Night of Fear

  • Published
  • By Matthew Clouse
  • 88th Air Base Wing

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — When the sirens sounded, Phil Cowen grabbed his wife and 2-year-old son and headed to the bathroom.

“We started watching the news on our phone, and I remember the newscaster say ‘there’s a tornado headed towards the Air Force museum. If you're in this area, you need to take cover immediately,’” said Cowen, a former Wright-Patterson Air Force Base government employee.

“We lived in base housing and there was no basement, so we took shelter in the first-floor bathroom because we felt that was the safest place. We put our toddler on the ground, my wife on top of him and I was on top of her in fear of the worst happening.”

Moments later, the power went out and Cowen had no Wi-Fi signal to watch the news. The tornado had arrived.

“You could hear the wind howling, it was violent,” he said. “It sounded like somebody was in our kitchen, slamming our cupboard doors open and shut, over and over again. My wife and I looked at each other, thinking this could be it.”

It was Memorial Day 2019, a night of fear and destruction across the Miami Valley. A total of 19 tornadoes touched down between 10 p.m. and midnight, killing one person and causing more than $500 million in damage.

Among them, an EF3 with estimated winds up to 140 mph, ripped through the Prairies, one of two base housing areas managed by The Properties at Wright Field in Riverside, at 11:12 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.

“In my 26 years working here, that was the most intense tornado to hit Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,” said John Turnbull, 88th Operations Support Squadron weather forecaster.

On most days, 88 OSS has one forecaster on duty. But when severe weather is expected, like Memorial Day 2019, it’ll have two working together, watching the radar and issuing warnings.  

“We actually started tracking the tornado that went through base housing more than 150 miles away near Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana,” Turnbull added.  

Once the twister was just west of Trotwood, the weather forecasters decided it was time to issue a tornado warning for the base.

“Anytime we can put weather warnings or sirens out to the community to keep people safe, we know that we did our job right,” said Zachary Grandin, 88 OSS weather forecaster.

At 10:56 p.m., the sirens started blaring in base housing, 16 minutes before the tornado touched down.

“It seemed like we were in the bathroom forever, and finally, we hear the ‘all clear’ from the ‘Giant Voice,’” Cowen said. “I went outside and it was very eerie because you could hear fire alarms, car alarms, there were emergency vehicles in the neighborhood. But it was dark and I couldn’t see what was going on. I couldn’t even walk down our street because there was debris all over the place.”

Nobody in base housing was killed, but as the sun rose the next morning, devastation was everywhere. Approximately 150 homes were damaged, trees tossed onto houses and cars, roofs peeled off like an orange, and people’s belongings thrown blocks away.

“Houses only 100 yards from ours were wrecked. We were very fortunate that night,” Cowen added.

According to the National Weather Service, Ohio had 150 confirmed tornadoes from 2016 to 2020. While June is the state’s peak tornado season, they have occurred in every month.

“Tornadoes can occur anytime of the year with little or no warning. So it’s very important to have a plan prior,” said Brandon Ashcraft, 788th Civil Engineer Squadron emergency management specialist.

Ashcraft says that plan should include knowing the difference between a tornado watch and warning:

  • Tornado watch: issued when conditions are favorable for the formation of tornadoes.
  • Tornado warning: issued when a tornado has been sighted and you should take cover immediately.  

“If you’re at home, you should go to a storm cellar, basement or a windowless interior room on the lowest level of the building,” Ashcraft adds.

Which is exactly what Cowen did the night of Memorial Day 2019, possibly saving his family’s lives.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tornadoes killed 100 people in the U.S. last year, more than in any year since 2011. For more tornado facts and safety tips, visit