkhart. Then within a couple of days, he declared it a disaster area, freeing up state money for families that had lost almost everything. They brought some prisoners in to help clean up the mess. These men helped people sift through piles of wreckage, looking for anything the families could use. They also walked across fields and gathered up tons of worthless debris. I was at one house where a family's collection of steak knives were scattered all over their yard. The guard looked sort of nervous when he looked up and saw 20 prisoners, each with a knife in his hand. But they all turned over the knives and went back to work as if nothing important had happened (laughs).

"For a short time we were big news. CNN took aerial footage of the damage, while local television and newspapers crews worked the area for ground pictures and stories. The 23 pictures I had taken turned out to be far better than I expected. But I didn't know how to sell a tornado related picture, or even if there was a market for them. I went out to Barnes & Noble and bought the book Photographer's Market. I saw "The Tornado Project" in Vermont was selling tornado videos, so I called up the company and told them about my photos. The owner already had all sorts of videos and stills from that particular storm. In fact, he thought he had copies of all the material there was taken of that twister. I told him I had a whole roll of film covering the development of the tornado. He paused a moment and offered me a deal. If I would send him a set of the pictures, just for him to examine, he would give me copies of his three tornado videos and a couple of books on the subject, a package worth approximately $90. So I sent him a set of pictures. He quickly got back and offered me $400. From there, I had my photos made into slides and started giving slideshows for groups like the ham radio operators--a lot of whom are storm spotters--the National Weather Service in St. Louis, and Rotary clubs.

"I initially gave out copies of several storm pictures to friends and neighbors. Then a lady who worked at the Cantrall Grade School had an idea. She wondered whether we could do a fund-raiser with one of my pictures to help the school. I thought it was a great idea. So I contacted a friend for help: Steve Richie at the Photo Resource Center in Springfield. I asked Steve what it would cost me for 100 copies of a picture, and I explained the situation. Since it was a fund-raiser for the school, and he lives near Cantrall, Steve agreed to supply 100 pictures for nothing. He said they could make total profit off the venture. He also suggested that we sell the prints for $6 apiece. The next day, I called him up again. I already had orders for most of the photographs. He was amazed. He said, 'I've been in this business for 25 years, and everybody thinks they've got a picture that will sell 100 copies. You are the first person who actually did it.' So the Cantrall Grade School made $600 for their new computer lab, thanks to a picture of the storm that damaged their building in the first place. But the orders kept coming in. I've probably made over $4,000 since then, just from people calling up. Almost every spring, I get new orders."

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