July 18, 1986 — a Friday — was a typically sultry Minnesota summer day, the kind we forget about a week later. But there would be no forgetting this afternoon because 25 years ago, the Twin Cities television audience — and later the entire nation — was able to view one of nature’s most destructive phenomena: a F-2 tornado.
It all happened live on television — start to finish, for half an hour — in an unprecedented TV event that is still one of the most infamous, talked-about and vivid memories of a natural disaster in the Twin Cities area.
KARE’s television coverage was historic for a number of reasons. It was the first live broadcast of the entire life-cycle of a tornado. The broadcast and the video captured by KARE’s chopper pilot Max Messmer and photographer Tom Empey gave meteorologists invaluable new insights. And it was the watershed moment that turned a perennial third place station, KARE-TV, into a bona fide competitor to WCCO and KSTP.
Nature and luck had a hand in KARE’s coverage. KARE’s helicopter, branded “Sky 11” and piloted by Messmer, was up with Empey aboard to get aerial shots of the Minneapolis Aquatennial late that afternoon. The duo spotted what looked to be a funnel cloud forming over Brooklyn Park and decided to check it out. Within moments Messmer and Empey were making history.
Back at KARE, seeing what Messmer and Empey were chasing, the decision was made to cut into local programming minutes before the regular 5 p.m. news was scheduled to start. Then-KARE chief meteorologist Paul Douglas announced, in front of what in today’s standards would be dismissed as graphics reminiscent of an Atari Videogame system, that a funnel and tornado were forming in Brooklyn Park.
The 5 p.m. edition of “News11” began with Paul Magers telling viewers “we are going to toss all formalities out the window.”
What followed was 25 minutes of a live chase of a deadly tornado.
“I remember clearly there were no watches or warnings in effect leading up to the tornado,” Douglas recalled today. “Preparing for the weather show, someone shouted something about ‘a funnel over Brooklyn Park.’ I remember telling them to stop joking, but within 10 seconds it became very clear they weren’t joking.”
While viewers watched, the tornado grew larger, more organized and more threatening. In between Sky11’s vividly clear footage, Douglas, Magers and co-anchor Kirsten Lindquist tried to determine the tornado’s path and damage. When asked on air where he was flying, Messmer had to fly down to view street signs and report back.
Early on, the tornado remained almost stationary over Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. As it slowly shifted a few dozen yards in one direction and then another, viewers watched power lines explode in vivid bursts of light and trees being sucked into the eerily undulating white funnel.
“I was very concerned about the neighborhoods in the potential path of the tornado,” said Douglas, “and remember gasping a few times when Tom [Empey] zoomed into the funnel [to the point] where I could see 100-year-old trees being pulled and flung into the air — like weeds. It was, in a word, surreal.”
As startling as the images of explosions and flying debris were, equally nerve wracking was the close distance Sky11 was hovering from the tornado. Estimates put the helicopter within a quarter to a half mile from the twister’s tail. As debris flew, Magers continued to reassure viewers that Messmer was a professional pilot and would not do anything to endanger himself.
A television programmer could not have scheduled the twister any better. Within the scheduled half hour 5 p.m. broadcast, the tornado had done its damage and evaporated. (Remarkably, there were no injuries or deaths and damage was limited.) NBC picked up the live feed, allowing affiliates coast to coast to air the footage. KARE reran the phenomenal video during its 6 and 10 newscasts that Friday night and throughout the weekend.
According to Douglas, “the tornado wanted to be photographed. Most tornados move at 20 to 40 [miles per hour] and don’t’ sit stationary for a traffic helicopter to continue to circle while a photographer zooms in. In spite of thousands of tornado encounters since then, I have never seen a more photogenic tornado captured from the air”.
Viewing habits change
In 1986 KARE-TV was in third place in Twin Cities’ news ratings. With a new owner and yet another call letter change (“KARE” was only a few weeks old after having just retired “WUSA” and earlier “WTCN”), the station had not yet done anything to change the viewing habits of long-time WCCO and KSTP viewers.
“The ratings for that newscast were off the scale,” said Douglas. “It gave 4 and 5 viewers a chance to sample our newscast — and many of them decided to stick around.”
Within a year, KARE was No. 1, and held that spot for the greater part of the next two decades.
Viewers in the metro were not the only ones interested in the footage. Almost immediately after the tornado, Douglas was inundated with requests for the raw footage from scientists and tornado researchers from around the world. The vivid shots made possible by KARE’s new gyro lens mount provided the closest images to that date of tornado formation from start to finish. Examining the video, meteorologists and scientists were able to gain a better understanding of how circular patters are formed within a tornado. The video has continued to have a long life in meteorology classrooms.
Viewers flooded KARE-TV with requests to replay the entire half-hour sequence. In response, photographers at KARE put together a montage of some of the video and broadcast it the following night. This can also be viewed here.
And for those who called the KARE studios 25 years ago for a full replay, digital technology now makes it possible.
Tom Oszman is a journalist and media historian www.tcmedianow.com.