My story: Utah native in St. Louis survives deadly tornado, helps clean up aftermath
Editor's note: Drew Hemsley is a Utah native living in St. Louis for the summer as a sales representative for Alterra pest control. He was less than a mile from where a tornado touched down over the weekend in St. Charles, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
It was Friday night, and dusk was approaching. I noticed earlier that strong storms were supposed to be approaching that evening.
I didn't really pay attention. Since I had arrived in St. Louis, there had been storms that were supposed to be able to produce tornadoes, but had never done so. As a result, I just thought that this would be the same; I wasn't too worried. Why would this storm be different?
At about 8:25 p.m., I was speaking to a woman on her door step. All of a sudden, I heard tornado sirens. I'm from Utah. The only tornado I had even remotely experienced was the Salt Lake City tornado in 1999. I was 8 years old at the time, and I wasn't in Salt Lake that day. I had never experienced this before, so I literally jumped.
The lady told me they had to issue the warning for the entire county, but that I was most likely going to be alright. If I didn't see a funnel cloud, I would be okay — that's what she told me.
I hadn't noticed previously, but when the sirens went off, I turned around to see a beast of a storm headed my way with lightning and thunder going off every half second. The sky was black and green. I immediately called my friend Nick, who was working in the same area, to drive us back to our apartments further east towards the center of St. Louis.
He arrived 10 minutes or so later, and the sky was continuing to blacken all around us. We got into the car and started driving on a frontage road. I looked back and filmed what I thought were many little funnel clouds descending out of the sky. It was dark, so I was only able to spot them from lightning flashes.
Nick was probably driving 50 over the speed limit — we were trying to run. Suddenly, the radio warning came on in the car telling us that the National Weather Service in St. Louis had issued a tornado warning for the county that we were in and that we needed to take cover immediately.
I had a spiritual prompting that we needed to pull over immediately and find shelter. As Nick turned into a residential area, I looked to my right and saw a wall of rain and wind closing in on us. Later I learned that the storm was going eastward at a speed of 55 miles per hour, but all I could tell at the time was that it was gaining.
As we got out of the car, the wind and rain hit us like a ton of bricks. I have never been more scared in my life. The wind was so strong that I thought it would knock me off my feet. I found out the next day that an EF-3 tornado had touched down just about a mile from my exact location just at the moment we were seeking shelter.
Nick and I split at that point and were banging on doors, trying to get anybody to let us in their house. Thankfully, a man answered the third door I knocked on and let us take shelter in his basement. All three of us waited there for about half an hour.
When the wind subsided, torrential rain and thunder remained. Feeling that the danger was gone, we got back in the car and tried going home via the freeway, which was littered with overturned semi-trucks and all sorts of vehicles. We were stuck in traffic for an hour or so, not moving at all. We got off the freeway, and found another way home.
On the way, we saw trees, glass, roofing and all sorts of other debris on the road. Everybody we saw on the street was scared and worried, all wanting to get home. When I finally did get home, my wife gave me a huge hug. I also had a terrible headache.
I spent all of Saturday clearing debris from homes with my brother-in-law, Jordan. I saw roofs ripped clean off houses, trees snapped like toothpicks and a lot more.
I felt very grateful and blessed after I realized what I had survived. Witnessing the power of God from that close is incredible.
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