Phillip Wise on Monday chased one of the most ferocious tornadoes to touch down in Oklahoma in years.
Through his windshield from a half-mile out, the Category 5 twister was not so much a funnel but a shapeless, swirling wall of mud, pieces of homes, and airborne cars and horses.
He is not a thrill-seeking storm tracker, and he works for neither the National Weather Service nor the Weather Channel. He is a police officer, for 27 years and counting.
Lieutenant Wise, 52, pursued the tornado that flattened parts of this Oklahoma City suburb on Monday as if it were a perpetrator, trailing it in his patrol car because he knew there would be mass injuries and people in need in its wake.
He was far from his normal terrain — the suburb of Bethany, 21 miles northwest of Moore — and as an employee of the Bethany Police Department, there was nothing in his job description requiring that he risk his life chasing violent forces of nature outside his jurisdiction for his $62,000 annual salary.
But his pursuit led him to a destroyed 7-Eleven store, where he helped pull people from the rubble, some alive and some dead. Across the country, firefighters, police officers and paramedics run toward danger while others run away from it. The danger is often a fire, a shooting, an explosion. In Tornado Alley, the first responders’ instinct is the same, but the danger is not — they shadow the storms while the twisters are on the ground, following them while others crouch in closets or shelters, hoping to be close enough to the destruction that they might save lives.
“We were self-deploying, basically,” Lieutenant Wise said. “When the Murrah bombing happened in ’95, four of us just jumped in one police car and we were down there 30, 35 minutes after it happened,” he said of the deadly attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City. “We get paid to do a job, and we do it. When tornadoes and bombs or whatever happens, we have to be there, because if we’re not, I think a lot of other people will die.”
(Photo: Eric Thayer / The New York Times)