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|| News Item: Posted 2004-05-02

Twister: Sports shooter turns into spot news after a tornado hits a small Illinois town
By Anne Ryan

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Candace Parker, All-USA basketball player 2004, Naperville Central High School.
As my five-year-old, Will, would say, it was a backwards day. His was a simple way describing a day where nothing goes as expected. A week earlier I had scheduled a photo shoot with Candace Parker, USA TODAY's high school girls basketball player of the year. It was supposed to be part of a photo package of players. It was supposed to be outdoors in front of Naperville Central High School. I talked to her mother Sara a week earlier as I was looking at

Tuesday looked like the only day that there wouldn't be rain. I knew that was subject to change, but I also knew that it was probably the only day I'd get a wedge of time in busy Candace's schedule. She was quite in demand after having beaten all the boys in the McDonald's slam dunk contest a couple of weeks earlier. She will be a freshman at University of Tennessee next year.

As Tuesday approached the weather forecast still looked good. Tuesday morning, though, things took a drastic change for worse. Suddenly rain and thunderstorms were expected nearly all day. Luckily, since it was a "backwards day", another indoor photo shoot I had scheduled in the morning was also canceled for different reasons. I started making phone calls. I was told by the school 's secretary that the high school gyms were all being used for volleyball games at 6:45 pm during my photo shoot. I would have to wait and talk to the athletic director to see if there was a place where I could take the photo inside. However he would not be back until mid-afternoon.

In the meantime I couldn't get a hold of Candace's mother either. Finally everything fell into place. The junior varsity volleyball games would finish up in the field house next to the gym around 6:15pm giving me a little setup time.

I left my house around 3:45 pm for Naperville, which is only 45 minutes to 1 hour away with no traffic, but it was pouring rain and I had to Chicago's Eisenhower expressway which can turn into a parking lot for no reason at all. My instincts were correct. It poured all the way there and I didn't get to Naperville until 6 pm. My husband John Zich, also a photographer, called me on my cell phone, "Did you know there's a tornado in LaSalle?" LaSalle was about an hour away. I flipped on news radio.

The tornado just hit.

There wasn't any information about damage or injuries yet. I proceeded to Naperville Central High School to set up my lights. Candace and her mother were right on time. Everything was going smoothly. Just as I was taking down my lights I heard a noise outside. The tornado sirens were going off.

My lighting equipment was still spread out around the gym. I stepped outside and looked to the southwest. There was nothing in sight. I decided to pack up my lights as I looked up at the corrugated metal roof of the field house, picturing one of those I had seen lying twisted in the road when I was covering Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, SC many years ago.

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Residents of the small town of Utica, Illinois look over the damage to their town after a large tornado touched down there Tuesday evening. The tornado flattened many downtown buildings. At least six people were killed.
Everyone at the volleyball game, Candace, her mother and USA TODAY reporter Mike Dodd headed into the interior of the school. I packed up my lights anyway, not wanting to leave my equipment spread out all over the place, remembering my early childhood in Oak Park, Illinois. Tornadoes were kind of fun. My brother and I hid in the basement and every now and then we'd run up the stairs and look out the door. My parents would shoo us back down to the basement. Nothing bad ever happened. One time we were walking in downtown Oak Park and a tornado came near. We went into the basement of the bank. When we got home a tree had fallen over in the front yard. I was four. It was cool.

By the time I got my equipment packed up the tornado siren had stopped. People started coming back into the gym. They said they'd heard the tornado was in Elgin, far away. I called my husband in Chicago. He said a tornado had hit Joliet, about 15 miles away from us and that there were numerous storm cells in the area and other possible tornado sightings.

The LaSalle tornado had hit the tiny town of Utica, Illinois pretty hard. It was dark and raining. I pictured myself trying to drive down I-55 not even knowing whether there was a tornado coming at me.

I decided to stay put for awhile, at least until I knew it was safe to travel. I heard later that 51 tornadoes had passed through the Midwest that night, more than half of those were in Illinois. That was also more than we'd had in all of 2003.

Around 9:30 pm I decided to head south. I flipped on news radio and there were reports of people trapped and possible deaths in Utica, a town of about 1000 people near Starved Rock State Park. It was rainy and windy most of the way, bad, but not terrible driving conditions. I passed through the police checkpoint in Utica without even having to show a press ID. It always strikes me how variable these things can be. I found out later that the AP reporter had had to leave his car back at the checkpoint and walk a mile and a half in the rain to get to town.

There were generators, TV lights and a wide perimeter of crime scene tape around the downtown area. I walked up just as a local official's press briefing was ending. It started to rain again. Luckily I had worn a raincoat that day, even though, when I left the house, I thought I was only shooting an indoor portrait. I tried to hide as much of my gear as possible under the raincoat.

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

A truck lies in a canal in Utica, Illinois after a large tornado touched down there Tuesday evening. The tornado flattened many downtown buildings, including the Milestone Tavern.
The down side was that I had no computer or battery chargers with me. I flipped off my cell phone to save the battery. Just then a friendly face popped up, my longtime friend and former colleague Mike Green from the Associated Press. He told me he had spun out on the road on the way down, but was doing ok.

Since I didn't have a computer I decided I wouldn't try to make any newspaper deadlines. I would just transmit to my agency, Polaris, the next day from my house in Chicago. Mike and I worked around the crime scene tape and made a few frames. By midnight I decided, what I had known in my gut anyway when I decided to head to Utica, that I would spend the night there. "It only about five hours until daybreak, " I rationalized.

The night was rather surreal. I stretched out as much as I could in the back seat of my Jeep, using a light disk as a pillow and a map of Illinois as a blanket. Mike was sleeping in his car parked behind me. A large satellite uplink truck pulled up alongside us with lights around its perimeter. One was shining down into my car window and it stayed on all night. I couldn't believe they never turned the lights off. All of the generators and engines were unbelievably loud. I was feeling ashamed of what the impression of the media must be at situations like this. It was like an invasion. I finally jammed the earphones in my ears and cranked up some soothing music on my iPod to drown out the noise. I wanted to conserve my energy for the next morning.

I awoke to the sound of helicopters, no doubt broadcasting live aerial shots to morning TV news programs. I went straight to work. I confess that I am always a little afraid in these situations because I feel like I'm intruding on people at the worst time in their lives. I try to be as sensitive and respectful of the subjects as possible. I usually engage them in conversation first to gauge the situation, unless there's something spectacular to photograph immediately. I start with a longer lens and work my way up to a wide lens.

The last thing I want to do is add to their grief. I'm probably a little more tentative and shy than most photographers in this respect, but I've never missed any important pictures this way and I've usually gotten more emotional pictures and better access.

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES
First I found a young couple, Jamie and Julie, scouring a field behind their house searching for their belongings. I asked them how they were and if everyone in their family was ok. The night the tornado hit was Julie's birthday. They had gone out for a special evening when they heard the tornado hit Utica. They returned home to find half the roof missing from the house they had just spent the last five years rehabbing. The garage was gone. They spent the night on a lower floor inside their damaged house. They told me they felt lucky that they and their children were not hurt.

The tornado, which was an F3 on the Fujita scale, cut a path directly through the middle of Utica. Houses and buildings in it's path were heavily damaged and several downtown brick buildings were completely flattened. The worst of these was the Milestone Tap, a brick tavern. Eight people died there. Some of the victims had run there for shelter from a nearby trailer park.

As I walked around I was in awe of the power of the tornado. A grain elevator lay twisted on the ground. It appeared to be made of the same corrugated metal as the roof of the Naperville field house I had been under hours earlier .

Another grain elevator was squeezed in the middle like a giant beer can. Clothing, shoes, siding, glass, insulation and personal objects were strewn everywhere. A 1929 model A Ford sat in the middle of a field surrounded by rubble. The garage that had been around it was gone. A large truck lay in the canal. As I photographed a family gathering their personal belongings that littered the front yard, one of the men excitedly brought me into a house to show me his fiancée's wedding dress hanging on a hanger from a ceiling fan.

Someone in town had found it a few blocks away and returned it to them. The wedding was three weeks away. The dress was ruined, but he said his fiancée called the dress shop and they offered to remake it free of charge. Her parents and her sister who lived nearby were at the hospital. Her sister had had a baby in the middle of the night.

I was amazed at how friendly the people were despite what had happened to them. Tragedies really do bring out the best in people. I have seen this happen over and over again. It serves as a reminder to us about what's truly important in life.

Covering the tornado so close to home was a very humbling experience for me. It was a reminder of how fragile life is and how powerless we are in certain situations. I know that I will never think of a tornado as a fun adventure again like I did when I was a kid. I also know that I will never again take the time to pack up my lights or do anything other than seek shelter when the tornado sirens go off.

(Anne Ryan is a freelance photographer based in Chicago. Formerly a staff photographer with USA TODAY, she is a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
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