First Responder: [00:00:00] I see part of a funnel cloud not on the ground. It’s heading northeast from Blue Ash.
Emergency Dispatcher: [00:00:05] Units are advising a funnel cloud over I-71.
First Responder: [00:00:12] I believe I observed it in the lightning heading northeast. Not on the ground.
Montgomery Engine 73: [00:00:19] Engine 73 Emergency.
Emergency Dispatcher: [00:00:19] Engine 73 go ahead.
Montgomery Engine 73: [00:00:26] We believe we had a tornado come through here. We have several cars overturned. Would you start a recall for our department?
Emergency Dispatcher: [00:00:37] Ok. As of right now, you don’t have any specific address, is that correct?
Montgomery Engine 73: [00:00:43] Negative. It’s total disaster back here. There are wires down, trees down, houses destroyed. It’s messed up.
First Responder: [00:01:03] On Valley Stream at Cornell, I got people that are trapped in their homes and injured lying about in the yard. I’m trying to get there now.
Emergency Dispatcher: [00:01:13] That’s clear. Again, just confirming on Valley Stream off of Cornell, you have several houses that had collapsed and people trapped.
First Responder: [00:01:24] I’m at the Cornell and Valley Stream area. I have a doctor with me. He advises that several people are trapped in the condos. One of them is a baby. I’m near the houses beyond the condos walking down with him as far as I can. We’re on foot.
Host: [00:01:51] Abraham Lincoln said that next to creating a life, the finest thing a man can do is save one. In the chaotic early morning hours of April 9th, 1999, a shaken community cried for help. In this episode, we’ll share stories about the brave men and women in Montgomery and beyond who answered the call of those in need. I’m Greg leader, and this is weathering the storm. Episode 2. The Response.
Fire Chief Wright: [00:02:42] My wife will always tell you that whenever bad weather happens, firemen leave and their family has to fend for themselves so I made sure they were in the basement because you could tell that something was going on.
Host: [00:02:52] That’s Paul right. Paul became fire chief of the City of Montgomery ten months before the tornado. He remains the city’s fire chief to this day.
Fire Chief Wright: [00:03:02] I’ve marked up on the radio, and Tom Wolfe was the Lieutenant in charge, and he got on right away. He told me probably the roads are blocked because we’ve had some type of a tornado event.
Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:03:14] I’ll take you back in time because in 1999 not a whole lot of people had cell phones.
Host: [00:03:21] That’s Tom Wolfe.
Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:03:24] And when the tornado came through, it knocked everything out so people could not make phone calls from their house. The reason why we got called out on the expressway first because some people did have cell phones in cars.
911 Operator: [00:03:40] 911 Emergency
Caller: [00:03:40] Eastbound 275, looking at the northbound ramp at 71, we have semis overturned, cars flipped over in the ditch, and it looks like a guy is trapped in a pickup truck.
Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:03:52] We got so far out on the expressway and then we had to stop because there were power lines down. We had gotten to the accident that we were dispatched to but traffic was at a complete standstill. So we had a pickup truck that had flipped, and we got out, and we could see that we had one fatality in the truck. The problem was we couldn’t see if there was anybody else in the truck because it was upside down and I knew we weren’t going to be able to get a whole lot of equipment out there on the expressway because everything was at a standstill. So there was a couple of guys that drove trucks that were there, and they were standing around, pretty big boys, and I said, look I need some guys with some strong backs and a strong stomach because we’ve got to flip this truck over by hand. We know there’s already one person dead in the truck. So about three of these guys came and helped my crew. We only have four on at the time on our crew and were able to flip the truck upright. And then we saw that we found one person in that truck. So then I sent the other three guys out to the fields where we could see all these cars that were turned over and laying in the field behind Sycamore High School. So they started to go that way to check that out, and now I’m getting a lot more calls now. I’m starting to hear other departments get dispatched, and I’m actually sitting in the cab of the fire truck, and I had a piece of paper, and I’m starting to write down all these calls. Chief Wright came on the air, and he lives in the same neighborhood that I do. And he said, number one, everything’s fine at our house, knowing I was little concerned because the tornado was going that way. And I said Great. And I said to him, don’t even come to the scene. I said you need to go to the station and get the emergency operation center up.
Fire Chief Wright: [00:05:52] So, I get to the station and at that time the communications center was calling our station for additional runs. I start logging all the different details of a house collapsed, house on fire, gas leaks, a house with a baby trapped inside and I’m sitting there thinking I don’t know how we’re going to handle all this. However, you know this is the hand we’re dealt with. I knew Tom was in that area with his crew and so I just logged all those. I asked for an additional ten ambulances and ten fire trucks to respond. At that time we did not have computer-aided dispatching which automatically selects available units. You have to tell the comm center and ask who you want. It occurred to me that Blue Ash is not going to be available, as well as Sycamore, Symmes, who we normally use on a day to day basis, so I had to think who’s out further and probably didn’t get affected by the storm, so I started to pull those departments in. The other thing that was going on in the county at the time was we were just forming the urban search and rescue team which is the USAR team. Tom Wolfe and I were members of that team. However, they were about a month from really being deployable. They were training their people up, and they ran all their equipment out of a Budget rental truck. I went ahead and had them dispatched, and it worked.
Host: [00:07:16] Remember Jill Cole from episode one? To her and her family, the responders helped bring some order to the chaos of that morning.
Jill Cole: [00:07:28] There were people just kind of wandering around you know, oh my gosh what has happened. We started to see rescue people coming in, the urban search and rescue teams. My understanding is there were people that came in from all over the tri-state region. As we were waiting there to kind of figure out what made it happen, we had several people come and ask us where did we live? Did everyone get out OK? And you know, we saw different people from Indiana, Kentucky, everywhere. One of the confusing things was all the street signs were blown down. So all these people were coming into the area to try to help. It was kind of difficult to have a way to tell everyone where to go. So once we had talked with a search or rescue people, they told us that there was a facility up at the high school and they had transportation. The Red Cross shelter was the junior high, but if we walked up to the high school, they would take us on a bus over to the junior high.
It was the oddest feeling as we’re walking down Cornell Road with our dog. We realized that we really had literally nothing. We didn’t have a wallet. We didn’t have credit cards. We were there with the clothes on her back. I kept feeling that it was going to work out, but at that moment, you have no idea how it’s going to work out. So my husband decided that I would take the children, get on the bus and go to the junior high and he would go back up to the house and try to get our wallet or credit cards, something so that we could get a hotel and rent a car and all those kinds of things. We’re sitting on the curb out in front of the high school, and by then the sun is out it’s a nice morning, you’re like, oh my goodness what just happened. The staff inside had made hot chocolate and coffee, and I just thought, oh my gosh, you know when you’re at that moment when you’re so overwhelmed, those small things are so meaningful. But it was very comforting to know that there were people that had a plan to make this work. So we got on the bus to get over to the junior high, and it was just really quite surreal to get off this bus. We’ve got the dog and the kids, and that’s it. But the Red Cross facility was really well set up. They had already organized some food and drinks for people they had social workers there. They were there to help the children, you know process what happened so they had big sheets of paper and markers and the kids drew pictures about what happened to them. It was interesting as the therapist identified at that moment that one of my kids was probably more greatly impacted by the trauma of it than the others. You know, I still have those pictures. I know I have this box of memorabilia that I always think I need to do something with. It’s a little bit hard still.
Retired Police Office Pat Giblin: [00:10:43] My name is Pat Gibson, and I was a third shift patrol officer at the time. We had no inkling that there was gonna be any adverse weather when the shift started. I recall, probably around 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning, getting a call from Bethesda North that they had a patient who was intoxicated and belligerent and trying to walk out of the ER. When I arrive at the emergency room, this guy is out there with two people from Bethesda North security, and he’s getting really nasty with them. I ended up putting him in an armbar and laying him across the trunk of my car and cuffing him up and charging him with disorderly conduct while intoxicated. He was telling me, I want to get home. I just live past the High School. I took him down to the Justice Center, and I heard, I believe was Kurt Lyons who was a sergeant for Blue Ash said, hey I see a funnel cloud near Pfeiffer Road, close to I-71. I thought jeez, something’s about to happen. Once I got inside the Justice Center, our radios at the time just would not transmit or receive. The whole building was a dead zone. The 30 minutes that I was inside there, I had no idea what was going on. When I came down, there were all kinds of chatter over the comm center about the high winds and a tornado. As I started driving north, I noticed there was more and more debris on I-71 north. As I got past Pfeiffer Road, I saw a pickup on its top right on top of the median barriers. There was a semi that had been right in the path of the tornado. It had been picked up and turned perpendicular across eastbound to I-75, so I had to find a way. I turned around and went back South on I-71 and exited onto Ronald Reagan Highway to come up Montgomery Road and I just remember how dark it was. We’re so used to seeing all that the city lights, and there was nothing. I mean it was pitch black. Montgomery Road itself wasn’t too bad. As I turn left to go westbound on Cornell, I crossed over the I-275 overpass and encountered downed power lines, so I had to stop the car and walk out onto the field. Then as dawn came up, we realize just how bad everything was, and you could clearly see that the path of the tornado came across the Johnson Nature Preserve and all the houses you know at Lakewater and Valley Stream, and it looked like, you know those war photos you see of a place were bombing run was. It was destroyed.
Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:14:04] When I was out on the expressway trying to get things controlled, I put in a recall, and some of our other cars were up, and trucks were responding, and I am going toward Cornell Road toward the high school. Bob Young was one of our officers and Bob lived in Montgomery. Bob was one of the guys that once he went somewhere, it was locked. He could tell you the streets you could tell your address, hydrants. I mean the guy was unreal how well he knew the area and when he got to the scene. He was describing to me that we have a mess here with houses down. I said to him, where exactly are you and he says, Tom, I’m not sure. I know I’m close to the High School. I think I’m at Cornell and Valley Stream, but I’m not sure. If you think about it, all the landmarks were gone. The homes that you know maybe the trees you know, they were all wiped out. There was nothing. There wasn’t an address for him to sit there and identify exactly where he was at when he says, I think I’m here. I’m like wow! That really clued me in that we really have a mess if Bob Young doesn’t know where he’s at.
Host: [00:15:26] Four people lost their lives that morning. Two drivers, Donald Lewis, and Charles Smith, died in the roadways in separate vehicle accidents. Two others lost their lives in the tornado. A couple. Jacqueline and Lee Cook who were in their home in Montgomery the morning of April 9th. We spoke with Cook’s children, Shannyn and Ryan.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:16:00] My friend Rob Calvert was producing the morning show at WEBN, and he loved our mom and dad. When he heard that there had been a tornado, he called me immediately. So I called you, and I said you should go to my dad’s house and I started with the help of my friend calling everyone and trying to figure out where they were. And we got mixed reports. But when you left Dayton, I said call me when you get there and tell me what is going on.
Ryan Cook: [00:16:43] So, when I initially heard that a tornado had gone through I called home and the line was dead. That indicates there was a problem and I then drove down to Cincinnati to basically find out what was going on. I had a friend who also was in the area and knew where I lived. He basically said the area is wrecked. I was expecting to go there to find the house destroyed and find out which hospital they were at. That was sort of my hope, but as I was leaving, I told my girlfriend you should be praying for my parents who may be dead. So I walked up to the house, and there was a group of sheriffs and the Red Cross. And they kind of started talking to each other with a little bit of “Do you want to tell him. Do I tell him?” I believe the Red Cross guy came up and said, sorry, they are gone.
Ryan Cook: [00:18:05] A week before, I’d been volunteering at a camp, and there was a kid who was in my cabin whose parents had died in a car wreck. And also speaking, I’m a Christian, and I was speaking truth to him. And so the words sort of came echoing back. Essentially, I was reassuring myself of the same thing I was saying to Nick. The media who were on the scene pretty quickly, frankly stunningly quickly when I think of it, asked me for a comment. My commentary was that God is still God and we’ll go from there. So I think that was the initial reaction. Now, given 20 years of reflection, how much of that was spiritual versus being an 18-year-old shock? I don’t know. I don’t know if I ever know. So then after I found out there was an ambulance out front, they brought me in. That’s where I called you from.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:19:22] I’m so sorry that you had to tell me that Ryan. I really wish that it didn’t have to be you. I had to tell Grandma and Grandpa, and that was awful.
Ryan Cook: [00:19:30] Yeah, that would have been worse.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:19:32] No, no, no, no. It’s all bad.
Ryan Cook: [00:19:35] I could not have imagined from my grandmother’s perspective. As a parent now, getting that phone call I cannot imagine.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:19:44] The thing that’s so surprising is how reliable the brain is to create denial. I just couldn’t believe it. I just, no way. Who said who says? Have you seen them? And you said no, I hadn’t seen them. And I said, well who’s seen them? Can you please put them on the telephone. And that’s when the emergency workers told me, we’re sorry. Your neighbors positively identified them. It really was them. They were sure. But I honestly, in my heart of hearts, didn’t really, really believe it. It did not know for sure that they were dead until they took my mom’s ring off and put it on the table at the funeral home. Which, by the way, the people from Tufts Schildmeyer Funeral Home could not have been more generous in the way that they handled our parents.
Ryan Cook: [00:20:53] People die. People die in all kinds of ways. I think there really is an element of grace. You know how parents can say weird stuff that you kind of roll your eyes? One of those things that my mom said was that when they got old, they were going to jump off a ship together. Like, they wanted to go together. So I think there is a certain element of, they kind of got what they wanted in that sense. I think there is an element of truth. They were able to go together, and there’s a grace to that. I think at some level, everyone dies, then they go on and talk about you for a while in church, and then people move on with their day and eat potato salad. The question becomes, what did your life mean before that or for those who are left behind? How will you respond to the legacy that then left behind? So with that in mind, I would say, the question really should be, what’s next. The passion of their love for each other sort of led the charge in terms of who they really were and they were consistently in love with each other. I would say a second element for both of them, more outwardly from my mom, was the generosity of spirit. She would have been one of the people there standing in the rubble with us if it had been somebody else’s tragedy. I think the third Hallmark, I would say sort of watching them was; they live life deliciously. By which I mean, the things they were passionate for, they were very passionate about whether that be service in their church or serving in the community or Packers football.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:23:11] I mean, I think you absolutely got it right, Ry.
Ryan Cook: [00:23:20] Interesting, I think as a parent now, you tend to reflect and go, what’s the best of them that I can celebrate and what’s the worst of them is I can defend. It’s fun to talk about it in this context because it’s fun to celebrate the best of what they were and the best of what they were was beautiful.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:23:49] I don’t know Ryan, I’m sure I’ve shown this to you. If not I’ll have to. It’s a journal entry from when Mom and Dad went on their anniversary trip to Ireland. Do you remember this? She was getting ready to get on the airplane, and she was talking about her coffee and do you remember this Ryan?
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:24:09] Ok. It’s very basic, but the flyover of journal entry number one is basically, while we had a great morning we just had coffee we’re off. This is going to be so fantastic. I hope the children will take great care of each other. I found it in the debris. You know this crumpled up and covered with dirt. And I just thought, huh, this is interesting. She’s basically saying, okay, we’re flying off now. I hope these kids take care of each other. And I almost took it like, you know, almost like a last wish. You know what I mean. And so I feel like she is surely smiling down. Because if that was what she hoped for, I feel like she’s getting what she wished for. What I mean what mom at least wants to know that her kids are out there you know loving each other. So I would say to anybody with an axe to grind against their parent or sibling or anyone, lay it down. It’s not worth it.
Ryan Cook: [00:25:28] That’s an awesome story. This is super fun because I think there’s an element of, this isn’t what we talk about when we talk to each other. So it’s really kind of fun. I think, 20 years on, we have our own life, and we have children that weren’t even contemplated at the time. So the pain is still present but attenuated. So being able to walk through some of these stories and listen to them without as much pain, this is really kind of neat.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:26:05] You know, if you have the opportunity, as I know that you will, speak with the amazing disaster relief workers and community organizers, thank them for us. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to do what they did. And you know, even though they weren’t able to help our parents, we’re so grateful for them. They made the right choice.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:26:30] There were stories in our family about the last moment that mom and dad were alive. Ryan, you remember that?
Ryan Cook: [00:26:50] Yeah.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:26:51] We didn’t know what was true. They were conflicting. And so I wanted to know what was actually true because you’re grieving anyway so why create something that’s false. Just find out the truth and grieve that. right? So I interviewed a disaster relief worker, one that was an EMT, and the neighbor who found mom. They said two things that were so comforting to me, truly they were. I’m sure, sure, sure that Mom was not in pain because the neighbor who found Mom he did come over to her. But what she said to him was “this is how I sleep.” And he covered her. I just thought you know I’m so first of all grateful that he was there to cover her. And also you know that there’s no way that she was in pain because if you were in severe pain and someone came up to you, you would not say this is how I sleep. You would say help, ouch, my whatever, right? But that’s not what she said. The disaster relief worker he said yes I saw your mom, but I didn’t go and help her. I said well why not. He said you know we are trained to pass a body by if we know that it has no chance of living and to search for signs of life and people we can actually save. There was a baby trapped in the house down the street. They needed to get the baby out. He knew for sure that there was no sign of life in mom. There was no way; there was no way. I was thinking, boy if I were that guy, I feel like in my heart somehow that I should have run back there and stayed with her. But he made the right choice. And I hear the child is thriving. So that’s wonderful.
Host: [00:29:20] That child that Shannyn mentioned was ten-month-old Nicholas Stein. Nicholas, his parents, and older brother were thrown from their bedrooms onto the front and backyards of their home, but Nicholas was nowhere to be found. After a desperate search, first responders found Nicholas two rooms away from his nursery, surrounded by debris but underneath a door that had saved his life. They found him playing. The only impact of the tornado, a few scratches, and bruises that would soon fade. It was one of several miracles on that otherwise somber day in Montgomery.
Host: [00:29:56] I want to introduce you to one other person, Cheryl Hilvert who was Montgomery’s city manager at the time of the tornado.
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:30:17] April 9th began as a day of relaxation on a Panama Canal cruise with a group of family and friends. As I woke up that morning, I was getting ready for a great day of sightseeing and sun and fun. I happened to turn on CNN International which was the only way that you would get information on anything that was happening while you’re on a cruise ship. They were reporting on a pretty serious tornado that had hit the Midwest. As I watched, the Midwest became narrowed down to Ohio, and then to Hamilton County, and then eventually when I saw a Montgomery police car sitting in a neighborhood where there were no houses left. It suddenly became a pretty sick feeling. We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have 24/7 news cycles back then, so it was really, really difficult to understand the magnitude of what was going on. I spent about $400 in ship-to-shore phone calls and was only able to make contact once with someone in the police department who you could tell was pretty much in shock over what had happened. It became pretty apparent to me that I needed to be home.