A survivor's tale of the Reading tornado

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeffrey Norling
  • 190th Medical Group
The May 21 tornado that hit Reading, Kansas, destroyed the home of 190th Air Refueling wing member and Kansas state trooper Master Sgt. Jeffrey Norling. A trained storm spotter, Norling and his son were monitoring the storm outside of town when he saw the tornado rip through the town. His wife and youngest daughter survived the tornado by taking refuge in the home's master bathroom - the only room that remained after the tornado. This is his story.

This whole thing has been quite an experience, which I will surely never forget - as much as we all want to.

My son AJ and I were watching the NASCAR showdown race while listening to the NASCAR scanner (Clint Bowyer, of course), as well as the fire/EMS/police scanner in my office since we knew bad weather was possible. My wife Shelly was soaking dishes, and my daughter Rachel was on the computer. I overheard my best friend

Scott, the Reading fire chief, spot a funnel cloud, which was a remnant of an EF-1 that hit just north and east of Emporia. He hollered on the radio that he needed any and all available storm spotters to spread out and surround Reading.

AJ and I grabbed the laptop and air card to view radar images, my county radio, and my Kansas Highway Patrol radio. I asked, begged and pleaded that Rachel and Shelly come with us. Shelly said, "No," and that she would stay, and if they heard we were actually in any way going to have a tornado hit, they would go to the storm shelter in the backyard.

My son and I drove 1 1/2 miles south and west of town to a hill for a full 360-degree view of the area. It was post-sunset, and the sky to the west had a dim glow to it. We watched funnels drop out of the sky several times, with no ground contact or debris.

The wall cloud rotated and dropped lower as it approached. To our northwest, we saw two tails drop down - just over a mile away. AJ and I stared at it for a second, before I said, "This is going to be bad - that is a double. Oh, (expletive) - it's on the ground!" I hollered on the county and KHP radios that the tornado was entering town.

Within a second more, it hit a barn and some trees, darkening the funnels and growing in width. The two twisters swirled around each other like dough hooks on a blender. As it went directly north of our location, we saw sparks from the power lines that were being ripped apart.

Once the tornado entered town, all we could do was watch from the hill. I'm trained to prevent harm, and when there is nothing you can do to change or stop it - it's a crippling feeling. I had to tell AJ that Mom and Rachel may not be there when we got back, and that it was a real possibility they could be hurt, dead or missing. He and I said several one-word outbursts as we drove north on the road toward town.

Softball-sized hail was raining down on us, as well as shredded leaves, grass and dirt - we had to stop. I pulled under a large row of hedge trees to slow down the hail and prevent damage to my windshield. It passed after about a minute.

We came across one of our friends, a local farmer, who had his 30-year-old son with him. They were headed off their property to storm spot, too. But their SUV was now upside-down in the ditch, and they were crawling out. They waved us on to town to check on Reading.

I crossed the tracks on the west side of Reading, turned east on Front Street, and immediately knew Reading took a direct hit. The southwest corner of town is where the tornados came in. It was eerie as by now darkness had fallen and the stars were out, and the moon was peeking through the edge of the storm as lightning flashed on the eastern sky.

I drove to some fallen walnut trees on Front Street, about 50 yards from my house. I spotted Shelly waving her arms at me. A huge sense of relief overcame AJ and me, to include some tears. I asked her if she and Rachel were okay. I then asked about the house, and she said simply, "It's gone. The whole thing - it's gone."

I walked around the large fallen trees and could barely see the remnants of my home in the glow of a flashlight. I radioed the KHP dispatcher that my house took a direct hit, and that my patrol car was somewhere under part of my house.

Things after that moved quickly as we started to look for our pets and survey the damage. I asked Shelly if she was safe in the shelter. She explained that one of Rachel's friends from the west side (a block away) of town and her boyfriend were so scared that they ran across the field between our homes, and met Shelly at the back door of our house. They started to make a run for the shelter, about 45 feet away, when debris and hail started to pound down. So, Shelly told everyone to get into the shower stall in our bathroom.

I looked at the location she had taken the kids and was in awe - it was one of the only pieces of the house still standing with any integrity at all. She had wrapped all of them in a heavy comforter, stayed low to the floor, and watched as the roof was ripped off and the walls around her shook. The house had lifted and twisted a bit when everything just simply blew up.

Now, it is cleanup time, prayer time, and the fact that I still have my wife and youngest child still alive on this Earth is due to one thing - He above! Stuff is stuff - it can, and will be, replaced. There have been so many different blessings since we lost our home.

There are pieces of our lives that changed forever that night. It still wakes me up at night. There are pieces of our lives we will never recover, but with all of your support and prayers, and simple understanding of how truly blessed we are, we will succeed!