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Jul 26, 2017 | Advocacy Magazine People

The Storm, And the Aftermath
By Kenji Haroutunian

In the summer of 1999, a tornado ripped through  Salt Lake City and the Outdoor Retailer trade show, leaving one person dead, more than 85 injured, and a half-mile-wide swath of destruction in its wake. In the face of this tragedy, the outdoor industry came together and emerged stronger.

In 1999, I was 38 years old and excited to take on the role of  account executive, working for the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. This was going to be a big year for me. I’d loved OR since I first attended the show in 1990, and I was eager to learn the business. But all my years of teaching outdoor skills, climbing mountains, paddling oceans, and running retail shops did little to prepare me for what happened at that show.

I arrived at the Salt Palace on the morning of Wednesday, August 11, the last day of setup. As a show official, I was armed with a walkie-talkie and a cellphone brick for team communication and coordination. I thought my “Show Management” badge made me a big shot .

The show, at least, had become a big deal. Outdoor Retailer was growing fast—although at the time it was still smaller than Interbike or the very popular, and now defunct,  Action Sports Retailer (ASR)—and it had gotten big enough that we had to build pavilions across the street from the North Lobby of the Salt Palace.

The people who were unhappy with being placed here just called them “tents,” but the pavilions had air-conditioning throughout, a steel beam structure, halogen lighting, and floating, leveled wood floors underneath a mile of aisle carpeting. Nearly 300 companies set up in the two side-by-side pavilions area, which also housed a paddle tank and tilt-up climbing wall for a little between-appointment recreation and casual gawking.

The weather that morning was a bit grey and slightly muggy, but not foreboding in any way that I remember. The show director, Dieter Tremp, had me busy running laps around the Salt Palace and the pavilions, answering questions, and doing my best to seem official. The hustle and bustle of Day Zero put some miles on my running shoes, shorts, and an old Patagonia polo (I still covet that shirt).

At one point, I found myself in the show office, on the phone with a prospective last-minute exhibitor. In the background, I heard a strange distant rumbling, like subwoofers or the booms of a far-off bombing range. The room had opaque glass panels on the sides, and as the rumbling grew louder, I noticed the shrubbery outside begin to tremble and paste up against the opaque glass. The noise grew louder. Yet I stayed on the phone…until both of my eardrums popped simultaneously.

Something serious was happening. In a distant classroom I’d learned that when you’re near the vortex of a tornado, the pressure drops steeply and your ears pop. It means you’re close—too close. I knew what was happening.

I hurried past show operations manager Cathy Griffith, frozen in shock at the office entry, while the radios sputtered from the all glass room to the all-glass doorways. The radios crackled incoherently and went quiet as the torrent ripped into the building and everything just outside of it. At the SPCC North entrance, a small group had gathered to watch the maelstrom of debris flying sideways down South Temple Street.Tree branches, garbage, and hunks of glass, metal, and stone all tore through downtown, pushed by an unseen force.

Panic welled up in my stomach thinking of the pavilions across the street. I moved out into the crash-door entryway, going into EMT mode and focusing on delivering short-term medical help to an unknown number of injured. In my small group, I saw two mentors, who had been key to my upbringing in the outdoor industry, Michael Hodgson and Larry Harrison. I was not sure exactly what was about to happen, but I was at least comforted knowing that a few of the most important people in my life were with me.

We watched in near silence as the horizontal river of stone and metal crested in intensity. It was an unbelievable thing to stand there and witness. As the outdoor wind speeds began to drop and debris now simply tumbled by, someone yelled “Go!” and we shot out of the crash doors like a SWAT team. We knew we’d find injured people, and carnage, and maybe worse.

Running as a group toward the shredded pavilions and various unidentifiable objects, I stopped at the first person I found down in the middle of the street—it was a man, 30-something years old, and apparently unconscious. I radioed a call for help on South Temple: “Multiple victims, paramedics needed ASAP.” Just then, a torrent of rain pelted us, following in the shadow behind the tornado that had raged through downtown Salt Lake City and now had moved up into the hills near the capitol.

The tornado had cut a direct path through the city. It tore whole roof sections off the Delta Center where the NBA’s Jazz play. It blew a dozen windows out of the Wyndham Hotel (now the Radisson). It buzzsawed both pavilion structures into a tangle of rubble.

I could see dozens of injured people scattered across the area. But I could only focus on what I knew I could do… treat one injured person at a time, and maybe set up a small triage situation. I had worked for 14 years as a climbing guide, but this situation was far beyond anything I had trained for in the wild. I kept my attention on the injured man.

He was face-down in the street in a rapidly spreading pool of blood. I searched for vitals: He had a pulse, but I could not sense a breathing rhythm. I checked his airway and discovered a stick protruding from his mouth. Then I realized it was no stick—it was the temple section of his eyeglasses. I gently removed the glasses, intact, from his airway. I tried to cover him up. Even though it wasn’t cold, I knew he was in shock and needed protection from the elements. Random people began to offer me blankets,  jackets, ponchos, and visqueen. I used it all trying to stabilize him.

His breathing rhythm became stronger,but he did not regain consciousness. He had blunt force trauma and a large open wound  on the back of his head that seemed to be the source of bleeding. On other parts of the street, more help was arriving.

Soon, a friend showed up whom I knew could really help. It was Phil Carey (founder of Atwater/Carey), a legend of wilderness first aid. He’d brought a paramedic, and she had already donned latex gloves. I was grateful they had arrived, since I already felt out of my depth. They went to work on my victim. I moved on.

Two hours of evacuation activity
followed. We directed people to medical and communication resources and Dieter finally had the chance to assemble our team and make sure we were all okay. Remember this was 1999. There was no texting. Zero phone calls got through; the system was overwhelmed. We relied on walkie talkies for communication.  What’s more, we had no fleshed-out plan to deal with major emergencies, despite the professionalism and experience of those in charge.

The initial reports coming in were grave. The entire football field-sized area of the pavilions was cordoned off indefinitely.Our team had all been unharmed, but we were overwhelmed. We spoke in turn about what had happened, and our unresolved fears. Only then did we discuss what to do next. 

Part of our extended team included Carson Stanwood and Drew Simmons from the PR agency Stanwood & Partners (see page 34). They had met with Dieter just after the fray and convinced him that a leadership response from the OR team was urgent. Most everyone attending the show was already in town or on their way. Although it would have been reasonable to cancel the event, there was a strong desire to work through the difficulties.

Deiter’s message called for all concerned parties to convene at the Marriott Downtown lobby at 4 p.m. The show would announce a new plan, and we had roughly an hour to figure out just what it would be. We had three options: One, cancel the show. Two, continue the show as planned. Or three, modify the show plan but continue. We decided to carry on.

What ensued afterward was the true coming together of an industry, and I was lucky to be part of it. Dieter presided over a meeting/presentation to a 1,000 or so people who packed into the Marriott lobby. He announced that we would take one day to organize a sharing platform so that all displaced companies could still exhibit with what they had or could get. It would take a day to organize that so we’d open the show a day late. The stage was set.

Although there was some grumbling from people in the crowd that they couldn’t get anything back (the tornado swept away entire booths, materials, products and fixtures), there was general agreement that this was do-able, and more so that it was right for an industry with the spirit of adventure at its heart. A few companies even stepped forward and volunteered to share their booth space with displaced companies from the pavilions. The OR lead team of Dieter and Joan Alvarez along with the folks at Stanwood & Partners, salvaged the day with their communication and creativity.

The show that we staged over the next three days was unlike any industry event I’ve  ever experienced. The spirit of camaraderie was strong, as was our appreciation that it could have been much worse (one fatality, 12 critical injuries, and 80 injuries total). Brands measured their own success by how many companies they could host in their booths (Timberland won, with 12). For anyone who was there, the connection was deeper than any Dead show or Burning Man. The industry was put to the test, and it showed its true colors. Like so many Outward Bound adventure programs, we had a shared experience of hardship in nature.

We realized the best of what makes us special as an industry, as a community. We can come together in great crisis. In honor of Allen Crandy, who lost his life during the tornado, let’s keep our band together through the coming rough patches. We’ve done it before.

The Grim Reality—The 1999 tornado was one of the most destructive to hit west of the Great Plains in the 20th century and only the second recorded tornado to hit Utah that resulted in a fatality.