“Tornado reported jus’ north of here,” the Sergeant stated as he came into our office.
Memories of Texas raced through my head, “I didn’t know there were tornadoes in Wyoming,” I said feeling a pit of fear welling up in my gut.
Jus’ then the hospitals intercom sounded off with the three bells meaning to get a persons attention. It was effective as long as it didn’t scare a person to death first.
It was Francis Emory Warren Air Force Base Hospital’s Commander, “Attention all staff, prepare to evacuate patients, guests and staff to below ground shelters.”
My telephone rang and I answered. It was my commanding officer.
He told him to meet him in the orderly room immediately. I let the sergeant know as I headed straight down the hall passed the pharmacy and the flight surgeons office.
The Captain was already there by the time I entered the orderly room. Coming to attention in front of him, I started to say that I was there as ordered, but he cut me off.
Instead he turned and smiled, saying, “I volunteered your services to the Colonel.”
I raised his left eyebrow.
It was widely known that the captain enjoyed creating situations for me to volunteer for. I waited for the other shoe to drop.
“Your record indicates that you are an expert on tornadoes,” he started, “the Colonel needs a posted look out on the roof and I told him he could use you.”
My face felt like a wild-fire out of control. I was instantly angry.
Yet I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath. The Captain knew I was mad and that’s what he wanted, but refused to let him have his moment as he continued to smile his cruel little smile.
Behind me, I heard the Colonel say, “The Lieutenant will unlock the roof hatch for you.”
The Lieutenant’s keys were giggling in his hands before the Colonel had completed the sentence. I followed him out of the Orderly Room and back down the hallway I had jus’ come from.
Once we made the corner the Lieutenant slowed his pace and waited for me to catch up.
“Your C.O. really doesn’t like you, does he?” the Lieutenant asked.
“No, sir,” is all I said.
The Lieutenant stopped in the supply office and signed for a set of field glasses and a radio, handing them to me. We continued down the hallway to Engineering in silence.
Inside Engineering, he walked to the far wall and started climbing up the ladder. The Lieutenant unlocked the hatch and climbed down.
I grabbed hold of the first rung as the Lieutenant put his hand on my shoulder, “You showed a lot of courage back there,” he said.
Jus’ before I pushed the hatch open the Lieutenant shouted up, “You know if it gets to dangerous, get back down here and head for the shelter, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded.
The Lieutenant smiled and I pushed open the hatch, climbed through then closed it behind himself.
The winds’ bite was ferocious and the distance I could see the long gray-black snake reaching down from the overcast skies. It touched the earth with a roar as it tore apart whatever lay in its path.
It whipped pieces of corrugated tin through the air as if it were onion-skin typing paper. It lifted mobile homes, smashing them like cardboard boxes and tossing cars and trucks about like Matchboxes on a playground.
I couldn’t tell if I was sweating from fear or from the humidity in the air.
As continued to watch, I reported its distance to the commander by hand-held radio. Finally it crossed over I-80, less than two miles away and approaching the hospital quickly.
I radioed, “Funnel cloud, crossing freeway, moving in our direction.”
“10-4,” was the commanders’ response.
I could hear the general alert inside the hospital become a general alarm.
The situation had turned from serious to grave. The sound of the bell continued for five minutes.
I waited for the general alarm warning to end before I radioed the Colonel. There was no answer.
So I called again, but still no answer.
It occurred to me that the Colonel had gone to the underground bunker, designed to withstand nuclear penetration. That meant he could no longer receive or send signals.
So I rushed over to the hatch as the rain started to drive down on me.
“This is how it happened before,” I thought.
As I pulled on the handle to the hatch, it refused to come up. I pulled harder and still it would not budge.
I looked up and could tell the funnel cloud had moved closer.
I lifted the radio to my lips, “I’m trapped on top of the hospital roof. The twister is jus’ about on the building. Does anyone copy?”
There was nothing but the gentle hiss of airwaves with nothing to say.
By this time knew I would have to jump from the building if I were to survive. The wind then stripped my cover from my head, sending it flying away and I decided to follow the same path the hat had taken.
Looking over the ledge, I found another roof below. So I climbed over the side and dropped down to it.
Then I raced across that roof and looked over that ledge. It was the ground and without hesitation, I leaped over the side.
I hit the ground with a thud.
The wind was momentarily knocked out of me but I kept moving. I tried every door he came to, but they were all locked.
At the front of the building I concluded I could wait no more so I thought about smashing in the window near the front door to get in. However the last time I broke a window I received a non-judicial court-martial.
Instead I moved out onto the lawn, where I laid down. Shutting my eyes as tight as I could make them, I prayed as loudly as possible.
The wind rushed the words from my throat, drowning them in its force. It also buffed me and I felt the sting of my clothing as it surged over me.
Time seemed to come to a halt as a deafening rush of silence fell over me.
Soon an all-clear alarm sounded and I tried to stand up, but I was too shaken. The Lieutenant was the first to come to my aid, helping to my feet and then into the Emergency Room.
Both the radio and binoculars that the Lieutenant had signed for were gone. I felt bad about this, but I had something more important on my mind.
Asking for the Lieutenant for his help, we walked down to the Engineering Office, where each took a turn looking up at the roof hatch. We then looked at one another, neither wanting believe what we were seeing.
Someone had locked it.