A/V: High Winds Wreak Havoc at Military Celebration Event

Saturday, June 30, 2012
[NOTE: I was originally going to call this a 'Breaking News' item but since I didn't file it until over 24 hours after the event, I decided to go with the 'A/V' slug instead.  My photos were taken with my cellphone and it is times like this that I need to remind myself that I should always have my better camera close by at all times.]

An view of the damage and clean-up activities at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base's Freedom Tattoo site early Friday evening

Friday evening nearly produced a moment that I would never forget in my fledgling career as a journalist.  If not for the fortunate timing of severe weather conditions, Dayton, Ohio--and Wright Patterson Air Force Base--might have been the scene of a very serious human tragedy that would have made headlines around the nation for probable mass injuries (and possible casualties) and I was supposed to have a front row seat for all of it!

A tent frame stands exposed without its covering after high winds rolled through the venue for Wright Patterson Air Force Base's Freedom Tattoo on Friday afternoon (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

I was planning on attending the base's eighth annual tattoo as a spectator but also as a photographer to capture the sights and sounds of this event for a subsequent blog posting here.  According to their website, the festivities were scheduled to start at 4PM and run through a fireworks show that would begin at 10PM after a free concert by recording legend Eddie Money.  I had made arrangements to take the night off from work and to soak in the atmosphere (military bands, flyovers by Air Force planes) that I was personally involved with for 24 years (and tangentially involved over the past 8 years as a retiree).

An awning sits on the ground after high winds collapse it late Friday afternoon at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Freedom Tattoo (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

In doing my preparation for going over to the site, I got all of my equipment ready (both of my cameras and a tripod for probable long-distance shots of Money up on stage) and I decided to turn on the television to get a final glimpse at the weather forecast.  According to predictions, there was a 30 percent chance of possible thunderstorms rolling through our area but they were not supposed to occur until after the sun went down.  When the Doppler radar map appeared on the screen, there was an ominously growing bow echo-shaped storm system over northeastern and central Indiana that was moving towards Ohio (and the greater Dayton area) at a pretty good clip.  Doing some 'guess-timations' on when the front might arrive here, my best guess was between 4 and 5PM and, as it turned out, that would turn out to be a very accurate prediction.

Portajohns were toppled like dominoes in the wake of high winds blowing through the Freedom Tattoo venue on Friday afternoon (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

Seeing the severity of the front (bright oranges, reds and yellows dominated the radar imagery along with indications of multiple accompanying lightning strikes), I made the decision not to head over to the base and to stay put until the bad weather passed over before going over to the tattoo.  Not knowing how long that would actually take for it to arrive here, I decided to take a quick trip into my local town (just a mile or two down the road) to pick up copies of as many different Friday newspapers as I could and make my way back before all hell broke loose.  Even before I put the car in park at my destination, the dark gray skies had already arrived and brought along 70+ mile-an-hour wind gusts that blew dirt and sand around like tiny projectile pellets that stung when impacting on my bare arms and legs.  

An ambulance attends to injured personnel in the immediate aftermath of strong winds arriving at the Freedom Tattoo location at Wright Patterson Air Force Base on Friday afternoon (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

I made a quick dash inside the newsstand and it was less than a minute later when the main power for it and many surrounding businesses (and, as I would find out later, the traffic signals) went out.  In my haste to seek shelter, I forgot my cellphone in the car and was 'unplugged' from any news or weather sources for the duration of my stay.  After watching the rain and small-sized hail fall and waiting nearly 30 minutes for power to be restored, I paid for my items in cash and got back to my car for the rainy trek back to my house.  We managed to lose only a few branches from our front tree and, while it flickered several times during the height of the storm, the power was on when I arrived.

Raw video of the winds arriving at the tattoo venue (courtesy of WHIO TV)

Once I got inside, I immediately turned on the kitchen television to WHIO (Channel 7) to see what I was already listening to on their radio simulcast (the station interrupted its regular Sean Hannity programming for the breaking news).  As one of the sponsors of this year's Freedom Tattoo, there were several reporters and camera crews on the grounds when the storm struck and the news anchors were describing scenes of damage and personal injuries with the on-scene personnel.  On my drive, I had already heard that the event was cancelled so any plans for going there after the storm passed were nixed.  The weather did improve and my family and I went out to get a bite to eat around 7PM.  

Workers set off fireworks in front of a slowly setting sun Friday evening near the location for Wright Patterson Air Force Base's Freedom Tattoo

When we were leaving our chosen food establishment, we noticed some loud sounds emanating from the direction of where the Tattoo was supposed to happen and also saw puffs of smoke in the air.  I had heard that since the pyrotechnic items were already staged and primed (and that they also got wet in the passing storm), they had to be set off in order to tear down the assemblies in a safe manner.  As we got closer, we started to see faint flickers of light with the newly created puffs and decided to find a spot to watch a 'daylight' fireworks show.  We were able to catch a good 10 minutes of the display before all of the charges were expended.  From my vantage point, I was able to make out the damaged stage through the trees along the perimeter of the base's fenceline.  Several cranes were already in the process of trying to inspect the canopy during the hours of daylight that remained.

Crews work to inspect the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Freedom Tattoo's main stage after it was damaged by high winds that blew through the area several hours earlier

While only causing minor injuries and property damage in the local area, this same storm system continued over 500 miles east and south across Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, DC and was blamed for at least 11 deaths and for leaving over 4 million people without power during an unusually early heat wave in many areas of the eastern and central United States.  The storms even affected cyberspace, with Netflix and Pinterest both experiencing outages due to electrical issues at their northern Virginia server centers.  Meteorologists are using the term derecho (meaning 'straight') to describe the winds and explain why these storms became as strong and damaging as they unfortunately did (the excessively high temperatures and humidity levels, along with rapidly moving upper level winds, were also contributing factors).

A programs booth shows damage from high winds that blew through the Freedom Tattoo venue at Wright Patterson Air Force Base on Friday afternoon (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

Being caught in a potential disastrous situation is a risk anyone can face at any time during their lives and journalists are expected to be even more prepared than the general public in such precarious situations.  If that storm had stayed on its original predicted schedule, it would've arrived right around the time of the start of the official tattoo program or perhaps during the musical concert.  Crowds in excess of 70,000 were expected to be in attendance and if the same front arrived with that many people on the grounds, it's hard to tell just how bad the situation could've turned out.  Seeing the damaged performance area immediately reminded me of the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair last August where seven people were killed when that venue's stage collapsed in the face of near 60 mile-an-hour wind gusts--10 to 20 less than what blew through the Dayton area yesterday afternoon.  

Food stands were heavily damaged by high winds that forced cancellation of the Freedom Tattoo on Friday afternoon at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

When reviewing such 'what-ifs', a question that hasn't been raised in any journalism-related discussions I've had so far came to mind--if I was caught up in such an emergency situation, what would be my overarching responsibility?  To aid in the rescuing/recovery/evacuation or to document those activities as an independent observer so others can review my work and determine what transpired from the perspective of a trained observer?  For example, if I am a reporter and assigned to cover a hurricane, am I obligated to rescue someone who foolishly ignores the warnings of local authorities (and perhaps common sense) and decides to take a stroll in knee-deep running water or go surfing as the storm's eyewall is approaching the shore?  As a human being, I do understand that we have an obligation to our fellow man but that requirement is normally negated if the risks are deemed to be too great to the potential rescuer.  How does a journalist capture the moment yet not get in the way of the actual activities? Are there legal or liability issues if my work somehow hampers an ongoing operation?  I think I might need to brush up on these issues in the very near future (or perhaps contact a lawyer) to better learn those 'ropes' of this profession.

A portable floodlight was flipped backwards by the strength of the winds that whipped through the Freedom Tattoo venue at Wright Patterson Air Force Base on Friday afternoon (photo courtesy of the Dayton Daily News)

I must give a 'shout out' here to the base's Public Affairs Office for getting the official story out as quickly as they did yesterday.  From their website:
Tattoo cancelled due to storm damage
Posted 6/29/2012   Updated 6/29/2012

The main stage for Freedom's Call Tattoo remained standing but suffered enough damage it could not be safely repaired in time to continue the show. (Air Force photo by Ben Strasser)

6/29/2012 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio -- At approximately 4:35 p.m. severe storms with heavy rain and high winds passed over the base causing significant damage to the equipment staged to support Freedom's Call Tattoo on the grounds of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Base emergency personnel were already on scene and immediately took actions to protect personnel and render first aid. Up to 14 personnel were treated for injuries and six were transported to either the base or local hospitals for additional treatment. All of the injuries were classified as minor.

After an initial assessment of the damage, base officials determined a safe recovery was not possible and decided to cancel the Tattoo at 5:15 p.m.

"Safety of our personnel and our guests is priority number one," said Colonel Dan Semsel, 88th Air Base Wing vice commander. "Our personnel responded exactly as we trained and fortunately we came through the event without serious damage or injury."

Damage assessment has been suspended for the time being due to continuing weather concerns and decreasing light. Base personnel will continue working to make the scene safe, and recovery efforts will continue tomorrow.

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