Kentucky Twister (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

Once in a while I write about a memorable story I covered as a reporter. All the tornadoes a week or so ago reminded me of this one in Kentucky.

A Twister Story With A Twist

Some stories stay with you..this is one of them.  It was a remarkable story.  In late May of 1997 a large, powerful tornado hit in Bullitt County, Kentucky, south of Louisville.  It was remarkable in general because it leveled - absolutely leveled - hundreds of homes..yet no one was seriously hurt.   It was also remarkable for me because I presented the story live for my station, WLKY-TV in Louisville, and I presented it live on national TV for the CBS Morning News.  Here's a still from the first network live report that morning after the storm.   I'm on the right in what we call double boxes with CBS Anchor Troy Roberts.

The Tornado happened in the early evening. A photographer and I headed that way..He's a great guy named Bob...probably chasing flood stories right now because he works in Nashville.  I changed clothes in the car..ditched the suit for something more severe weather suitable.   When we got the the scene it was chaos, devastation.  I happened to know one of the County Emergency volunteers.  He let us, and our satellite truck, inside the barriers to be be right in the middle of the damage zone.  We were there all night and through the next day.  Once we were in, we couldn't leave, or we wouldn't get back in.  Shortly after we arrived, a guy approached us and said he had video of the twister.  This was before everyone had a phone or a camera of some video wasn't as common as it is now.  I offered him money for exclusive use of the video, and hoped the station would agree to pay! They did. Here's a still of the tornado.

I wrote several versions of the story for use on our 11 pm (eastern time zone) news, and then for our morning show, and the network morning newscast.  Sometimes you pull an all-nighter.  Since we couldn't leave to find a place to stay, we stayed up all night in the satellite truck.  I was writing, and recording voice tracks and the photographer was editing video so that by morning we were ready to go with three different reports, all slightly different angles on the story.  Then it was time for that first network live shot.  I'd done hundreds of live reports by this stage in my career but there is some added pressure when you know it's an audience of millions not thousands.  I did what I normally do and it went well.  Here's another screen shot from that first report.

I did a total of three of four for the between the 10 or so I did for my own station.  Sometimes CBS wanted something different so I would write a new version, and just send my voice track back to them by satellite.  Their video editors then put together the full piece with video and sound clips from the people involved that we had sent them earlier.  The network has a lot of people available to get things done!  Here's a shot from a later report, after sunrise.


A good friend in Texas was up early at the gym, heard about tornadoes in Kentucky, knew I worked at a CBS station and managed to see a couple of my reports. Relatives in Wisconsin, and Colorado saw it too. That's one advantage to doing a report on the network newscast.  Here's one final screen shot from my last update of the morning.  We were able to move around a little bit between shots to change the background...we couldn't miss, there was damage and debris everywhere.  The other stations never did get into the area where  we were until much later that 2nd day. 

This was a long time ago, but it's not a scene you easily forget.  So many homes so badly damaged.  There's one thing in particular I learned that day, that still sticks with me.  I met a mother and son who survived by getting down low in the bathtub.  Most of their townhouse was gone, the bathtub and surround were still intact. Keep that in mind if you ever find yourself in the path of a tornado!

We'll talk again soon.

Don Ward


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