Former WOOD TV8 reporter recalls covering tornado 40 years later

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Former WOOD TV reporter Jim Childress shared his memories of covering “what turned out to be the biggest story of my career.”

“It changed the face of that downtown just in a blink of an eye,” Childress recounted. “I think the thing that stands out the most is that downtown took a direct hit.”

Like most journalists, Childress said his first thought wasn’t about his own safety when they learned a tornado was headed for downtown Kalamazoo on May 13, 1980.

“I was there with Bill Freeman, who was also a reporter with TV8 at the time, and we both looked at each other and our first thought wasn’t get in the basement, which it should’ve been, but our first was where’s the cameraman?” he said. 

They eventually made it to the basement of what is now the Comerica Building downtown. Childress previously shared the experience with News 8.

“What I recall when we got outside was how surreal it was,” Childress said. “It was like the world had changed. It was a different city than it was when we went in that building and it was just surreal. It was very disorienting and it took you a minute to figure out what was going on.”

He estimates he got four hours of sleep over the next two days, focused solely on capturing the aftermath and sharing stories of those experiencing the devastation firsthand. 

“It finally hit me when I had a chance to start driving through the neighborhoods and saw the impact on people’s lives — the trees and the houses that were gone. There was a moment when I just had a flood of emotion,” the former reporter explained. “Another time was when I realized one of the people who had been killed was actually a college friend of mine and I didn’t realize it and had been talking about who had been killed at the laundromat, and found out it was a personal friend.”