The Salt Lake City tornado of 1999 was a formative moment for me, and many others, both personally and professionally. It was also a bonding moment, a tragedy that took lives, and a span of a few days that led to a trade event like no other. Ahead of this June’s Outdoor Retailer, Doug Schnitzspahn was kind enough to let me to share a few words on the Tornado of 1999 for the show daily. As the 20th anniversary of the event was this weekend (8/11/19), a few other thoughts came to mind.
It was the noon hour. I was at lunch at Squatters , just a couple wide-street blocks from the tornado’s path of destruction. We’d paid the tab and were planning to hustle back to the show floor, but the black, saturated clouds of what seemed like a “typical” afternoon thundershower pinned us down under a few awnings just outside the door. We were laughing and joking as the blue sky day flexed with some phantom gusts and sheets of sideways rain. It was over fast. Maybe five minutes top. Barely enough to take cover and delay walking back, and honestly I didn’t think much more about it as the storm clouds cleared as quickly as they had formed.
As I started crossing the road to walk back, however, I almost stepped in front of a car— was I distracted? Was it that beer at lunch? I was relieved to look up and see that the stoplights were out. No wonder I almost got hit. I headed north past the Peery and noticed that, actually, the power was down in the whole block. Odd, but not that odd.
I’m not sure I noticed the first police car at all. It came from the south and passed me at speed. I’m not sure I noticed the second one either. But I’m pretty sure I noticed the third, and definitely the fourth and then the fire trucks and ambulances. They were all heading the same way I was heading. Something very, very bad had happened. I know it was 20 years ago, but I remember the thought that struck me first as I did the math on the fleet of emergency vehicles heading past me. It had nothing to do with a tornado or random act of weather — it was, instead, the recent memories (April 1999) of the Columbine High School tragedy that jumped to mind. It still sticks with me.
It was only as I got to the main flank of the Salt Palace, just outside the side doors, when I first heard the word tornado. Some people were running away from the area, some were running toward it. And as I came around the corner to see the full scene of destruction, I also saw some who were simply standing still or sitting on the grass, dazed and bleeding.
I turned west toward the Pavilions and the show entrance, and my foot was suddenly in sharp pain. I looked down to see a couple of toes bleeding onto my flipflop. I had accidentally stepped on some glass. I thought it was a broken bottle or something, but, as I took in the scene, I saw that the entire road and sidewalk were covered in a blanket of glass. Every car on the street was windowless. The windows on the nearby hotel were gone. And the sun was out. It was a beautiful day.
The impromptu meeting at the trade show office was uprecedented. This was not covered in the pre-show planning calls. And for the moment there were only things to react to. Questions but no answers. Situations with no plans. Like this one: “We need a few volunteers to sweep the show floor."
Because of a gas leak in the Convention Center, and because storm clouds filled with lightning were possibly circling back, the Convention Center needed to be 100% empty. A few of us ran out onto the floor, taking different paths through the set-up day chaos that is the hallmark of any Outdoor Retailer show, a day typically known for the incredible bustle of booth building and pre-show sales meetings and a seeming world record number of forklifts. But on this day … tornado day … it was different. All the things were there, all the props, all the laptops and coffee mugs and notebooks and boxes and crates, but it was empty of people. Like they’d been plucked away in mid-conversation, whisked to someplace safe and dry and definitely not here.
I think all of us started the sweep the same way, running and yelling and trying to find anyone, someone who was still inside and had no idea about the storm. And then the yells were less frequent, the run became a jog, and the realization sunk in that we were the only ones in the building, the only ones still there, the only ones still in danger, and it was time to get out.
I made my way up the powerless escalator stairs two at a time, maybe three, and as I crossed the empty plaza toward the doors, the familiar face of co-worker walked into the empty lobby, looked around at the incredible emptiness of a place designed to hold thousands, and made eye contact with me. As I got closer, she started to sob.
News coverage of 1999 Salt Lake Tornado
Washington Post (1999) … LINK
Bangor Daily News (1999) … LINK
Associated Press (1999) … LINK
Deseret News (1999) … LINK
Las Vegas Sun (1999) … LINK
Ski (1999) … LINK
Mountain Zone (1999) … LINK