Matt Suter can’t get the tornado out of his head or his ears. Every time a late night freight train thunders past, Suter wakes up and remembers the vicious twister that pulled him from his home March 12 and landed him in a pasture a quarter-mile away.
Suter’s harrowing encounter has brought him sudden fame, with national media exposure. One tornado expert said he knew of no one who traveled as far as Suter did in a tornado and lived to tell about it.
“It’s a pretty awkward record to have,” the 19-year-old senior at Fordland High School said.
The soft-spoken Suter did not court attention about his experience, which was not reported publicly until a week after it happened.
On the night of the tornado, Suter said, he was watching television news in only his boxer shorts when he heard a jetlike roar approaching the trailer he shared with his grandmother and uncle.
He was trying to shut a window in the living room, and his grandmother was in the kitchen, when the tornado struck, he said.
“The window busted, and the door got sucked out,” Suter said. “I looked at my grandmother, and the walls were like Jell-O. The trailer was rocking back and forth. I jumped between the coffee table and couch, and I remember the trailer tipping.”
His grandmother, Linda Kelley, said Suter had hollered at her in the trailer, and when she came into the kitchen “I turned around to look at where he was, and that whole end of the trailer was just gone.”
A large heavy glass lamp struck Suter on the top of his head, knocking him unconscious, he said.
When he came to, Suter found himself in a soft, grassy pasture. Last week a global positioning satellite device used by National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Gaede measured the distance at 1,307 feet from the trailer site.
“When I woke up in the field, I didn’t know how long I was lying there,” Suter said. He looked toward the home and saw no lights and assumed his grandmother and uncle, Robert Dewhirst, died or were badly hurt in the destruction.
Suter ran in bare feet along a gravel road to the residence of neighbor Don Cornelison and reported what happened.
“He said the storm blew him way out into the field, and he didn’t know if his grandma or uncle were alive,” Cornelison said. “His feet were all cut up. I don’t know how me made it this far.”
Cornelison called 911, and ambulances went to the destroyed residence, where Kelley and Dewhirst lay injured.
Suter suffered a cut on his head that required five staples. His feet were badly bruised from running on the gravel, and he still limps from the pain.
Ron Buening, Suter’s physician, said his lack of serious injuries beyond the head wound corroborated Suter’s account.
“If he’d have been blown across that field, there would have been more body surface areas abraded and contused than what he had,” Buening said. “He was the most lucky man on Earth.”
Kelley ended up wedged between a table and kitchen cabinets, and Dewhirst was pinned between two mattresses. They are recovering at a relative’s home from various injuries.
Suter said he remembered nothing about his flight over the pasture. He landed about 25 feet from a gravel road and a barbed-wire fence. A piece of paper from the trailer lay next to him.
Suter has no idea how he survived.
“The way it tore the walls and roof out of the trailer, I’m sure it sucked me up into the wind,” Suter said. “I’m really glad I was unconscious.”
Tom Grazulis, a Vermont meteorologist who studies tornado behavior, said he knew of no person who traveled as far as Suter and survived.
“It was remarkable. It’s just so rare to have someone carried that distance,” said Grazulis, who oversees a research entity called the Tornado Project and is author of a 2001 book, The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm.
Grazulis said 300 to 400 feet was about the limit in order to survive a tornado-toss. One 9-year-old girl and her pony survived a 1,000-foot flight in 1955, but this was the longest previously known distance, he said.
“People who get tossed a quarter of a mile get killed in the air or in the fall or were dead when they were lifted up,” Grazulis said.
To live through his ordeal, Suter must have been lifted straight up and managed to avoid being struck by whatever debris went up with him at the same time, Grazulis said. He sort of “went with the flow” in an unconscious state, he said.
The first story of Suter’s experience appeared Sunday in the Springfield News-Leader, which asked Gaede to do the measurement. The story was picked up by The Associated Press, and on Tuesday, ABC’s “Good Morning America” did a feature on Suter’s flight.
Suter said he received media calls from England and was contacted by the David Letterman show about a possible appearance in New York.
“I had more calls in five minutes yesterday than I’ve had in my whole life,” Suter said.
Ironically, Suter said, he had been telling his girlfriend Sunday evening that he always wanted to see a tornado.
“I guess I was lucky that night,” Suter said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.