On The Job - Salt Lake City: Training For Disasters Pays Off When Tornado Rips Downtown Areas

Michael Garlock describes how firefighters responded to an unusual emergency.


SALT LAKE CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Don Berry Personnel: 346 career firefighters Apparatus: Three ladders, 12 pumpers, seven paramedic units, one hazmat unit Population: 180,000 Area: 100 square miles Before Aug. 11, 1999, the last time a tornado passed through Salt Lake City, the...


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NEXRAD can scan 19.5 degrees skyward, but only half a degree downward. Taking into account the earth's curvature, it cannot detect anything in the Salt Lake Valley below an elevation of 9,000 feet or 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Aiming the radar lower would allow hills to block some waves and cause other waves to bounce off the ground, ruining data used for forecasting.

At 12:48 P.M., the National Weather Service issued a warning of damaging winds in excess of 65 mph and hail up to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. By that time, the tornado had been on the ground for three minutes.

Firefighter/EMT Steve Hoffman (who took the photo on the facing page) got an uncomfortably close view.

"We were out (on Truck 2) inspecting our district and were heading back to our station (number 2)," he said. "I was tillering the truck. I looked up and the clouds started swirling. It looked like an upside-down ice cream cone. There was a dust devil off to one side. It was 100 to 150 feet wide. There was a lot of noise, wind and debris flying through the air. We were 200 yards from where it hit. Then the air got calm. The funnel hit the ground. The rain came, then dissipated. I took a picture. We thought it was done. Then it touched down."

The downtown section where the incident occurred is 99% businesses. Many people had seen the cloud and the funnel and called 911, many from their cars. The twister damaged two private clubs and the Utah Transit Authority bus barn before slamming into the west side of the rectangular Delta Center, home to two professional basketball teams. Long sections of the roof on the arena's west side were torn away and glass was shattered on several sides. A few people were working and one later stood on the flooded basketball court and looked at the sky through a large hole where the roof had been. Taking shelter in the catacomb-like bowels of the arena, the crew was unscathed.

On the north side of the same block is the Triad Center, a large office complex. One witness whose eighth-floor office in the L-shaped Triad Center overlooks the Delta Center saw tree limbs, parts of trees and pieces of the Delta Center itself flying around.

The 15-story Wyndham Hotel occupies the northwest quarter of the block directly southeast of the Triad Center and on the adjacent northerly block is the Outdoor Retailer's Market. The Salt Palace, a three-story convention center, fills much of the next block heading east, while two blocks north and one block east is the square-shaped Assembly Hall, with seating for 7,000 to 10,000 people.

These buildings and blocks comprise a major part of the incident area and are where the fatality and most of the injuries occurred. Several blocks diagonally to the northeast is the State Capitol building, Memory Grove and the Avenues neighborhood. The latter two sections of the city received substantial property damage and minimal casualties. Captain Dennis Goudy, commander of Truck 2, which was tillered by Hoffman and also manned by Paramedic Steve Crandall, Engineer Tom James and EMT Kevin Forbes, was the first fire officer on the scene.

"We had just finished up some business inspections north of the (Outdoor Retailers) Market area, and went to get some lunch," Goudy said. "I was on Truck 2. We were running five-handed that day. It was getting dark and real quiet. I was just in the process of paying for groceries prior to going back to the station. I was cook that day. The store lights flickered and the whole building rumbled. One of my crew thought it was a huge dust devil. We were two blocks from reported smoke in the area. We investigated that and found there was no emergency. We were facing west. Had we turned around, we would have seen the tornado.

"Then we got a call about collapsed tents. We had done pre-planning with the tents, primarily fire protection. My crew knew exactly what it was because we were going to do a walk-through that day. I called for a full assignment. We arrived from the west. In front of our truck was a cleared area about 60 feet by 60 feet."

Captain Bryan Dale of the Medical Division was acting public information officer (PIO) that day.

"I was dispatched at 12:53 P.M.," he said, "and arrived at the incident at 12:58 P.M. and went to the incident CP (command post) that was situated in front of the collapsed structure."