I remember that I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw the dark cone descending from the eastern sky, and that I didn’t say anything to the other three people in the car because I was sure they’d make fun of me.
It looked like a tornado. But tornadoes don’t happen here. At least that’s what I thought that day – May 18, 1975. I was not quite 12 years old.
So I didn’t say anything to my buddy or his parents, who were driving me home after a couple of hours of riding dirt bikes.
And I quickly forgot about the funny-shaped dark cloud – until the next afternoon. That’s when I opened my Denver Post and right there, on page 2, were three pictures of the twister above a headline: Tornado Hits Fields 5 Miles From Denver.
I clipped the pictures and story from the paper and pasted them in my scrapbook. There’d been a tornado just outside my town, and I had seen it.
It was my first eyewitness experience with a tornado, but not my last.
Six years later, on June 3, 1981, I was a high school student working at a Northglenn restaurant when I stood, slack-jawed, staring out the front window at a menacing sky and saw the tornado that his Thornton – injuring 42 people, destroying homes and inflicting millions in damage.
And then, on June 7, 2009, I was home on a Sunday when my wife called.
“I’m driving up Washington – and I can see a tornado,” she said. “You should be able to see it.”
So I did what every self-respecting reporter does: I grabbed a camera and jumped in my car. Within a minute I’d reached high ground and could, indeed, see the tornado that was on the ground just west of Interstate 25 near 160th Avenue.
Today, with the help of a website called the Tornado History Project, which curates all federal twister data since 1950, I know the size and strength of each of those storms. I can even see the path two of them took – the 1975 twister skittered right across land that is now occupied by Denver International Airport.
Sometimes I think it’s pretty strange that despite never living in Tornado Alley I’ve witnessed three twisters in my lifetime.
And then I remember what I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS reported in our recent examination of Colorado tornadoes – that since 1950, only six states have had more twisters.