The Best of RSM: Chasing Down A Killer

“I’m retired. I’m not going to do it.”

Tuscaloosa, Alabama moments after the deadly April 27 tornado. (Photo by Ben Greer)

If not for a heated argument with a contractor for a bingo parlor over the fragile nature of his septic field lines, those could have been John Oldshue’s famous last words. On April 27, the former meteorologist and his friend Ben Greer, a first-time storm chaser, found themselves in the thick of the Tuscaloosa tornado story … and probably saved a few lives along the way.

On the morning of April 27, it seemed as if the entire state of Alabama was on edge. The day was circled in red. The sky sank low, roiling an ominous green. Warning sirens became alarm clocks.

Before most had their first cup of joe that morning, the death toll had already begun. An unexpected line of storms spawned small tornadoes across the state’s mid-section, downing trees and power lines, snarling the morning commute and taking a few lives. And that was just the opening act. The big show was still hours away.

“I remember James Spann saying “people will die in Alabama,'” Ben soberly recalls, referring to the legendary Birmingham meteorologist. With that knowledge in hand, Ben called his friend John Oldshue, ready to embark on his first foray into storm chasing. “I said, ‘John, you keep trying to get me to go storm chasing. Let’s go.'” But John wasn’t interested.

John on a happier weather day. (Courtesy John Oldshue)

John retired from meteorology four years earlier, though he would often saddle up again for big weather stories to help out his old friend, mentor and former boss, Spann. For years, he’d been asking Ben to join him on his occasional storm chases. Now that Ben was ready to say yes, John had finally closed the door on that part of his career.

A Tuscaloosa native, John recalls vividly the tornado outbreak of 1974, when he was only five years old. “Every meteorologist has their event that made them want to do this,” he says. “That was mine.” Perhaps it was the memories of that day, but the desire to do something, anything to help keep his hometown safe would prove too great to resist.

An hour later, Ben got the call from John: “Can you meet me in Tuscaloosa?” Ben was on his way.

In the film and television industry, Ben is one of those guys who does all the jobs you’ve heard of but never knew what they were: key grip, gaffer, 1st AC, jib operator, etc. If it involves a light, a stand, lenses or any of the other esoteric bits of gear on a film set, Ben has been the guy making them work. Between John’s expertise as a storm spotter and Ben’s technical know-how, they would make a formidable storm chasing team.

Ben Greer on the set of an Auburn University commercial shoot. (Photo by Kelli McCall Franklin)

Not wanting to alarm too many in his family but sensing the magnitude of what the day might bring, Ben called his little sister, Brittany, to let someone know what he was doing. Just in case. Little did either of them suspect that Brittany would be the one to come face-to-face with a killer that day.

Ben and John met south of town. Climbing into John’s car amidst the technological detritus of modern-day storm chasing, Ben went to work configuring the various cameras, phones and laptop for the chase. Now all they needed was a storm to shoot.

They had originally planned to track down a storm then in the west Alabama town of Carrollton. However, with another team from ABC 33/40 already covering that one, John decided to head southwest on Interstate 20/59 toward a second signature that was then crossing from Greene County into Tuscaloosa.

Pulling off the interstate, Ben noticed a good, high vantage point in the parking lot of an unmarked bingo parlor. In the distance, they could see lightning dancing around a central point. “That’s how lightning dances around a tornado,” John noted. “We’re in a good spot.”

Then it appeared.

“All of a sudden, the tornado dropped,” John recalls. Unlike typical storms in the Southeast, this monster did not hide itself within a veil of rain and cloud. It didn’t try to shield its intentions. Like the classic tornadoes seen out West, it towered over the landscape and began to deform it. “It was apparent,” John adds, “that it wasn’t going to be a small tornado.”

They quickly began streaming their footage live on ABC 33/40. But with power out to so many across the region due to the morning storms, would enough people get the message?

Someone was getting the message, as John and Ben became the cottage celebrities of the moment. “Both of our phones we’re just going off, because they were talking about us,” Ben remembers, “but neither one of us put our cameras down.”

The storm began its fateful, destructive march to the northeast. From their vantage point two to three miles away, John and Ben couldn’t hear the storm at all. There was no freight train, no howling jet engine – just the dinging of the open-door chime in John’s car, the constantly ringing phones and James Spann repeating his dire warnings to all who would listen on the radio.

“I remember watching it slowly dance from left to right and didn’t think anything about the destruction it was causing.” -Ben Greer

When the storm moved out of sight, John pulled the car around to the back of the small building to get a better shot. Soon, a “large Australian man” confronted them and began yelling about how John was ruining the newly installed septic tank and field lines. The argument grew more heated, nearly coming to blows. Finally, John offered his contact information and promised to pay for any damage he might cause – anything to continue covering the ongoing emergency and possibly save lives.

By that time, however, the storm had moved out of sight. The men got back onto the interstate and headed northeast toward the city of Tuscaloosa. They soon realized that the now mile-wide storm had crossed a portion of the highway, tossing big rigs like HotWheels. It was then that John pointed out that the big Australian septic contractor may have saved their lives. “If you don’t believe in angels, this’ll make you think again,” Ben says.

(photo by Ben Greer)

As they made their way to Tuscaloosa, Ben sent a text message to his mother and his sisters, all of whom live in Tuscaloosa, warning them of what was headed their way.

Arriving at the hard-hit corner of McFarland Blvd. and 15th Street, the two men were dumbfounded at the devastation they found. While John got on the phone with the station to update James Spann on the destruction, Ben stepped out to take a few still photos. As he did, he realized he was standing in a puddle of gasoline from what was left of the service station where they had parked. Neighboring business fared even worse. “Everything was gone,” Ben recalls.

Shocked tornado victims moments after the Tuscaloosa storm on April 27, 2011. (Photo by Ben Greer)

As John worked on streaming the first footage of the aftermath to the station, Ben took in the scene: entire businesses leveled, debris strewn through the streets, clear vistas where there had once been trees, the surviving trees stripped bare of leaf and bark. He watched as firemen hurried to secure weapons from the rubble that was once a pawn shop. That’s when it hit him.

“I realized my sister’s house was 600 yards right in front of me,” he says, “and it’s gone. I didn’t know what to do.” He comforted himself by thinking that surely she had gotten out of her small, post-war cottage and gone to their parents’ house. She hadn’t.

Upon receiving Ben’s text message, Brittany and her boyfriend had gone outside to move their cars away from any trees. Getting out of the cars, they looked up to see the tornado only a few hundred feet away. They quickly ran inside. Brittany jumped into the bathtub, clutching her dog. Her boyfriend piled pillows on top of her and sprawled atop those.

The remains of Brittany Greer's house in Tuscaloosa. (Photo by Ben Greer)

Within ten seconds, the roof of the house was gone. Two exterior walls soon followed. Brittany grabbed her boyfriend’s belt to hold him down as the storm tried to pluck him from what remained of the house. After what Brittany describes as “forty seconds of hell,” they stood up in the bathtub and watched the tornado twist away on its path of destruction.

Like so many other college students in her neighborhood, Brittany wandered the streets for a while, trying to make sense of it all. A good Samaritan found them and gave her a ride to her parents’ house.

Twelve hours after they began, John and Ben’s storm chasing day was over. John returned home to his wife and kids in Tuscaloosa. ben spent four hours making a five-mile journey across town to his parents’ house rather than returning home to Birmingham.

The next day, Ben headed out of town for a commercial shoot. John dug in and created HelpTuscaloosaSchools.com, which has raised over $80,000 for schools affected by the storms.

When asked what that day meant to them, they both give the same answer: they can only hope that the footage they got saved lives.

As one lucky enough to count these men as friends, I can say this much: John and Ben, Real Southern Men everywhere salute you and thank you.

A slide show of some of Ben’s images captured immediately after the storm:

For more about the aftermath of the storms, check out Lee Meadows’ “A Little Help, Please!” and Jerrod Brown’s lessons on hope amidst suffering, “Bondye Bon.”

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