Almost as quickly as the storms ripped across the landscape, videos of the deadly tornadoes that hit six Southern states Wednesday night began to appear on YouTube and other Internet sharing sites.
The same phenomenon occurred with the April 16 tornado outbreak in North Carolina, as awestruck witnesses to nature's fierce power looked into the oncoming funnel clouds and did what must have seemed logical: point and shoot.
"I guess as a human response to something like that, you have one of two instincts: Either run, or try and get it on film," said Tom Delrossi, who was driving his son, Daniel, home to Apex from a bowling tournament in Raleigh on April 16 when the sky turned black and intense lightning flashed through the clouds. Daniel pulled out his cellphone and started filming.
His video, which has nearly 10,000 hits on YouTube, scans the sky through the windshield as the pair travel down Ten-Ten Road, near U.S. 1, then fixes on a dark shape on the horizon.
"That's a tornado, man," Delrossi says.
"Go!" Daniel says.
"Towards it. I mean, I want to get a video of that."
Delrossi instead turns left and snakes through a series of parking lots in search of a safe vantage point from which to watch, but inadvertently drives right in front of the storm. "It's right there," he says, and turns again to get out of the way.
The two dozen twisters that traversed North Carolina that day - and the damage they wrought - appear in countless such videos on the Web, a disjointed documentary of one of the worst tornado outbreaks in the state's history.
An excited Shaw University student films the campus while the wind is still howling and, when its stops, surveys the upended offices and shattered windows. From a condo on the 26th floor of the RBC bank building in downtown Raleigh, a computer consultant waits wordlessly as a twister approaches. A man emerges amid the wreckage on Raleigh's South Saunders Street and walks through an auto shop minutes after the wind blew it apart.
The fascination factor
Like famous home movies of human violence, such as Abraham Zapruder's film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the clip of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King, the violence of nature has a powerful appeal, says Devin Orgeron, an associate professor of film studies at N.C. State University.
"I think the proliferation of amateur 'on the scene' videos is interesting and speaks to a broader and less discussed 'sharing' impulse that seems to be gripping our culture," Orgeron said in an email answer to a question. "We share everything, like it or not, and these moving images (which often focus on the grimmest moments of our shared realities) are an extension of this."
But while the Zapruder and Rodney King films were unique and iconic, Orgeron says, there are countless angles from which to view current events because nearly everyone can be a video witness. As a result, he said, all the events and images may be less memorable.
Not just raw footage, the videos often display raw emotion. Videographers scream, curse and attempt narration. In their cars, some argue with others in the vehicle over whether to try to outrun the storm or retreat from it, stay in the car or get out.
Some are storm chasers who monitor tornado reports and angle for the best view.
"We knew from the predictions that this would be a significant day. We started planning the night before," said Jeremy Gilchrist, a meteorologist who lives in Southern Pines. He and two friends, both meteorology students at NCSU, loaded Gilchrist's VW Beetle with a laptop, a HAM radio, a camera and other gear in preparation.
They first went after the tornado that came through downtown Raleigh, but the storm was wrapped in rain and they couldn't see the funnel.
"If you can't see it, you wouldn't know where it is, so you might drive right into it," Gilchrist said.
Then came a report of a tornado in Wilson County. The trio drove east and caught up with the storm on Interstate 795. They pulled over and filmed it as it barreled across the highway.
"It's that curiosity," Gilchrist said, explaining why three college-educated people would attempt to capture a tornado on film, and why nearly 140,000 so far would want to watch it. "You don't like to see people get hurt, or destruction, but it's like a doctor: When they come across an interesting case, they're fascinated with it."
'Right toward me'
Gilchrist concedes that N.C. Department of Transportation worker Steve Hoag got better film of the same tornado, though he wasn't chasing it. It came to him.
Hoag, who repairs traffic signals, finished a job in Wilson and was about to head home to Johnston County when he saw heavy rain ahead. He decided to wait it out in a grocery store parking lot. He was on the phone with his sister in New York at the time, catching up, as he does about once a month.
Another habit of Hoag's is carrying a camera in his state truck. He picked up the camera and began filming the storm clouds, which started spinning.
"I guess when it picked up the dirt and started ripping roofs of the buildings is when I realized I was in the wrong place," Hoag said.
He stayed on the phone with his sister, calmly describing the tornado's movement as debris slapped the windshield and the truck shuddered. More than 930,000 have watched as Hoag tells her nonchalantly, "I'd say it's coming right toward me."
It whirls past, blasting a roof into splinters.
In retrospect, Donald Pardue thinks he may have gotten too close to the tornado that hit his hometown of Sanford. He was downtown when he heard a tornado had touched down a few miles away and was tracking northeast.
"I thought, 'Where can I go where I can get a good shot?'"
He had been sitting in the parking lot of a former car dealership about four minutes, he said, when the storm came past. He filmed it with a little Fuji 440 that, like Hoag, he keeps in the car.
"I'm not real into video," said Pardue, 56. "I don't even carry a cellphone."
He gave the footage to the local paper, which posted it on the Web, where nearly 158,000 people have played it.
"I've got the bug now," Pardue said.
He has been shopping for a better camera.
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