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In his own words, KVUE photojournalist recalls 1997 Jarrell tornado and how it affected him

Veteran photojournalist Scott Guest captured some of the first images of the deadly 1997 tornado.

JARRELL, Texas — Veteran photojournalist Scott Guest has been an award-winning videographer for KVUE News for 28 years. He captured some of the first images of the devastating tornado that struck Jarrell, Texas, on May 27, 1997.

The following is a firsthand account taken from a recent video interview with Guest, some of which has been edited for clarity:

I was working with [former KVUE reporter] Greg Grogan. We were doing investigative-type stories. When the afternoon planning meeting at 2 p.m. happened that day, the weather person, Curtis Nichols, walked in and said there was a huge storm that spawned a tornado in Waco and it was coming in this direction.

We jumped in the car and started driving north on I-35. We had a two-way radio and kept hearing people reporting sighting the tornado. From what we were hearing, it was coming directly toward us.

So, I just kept my eyes open. I was scanning constantly while I was driving and, sure enough, out of the cloud, I saw the needle start to come down. We drove across the median and parked on the frontage road real quick and jumped out fast. I started shooting video.

I really anticipated it being gone in just a few moments, but it wasn't. And so, it continued to form and continue to reach down. And then the debris began to pick up. You could see it make contact with the ground. Debris began going up into it, and it was getting closer.

At some point, we had to move. So, we tore down and moved farther away from it. But as soon as we set back up again, it was even larger.  And then it hit something, a house or something, and the debris just began flying. The storm wall came over us and it was like horizontal rain. It was just unbelievable rain.

And so, I'm standing under the lift gate of the Explorer to shoot it. And I looked back down the freeway and I saw the cloud. I didn't really realize what I had seen at first. And I looked back again. I realized that that wasn't a dark cloud, it was the tornado, and it was tremendously large, way bigger than anything that we had witnessed up to that point.

Back then, it was very rare to get images of an actual tornado, and it became one of the most photographed tornadoes in history at that time. People didn't have cameras like they do now. There were no stormchasers.

After the storm passed, we drove to Jarrell. When we first got there immediately after the tornado had hit, it was pretty confusing because we didn't understand what we were looking at. It just looked like a muddy field. We talked to a couple of people and asked them, "Where are the houses?" [They told us] they were right over there, but they're all gone. And you could just see slabs. The neighborhood was completely wiped out. I mean, what was a neighborhood with grass, yards and everything, was now just foundations and mud.

We spent several days photographing the damage and interviewing people and it was clear that the storm had been terrible.

With so much destruction and death, it affected the people who lived there and also the first responders and the reporters, too. Back then, no one ever said, "How are you doing?" No one ever acknowledged anything like that. 

And I remember one reporter who worked for a different TV station who started working here. We were talking about the tornado one time, and she started telling me, "Yeah, I cried for like a month." And she was the only person I'd ever talked to that had even acknowledged having any kind of issue with having been on that scene. 

I finally went to a counselor and he said I had PTSD. And for me, personally, the layer of grief that the people in Jarrell were experiencing was devastating. It changed me and the way I think about how we cover the news.

For all of KVUE's coverage honoring the anniversary of the 1997 Jarrell tornado, visit KVUE.com/Jarrell. Watch our full "Remembering Jarrell: 25 Years Later" special report below:

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