Photograph by Alonzo J. Adams—AP
Standing about a mile and half away from the deadly tornado’s path on Monday, freelance photographer and veteran storm chaser Alonzo J. Adams widened his lens and captured the awe-inspiring frame above, the cover of TIME Magazine this week.
“When I hit the shutter on the camera I had this feeling of just… despair,” Adams tells TIME. “In the viewfinder I could see the shingles and boards and everything flying up and I just thought, this is somebody’s house. This is bad.”
Adams, an Oklahoma native who says he follows the weather religiously, had been chasing a smaller storm outside Oklahoma City that day and noticed on his radar a small, but unnerving speck growing over the metro area. In mere minutes, the speck had developed into a devastating EF-5 tornado, ultimately killing 24 people and leveling entire neighborhoods.
Adams had witnessed similar events before. In May of 1999, his closest call came as a rookie storm chaser, when he veered a little too close to a tornado in Oklahoma City that produced the fastest winds ever recorded on the earth’s surface.
“Everyone wants to see a tornado and everyone wants to be a storm chaser,” says Adams, who has since undertaken extensive training in meteorology, “but if you’re in the wrong place during those things, you get in a lot of trouble very quickly.”
Monday’s tornado dispersed as fast as it formed. After making the now iconic image, Adams, still unaware of the magnitude of destruction, traveled toward the neighborhoods where it touched down.
Survivors “looked dazed and they looked confused,” he says. “I came up around the corner and saw cars wrapped around trees and complete buildings gone. There was a gas station that I had been to before right off the exit of the interstate and it was not there. I mean, there was just a concrete slab.”
Still in awe, Adams offered help to those who needed it. Eventually, he took more photos.
“You don’t want to necessarily put you camera right up in somebody’s life that’s been destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand, you’re a journalist and you have to document this powerful, life-changing event.”
See more photos from the Oklahoma tornado on LightBox.