Evergreen Park firefighter, storm chaser recounts Oklahoma devastation
BY MIKE NOLAN Sun-Times Mediaemail@example.com May 21, 2013 7:54PM
A photo of the tornado that hit Moore, Okla. on Monday, taken by Danny Neal, of Evergreen Park, at SW 175th Street and Portland Road next to the Canadian River. | Supplied photo
Updated: June 23, 2013 6:44AM
When Danny Neal was a kid, thunderstorms and other severe weather terrified him.
But for the past 15 years, the Evergreen Park man has sought out storms, taking impromptu trips in his spare time to areas of the country where tornadoes are likely to develop.
He was just south of Moore, Okla., on Monday when a massive tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb, and although he has seen nearly 100 tornadoes, Neal said this one stood out in dramatic fashion.
“It’s not so much the sight of a tornado, it’s the sound,” Neal said Tuesday as he and two fellow storm chasers were preparing to head back to the Chicago area.
The tornado flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children, and those numbers were expected to climb as emergency crews searched for survivors.
Neal and his two fellow storm chasers drove to Kansas on Friday, then on Monday were in the vicinity of Oklahoma City, drawn by the potent weather conditions.
“We were south of there and watched the storms build,” Neal said. “We started heading back north toward it; we knew there was something on the ground.”
Just southwest of Moore, they crested a hill and saw it, he said. They were about a mile away from where the tornado touched down, he estimated.
Neal, 25, described the storm as being “like a giant bulldozer a mile wide just scraping the ground.”
A part-time firefighter and emergency medical technician in Evergreen Park, Neal said his instincts as a first responder kicked in. They couldn’t get anywhere near where the tornado touched down. Later, he heard radio reports urging first responders not to try to get into the community because there were already enough emergency personnel on the scene.
Not able to deliver aid first-hand, he urged Facebook friends who are part of the Northern Illinois Storm Chaser group to donate to agencies providing relief to tornado victims.
When he was little, storms scared him, Neal said.
“It could be overcast out and I would be a wreck,” he said.
During storms he listened to the police scanner with his dad, Greg, who retired from the Oak Lawn Fire Department in 2011. Danny was just 3 when, in August 1990, a devastating tornado struck Plainfield.
“Plainfield is what really got me terrified” about the destruction a tornado could wreak, he said.
But Neal said that as he got just a bit older, he watched programs about violent weather and “that fear turned into an obsession.”
He went with his dad to chase bad weather — their first trip was in April 1998 to central Illinois — then once Danny got his driver’s license he ventured out on his own.
Neal said he studied meteorology at the College of DuPage, although he didn’t complete his education and earn a degree. He hopes to get a degree and eventually work for the government’s storm prediction center in Norman, Okla.
Neal doesn’t like to equate storm chasing with a hobby such as golf or fishing.
“To me it’s my passion. I love severe weather,” he said. “If I could make a living doing this I would do it.”
Neal, who also works in the mother and baby unit at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, doesn’t get to indulge his passion as often as he’d like.
“They are few and far between,” maybe two or three times a year, he said.
He said he had to scramble — and make a lot of promises of reciprocation — to get co-workers at Christ to cover his shifts while he was in Kansas and Oklahoma.
While most storm chasers hope their work will ultimately lead to a better understanding of tornadoes, Neal said he knows many who “feel guilty” documenting the storms, “especially knowing the aftermath.”