The last chase

by Cotton Rohrscheib

Early afternoon on Sunday, April 27, I was near Dardanelle with two other storm chasers, Mike Willingham and Michael Frazier.

Vilonia home destroyed in tornado. (Angie Davis photo)

It wasn’t long before we intercepted a pretty nasty looking storm near Knoxville and pulled over at a lookout to view the storm as it almost dropped a tornado and then quickly dissipated. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves because we were several minutes ahead of other spotters in the area.

Once we moved on from Knoxville, we headed toward Dardanelle to intercept another storm that we had a hunch would develop based on some radar signatures we were seeing. Eventually we gave up on that storm and decided to head back to Conway (where we all live). I called my wife, and we joked about how I had left the house without my wallet and that I had better be careful.

A few miles outside of Morrilton heading toward Conway we heard reports of a cell that was looking ominous near Mayflower. We pulled it up on one of our many radar applications and knew the storm was for real. The only thing that popped in my mind was that my wife and my 2-year-old son were at home alone. Even though visibility was bad, I stepped on it, and we were headed toward Conway, “coming in hot” as they say. I called my wife and told her to get our son and head into our safe room.

As we continued our approach to Conway we were hearing increased radio chatter from other certified storm spotters about the storm that was tracking near Maumelle toward Mayflower. We continued past our Dave Ward exit and decided to go down one more exit to see if we could get eyes on the storm.

About that time the National Weather Service issued their warning, and it wasn’t long after that that a certified spotter ahead of us confirmed a sighting of the tornado on the ground near the River Plantation subdivision. By the time it registered to me where that even was, we noticed the funnel.

One of the things I can remember vividly from the moments leading up to the point of impact was the pressure we felt. I made mention that my ears were popping and that I was pulling over.

That’s one of the last things I remember before things got real — really quick.

As I realized what was happening, I slammed my truck in reverse and punched it, but unfortunately the tornado was just to the south of us, and we were caught up in the heart of the tornado within seconds. No matter how fast I tried to retreat, my truck wasn’t moving until the tornado eventually blew a cast iron through the window and conked me in the head. I yelled for everyone to get down, and we all unhooked our seat belts and crouched in the floorboard of my pickup as the tornado proceeded to pick us up and hurl us about 40 yards and turn us sideways.

The terror of the storm was on us for approximately a minute or so (my best estimate), but it seemed like an eternity. While we were all hunkered down in the floorboard of my truck, we could barely hear each other talking because of the roaring sound of the storm as it moved through. One thing is for certain, though, all three of us were praying intently and loudly. We were at the mercy of the storm, and there wasn’t anything physically we could do to better our situation that I could think of except prayer. It was the only option we had, and fortunately our prayers were heard. Our lives were spared.

I can vividly remember debris violently filling the cab of my truck. I opened my eyes once and noticed that a Mike Schmidt baseball card was stuck to my chest. Later we discovered a checkbook from a nearby business in Mayflower in the grille of my truck along with a tiara, roofing material, cash register tape and various pieces of wood, concrete and asphalt. And, of course, glass was everywhere.

In the moments after the storm had passed, we made our way outside my vehicle. We could hear the screams of victims trapped in vehicles and rubble all around us. I immediately took out behind Willingham and Frazier toward the residential area in front of us, but was stopped by some of our fellow chasers who pointed out that I was covered in blood. I knew I had taken a lick on the noggin, but wasn’t sure of the extent. The guys sat me down and wiped away the blood to assess my injuries. As quick as I had my bearings, I picked up my cell phone and called my wife and told her that I was alive and that I loved her and would be heading that way as soon as I could. This was the last phone call I was able to make for a long period of time because cell service was overwhelmed in the area.

Out of respect for the injured and their families, I won’t share any of the details regarding the injuries we witnessed all around us, but suffice to say, the fact that all three of us were able to walk out was nothing short of a miracle.

Eventually it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to find a ride home, so I started walking. I’m not sure exactly how I got separated from Willingham and Frazier, but eventually I happened upon a lady that asked me if I needed a ride, so I jumped in the car with her. I’m not sure what her name was or even what kind of car she drove. I barely even remember how she knew where to go, but she drove me directly to my house where my wife and son were standing in the doorway waiting on me.

In a few minutes after I had made it home, I heard my neighbor, Barry Williams, pull up in his jeep with my chase partner, Mike Willingham, with him. Ironically, this was Mike’s first chase.

It was my last.