Inside a Killer Tornado
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Our Fascinating Earth

Inside a Killer Tornado

Nature's most violent wind is the tornado, a vortex whirling up to 300 miles per hour, possibly even more! When a tornado is forming, a funnel cloud takes shape in the center of massive black clouds and bores downward, twisted and whirling. According to some observers, it resembles an elephant's trunk or a huge dangling rope.

Destruction begins when the funnel bites the ground with a terrific roar described as "the noise of a thousand trains" or "the buzzing of a million bees."

Tornadoes occur worldwide, but scientists agree that these destructive storms are most prevalent in the United States. This is an understated observation, since 90 percent of the world's tornadoes occur in this country, with the most common setting being the Midwest. There tornadoes kill or injure scores of people annually and cause property damage in the millions of dollars.

The damage a tornado can inflict on a city staggers the imagination. Damage results not only from the extremely high winds but also from the intense low pressure at the storm's vortex. When a tornado strikes a building, the low pressure within the vortex creates an imbalance that makes the relatively high—pressure air inside the structure burst outward. Since the air can't escape fast enough, the structure virtually explodes. Respecting this aspect of a tornado, Charles Sandford of Xenia, Ohio, broke every window and opened every door in his home when, in April 1974, a tornado approached. After the twister had passed, his was the only house on the block still standing.

There are many conjectures about just how rapidly a tornado can move along the ground. Actually the forward speed of a tornado varies greatly, some moving as slowly as five miles per hour, others ripping across the land at considerably greater speeds.

The average cross—country speed of a tornado is between twenty—five and forty miles per hour. On rare occasions tornadoes have been known to be stationary, but such an event is short—lived. The fastest—traveling tornado on record is the tri—state tornado of 1925. During the last stage of its rampage it reached a forward speed of seventy—three miles per hour!

The awesome lifting power of a tornado can be calculated only by what it can do. In 1937 a man walked into a weather bureau office in the Midwest and asked, "What I want to know is, can the thing happen that I saw happen?" The man had witnessed a tornado lift a railroad engine from one track, turn it around in midair, and set it down on a neighboring track, facing the opposite direction.

Similar events have happened on other occasions. In 1931 a tornado of unusual power struck an area in Minnesota. It performed the Herculean feat of lifting a railroad coach weighing eighty—three tons, complete with passengers, nearly eighty feet into the air before dropping its burden into a ditch. There were many casualties.

Tornadoes have a tendency to skip and bounce as they move along the ground. This skipping motion was responsible for the most remarkable tornado observation ever made by a human being. Will Keller, a Kansas farmer, was working out in his field on the afternoon of June 22, 1928, when he looked up and was startled to see a large tornado heading in his direction. He ran quickly to his cyclone cellar, and just as he was about to close the door he turned back to get one last look at nature's destroyer as it swept down on him. He noticed that the lower end that was sweeping the ground had begun to rise.

Knowing the tornado's tendency to skip, Keller held his position, ready to drop into the cellar if the tornado were suddenly to dip. As the shaggy end of the funnel passed directly overhead, everything became "as still as death." He noticed a strong gaseous odor, and it became difficult for him to breathe. A screaming, hissing sound seemed to come directly from the end of the funnel. Looking up, he was quite astonished to find himself staring into the very heart of the tornado!

The large circular opening in the center of the funnel was over fifty feet in diameter and appeared to extend straight upward for a distance that Keller estimated to be about one—half mile. The walls were made of rapidly rotating clouds, and the interior was illuminated brilliantly by constant flashes of lightning that zigzagged from side to side. Had it not been for the lightning, he could not have seen the opening or any distance into the interior of the funnel.

He noticed small tornadoes that were constantly forming and breaking away around the lower rim of the vortex. These appeared to be the source of the hissing sound.

The tornado did not hover but quickly moved on. The few seconds of Keller's observations have nevertheless been of tremendous value in providing answers to many of the questions about tornado activity.

From the time of Keller's observation to the present no other person has looked into the funnel of a tornado — and lived!