It's ‘Miraculous’ Tornado That Hit Wyoming Coal Mine Wasn’t A ‘Mass-Casualty Event’

There were an estimated 400-600 workers at the North Antelope Rochelle coal mine in northeast Wyoming when an EF2 tornado with wind speeds estimated at 120-130 mph hit it Friday.

GJ
Greg Johnson

June 26, 20234 min read

Vehicles and railcars were flipped during Friday's tornado at North Antelope Rochelle mine.
Vehicles and railcars were flipped during Friday's tornado at North Antelope Rochelle mine. (Erian Judd vía Facebook)

With anywhere from 400 to 600 workers on site at the North Antelope Rochelle coal mine when a large tornado stomped on it Friday night, emergency responders say “it’s miraculous” nobody died and only eight injuries were reported.

“When I look at that scene with all the metal that was flying around and the people there, it’s miraculous we didn’t have more injuries or death,” said David King, longtime emergency management coordinator for Campbell County.

The mine, usually called NARM for short, was in a shift change when the tornado hit at 6:07 p.m. Friday, King told Cowboy State Daily. That means that the roughly 400 people on the day shift at two staging points at the mine were going home while the night shift, which typically doesn’t have as many people, was coming on.

With that much potential for people to be seriously hurt and killed, King said he and others from Campbell and Converse County to the south fully expected to find a “mass-casualty event” when they arrived.

While relieved that didn’t turn out to be the case — of those hurt, nobody remains hospitalized — King said that surveying the site Saturday with a National Weather Service investigator was eye-opening.

“It was a wild one. We had a couple cars on site that were flipped, there were Connex boxes that were thrown completely over a train and out onto a pond,” King said. “There were completely loaded coal cars that weren’t moved, but there were others that were.”

He also saw large rolls of conveyor belting, which normally have to be moved by semitrailer, that were thrown into the middle of a pond.

“It’s still one of those things where you put that many people in harms’ way and not have it be mass-casualty … is remarkable,” King said. “I think it’s incredible the stuff that got moved around.”

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120-130 MPH Winds

With wind speeds estimated at 120-130 mph, the tornado that hit NARM scores an EF2 on the tornado F-scale rating system that goes from EF0 to EF5, said Susan Sanders, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service Office in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Anything EF2 and above is considered “significant.”

She said there so far hasn’t been any evidence there’s a significant path for the tornado, which means it likely dropped onto the mine, then pulled back up.

“It obviously hit the area here there were a lot of mine buildings,” Sanders said. “But before that and after it, there isn’t anything hit.”

She also said that “it’s amazing … how the tornado managed to get right in that area where they have all those buildings there.”

She said drone images of the potential path also don’t show anything, but that it takes a few days for those signs to show up on satellite imaging.

That storm system did that several times as it was tracked across central and east Wyoming, King said.

“We cannot find a path on the ground where the storm came in and left,” he said. “My completely uneducated guess on this is, based on this storm system before dropping down three times and going back up, is that it dropped down over the mine, did some damage and pulled back up.”

Sanders said that storm system also dropped tornadoes near Natrona, Kaycee and Midwest.

  • Vehicles and railcars were flipped during Friday's tornado at North Antelope Rochelle mine.
    Vehicles and railcars were flipped during Friday's tornado at North Antelope Rochelle mine. (Erian Judd vía Facebook)

Wyoming’s Tornado Alley?

Friday’s EF2 that hit the coal mine isn’t the first significant twister to run through Campbell County.

It’s been nearly 18 years since a category EF2 tornado with wind speeds estimated 113-130 mph killed two people and injured 13 when it ripped through the small town of Wright, located about 40 miles south of Gillette and near NARM.

That was Aug. 12, 2005, and the twister was on the ground for an estimated 10-15 minutes, destroying 91 homes and damaging about 30 more.

More recently, a line of four tornadoes tore through the Oriva Hills neighborhood just northwest of Gillette on June 1, 2018. That one was an EF3 with wind speeds up to 136 mph, which King said is the strongest tornado he’s ever encountered in his decades of emergency management.

That system leveled eight houses and damaged 28 others. Like Friday’s event at the mine, there were few human casualties, King said. Only one person was hospitalized for a single night.

Including the other tornadoes that came from that storm system that dropped one on NARM, there were seven tornadoes reported around Wyoming that day, King said.

Because nothing had shown before the tornado dropped, there was little warning for those at the mine, he said.

“The Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 5:50, and it hit 10 minutes later,” King said.

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Greg Johnson

Managing Editor

Veteran Wyoming journalist Greg Johnson is managing editor for Cowboy State Daily.