The timing couldn’t have been worse for Jefferson City.
Earlier in the day, the city had issued a declaration of emergency and began closing roads and evacuating part of North Jefferson City in anticipation of severe flooding from the rains that had been pounding the state for days.
Then, late at night — when many were already retired for the evening — came the terrifying word that a destructive tornado was barreling toward the capital city.
“The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for central Cole County, southern Callaway County and central Osage County until 30 minutes after,” a Missouri Highway Patrol Troop F dispatcher relayed at 11:45 p.m. in scanner traffic captured on Broadcastify.com. “At 23:43, a confirmed large and destructive tornado was observed over Jefferson City moving northeast at 40 miles per hour.”
On The Weather Channel, a meteorologist somberly described the tornado’s path, then grew silent as it struck shortly before midnight. He repeatedly apologized to Jefferson City residents, saying the radar indicated a large debris cloud that most likely was from major structural damage.
The tornado cut a devastating path along the city’s south side, damaging houses and buildings, uprooting trees and downing power lines. But on Thursday morning came some remarkable news: While there were numerous reports of injuries, there were no confirmed deaths.
Many attributed the relatively low injury count to the early warnings. Two sirens went off, authorities said, one well before the tornado arrived in Jefferson City and another as it touched the ground.
“Maybe that’s a good reason why there’s so little casualties — because people took cover ahead of time,” said Cole County Fire Department spokesman Steve Cearlock.
Cearlock said he’s seen “complete devastation” to subdivisions, trailer parks, schools and businesses, including a car dealership and a hotel.
“It’s just wide, wide destruction across a large area,” he said.
Jefferson City police said the first sirens in the area were activated at 11:10 p.m. Wednesday, and the first damage in Cole County was reported at 11:38 p.m. Sirens were reactivated at 11:40 p.m., they said, with the first damage reports in Jefferson City coming in at 11:47 p.m.
Emergency responders quickly organized as the calls began pouring in.
“Hawthorne Park got hit by a tornado, ” said a dispatcher on the Jefferson City Fire channel at 11:53 p.m.. “They need units to respond.”
Two minutes later, more rescue units were requested: “We’re getting multiple calls. We have a lot going on there. From what I’m hearing we’ve got multiple people trapped.”
At 11:56 p.m., emergency crews were sent to 17th Avenue: “We have someone needing medical assistance. Injured leg. Severe injured leg.”
Responders had trouble reaching some areas, so they had to improvise.
“Engine 4 to Jeff Central,” came a call at 11:57 p.m. “We are headed to Hawthorne Parkway. We are unable to get through because a wall at the Y has collapsed into the driveway. We will be on foot.”
It quickly became obvious the damage was severe. And widespread.
“We’re blocked, power lines across the road right at Break Time,” said a call at 11:57 p.m. “Break Time has been hit. Roof is off. ... We’re gonna have to find an alternate route. We’re gonna have to get to the apartments.”
11:59 p.m.: “We also are needing someone to respond to Capital City Apartments. We have a female that’s trapped under rubble.”
Seconds later, a report from the Hawthorne Park apartment complex: “There’s concrete walls down; we’ve got power lines down across Ellis. Quite a bit of damage to this area.”
Around midnight, reports of gas odors and hissing gas lines began coming in, along with calls for additional help.
“Can you do an all-call page to Jeff City Fire? Any available personnel report to the city.”
12:05 a.m.: “We have multiple people trapped inside the apartment building. We also have a female trapped under a house.”
At 12:06 a.m., fire department units around the city called in their reports. One was from Hawthorne Park apartments.
“I’m gonna say approximately one-half of the buildings or more have been hit. We have found one injury, a gentleman with a broken arm. He was out of the building. We have several people that just cannot make it out at this time.”
At 12:08 a.m., a call came in about people trapped in an elevator at the Capitol Plaza Hotel and another building.
“Anything at this point that is non-emergency as in trapped or stuck in elevators, are going to the bottom of the list.”
One minute later: “Did anyone respond to Best Western?”
“Issue at Best Western?”
“The tornado took the roof off. They have a female that’s bleeding. They’re talking about possible amputation.”
At 12:11 a.m., another request: “We’re gonna need several — several — heavy equipment operators.” A call went out to the National Guard for additional equipment.
12:15 a.m.: “A tree has fallen on a female’s house and she’s trapped inside.”
Two minutes later, from Case Avenue: “A roof has come off the house and there’s someone injured in the driveway.”
12:25 a.m., East McCarty Street: “Tornado blew windows out, son’s leg is openly bleeding.”
Just before 1 a.m.: “The best we can tell, we’ve got all of the walking wounded and people that were self-rescued; we’re trying to get them all toward the entrance of the apartment complex ... all of the walking and able-to-walk people are being evacuated up to Ellis Boulevard.”
And so it went through the night, with fire officials calmly and methodically doling out assignments and asking the rescue units for continual updates.
Jefferson City Police Department Lt. David Williams said during a televised briefing Thursday morning that the damage corridor appeared to extend along the south side of Jefferson City along Ellis Boulevard, U.S. 54 and Stadium Boulevard.
Rescue crews searched through every part of the county affected by the tornado for trapped and injured residents, Cearlock said. On Thursday morning, the department divided the city into three zones to begin searching through the area a second time.
“It’s wide-ranging, that’s for sure,” Cearlock said. “Mother nature didn’t pardon anyone, that’s for sure.”
He said it is impossible to tell at this point exactly how many homes were destroyed and how many people were displaced.
“Everybody is just trying to pick up the pieces and recoup and obtain some personal effects that might be there yet,” he said. “It’s going to be a very, very long process for all these homeowners and businesses.”