Former WOOD TV8 reporter recalls 1980 Kalamazoo tornado

1980 tornado, Kalamazoo, Jim Childress
Former WOOD TV8 Kalamazoo Bureau reporter Jim Childress speaks to 24 Hour News 8's Marlee Ginter about the May 13, 1980 tornado.


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Jim Childress remembers the smallest of details about May 13, 1980.

“We walked up to this window and that’s where we first saw it. We just saw the sky was black and it wasn’t just a little dark, it was nighttime,” Childress, who worked in what’s now the Comerica Building in downtown Kalamazoo, recalled.

An F3 tornado was tearing toward downtown.

“We ran outside this building and glass was still falling from it,” Childress described.

He remembers rushing to the basement as people from all over the building funneled into the stairwell to seek cover. Childress and Gilmore Foundation President Chris Shook took 24 Hour News 8 into that basement as the 37th anniversary of the tornado approached.

1980 tornado, downtown Kalamazoo, 151 S. Rose St.
File aerial footage of downtown Kalamazoo, including 151 S. Rose St., in the wake of the May 13, 1980 tornado.

“We were just crammed in there like sardines but we all managed to drop to the floor when we realized what was going on,” Childress recounted. “You look at the ceiling, those are the tiles that got sucked right up when our ears popped.”

While Childress only knows what the tornado looked like from inside the building, Shook could describe what it looked like from outside.

“I was driving back to work and saw the funnel cloud hit this building,” he said. “I recall a big light pole flying and my first instinct was to take cover.”

Five people were killed in the tornado and 79 injured.

Once the storm had passed, Childress didn’t have time to regroup or get a grip on what had just happened. Childress was a WOOD TV8 reporter at our Kalamazoo Bureau, and that meant he had work to do.

For days, Childress told stories of survival, all the while rebuilding the same community he worked in.

The WOOD TV8 bureau where he worked was based out of 151 S. Rose St. — the same building now home to our new Downtown Studio.

“Right where your bureau is, that’s where the glass was falling and that’s where we were exiting the building. I thought, I wonder if anyone remembers the history of that corner,” Childress said. “This is a place that Channel 8 has some history. And there were a number of stories that we covered from this building.”