He Started Chasing Tornadoes to Save Lives, It Almost Cost Him His Own | Arkansas Strong

Editor’s Note: I met Cotton Rohrscheib about seven years ago. Together we have supported each other through far more life events that we would both like to forget than should be allowed in a friendship. Cotton is the type of guy who thinks with his heart first, heart second, and if he is absolutely forced, occasionally his head.

Cotton started storm chasing three years ago after the devastating tornado that hit Vilonia taking several lives. He managed to join a group who were some of the first people into the area bringing supplies. Following that he wanted to dedicate a large portion of his time and money to establishing a local storm command center and on the ground tornado team to try to provide local advanced warnings to central Arkansas residents.

Cotton and his team were one of several storm chasers in the area Sunday night as the tornado hit. They began tracking the storm from western Pulaski County and moved up interstate 40 to intercept the storm as it crossed over Mayflower. (Remember the part I said about thinking with his heart). The storm grew much larger than expected and engulfed Cotton’s crew, along with a number of other storm chasers and travelers on I40 that night.

When I learned that Cotton was involved in the damage when the tornado crossed I-40 I hoped and prayed he was ok. When I found out he was ok I thought, what an idiot. When that finally wore off I realized that he is not an idiot, well maybe a little, but he was following his passion to help others. It is this same spirit to sacrifice and move for the sole benefit of others that we wanted to highlight this week. I reached out to Cotton as a friend and asked him to tell a small piece of his story about that night. Despite interviews with dozens of national and international media organizations, which believe me takes up a lot of time (I know first hand), he agreed to share. I hope you find that same spirit and passion shining through in his words that we do.


My good friend Greg Henderson from the Rock City Times asked me if I’d be interested in sharing some thoughts following one of the wildest nights of my life, and that’s saying a lot –just ask my friends. Without hesitation I told Greg that I would be more than happy to share some thoughts because I really thought his idea of “going serious” for a period of time out of honor & respect to the victims of the Mayflower & Vilonia tornadoes. It reminds of the first night that David Letterman came back on the air after 9/11 and asked when it would be appropriate for America to laugh again? I suppose the same question could be asked regarding Central Arkansas –at any rate, I applaud Greg and the RCT crew for their commitment.

Greg asked that I share some details about how crazy the media storm was after my video went viral. In case you haven’t seen the video, here you go:

I’m going to take you back to the evening right after this video was shot and give you a run-down since that point (as best I can remember, keep in mind that myself and my crew were tossed in the air for at least 40 yards –so we were a little shaken up for a period of time afterwards).

Once I returned home that evening after walking out of Mayflower until a lady picked me up a few miles from where we impacted and brought me home I took a few minutes to squeeze my family and just thank God i was still alive. It wasn’t but a few minutes after I had arrived that Mike Willingham, one of our crew members that was on board w/ me when we were hit, showed up –my neighbor had went and picked him up. I was covered in blood from cuts I sustained on my head and we were both covered w/ glass and debris that were all embedded into our skin. Needless to say that given our adrenaline rushes we didn’t feel the pain like we probably would have any other time. We spent a few minutes talking w/ the group that had assembled in our kitchen before we gave any thought to screening our footage. Before watching the video we did a quick call-in w/ one of our station sponsors, KFFB, and spoke on-air to Bob Connell who allowed us to describe what we had just witnessed w/out a filter, just raw energy and adrenaline w/ a side order of oh my gosh, what just happened. I think we were on the air w/ him for about 10 minutes or so and then we settled in to watch the video…

screengrab taken moments after we took a direct hit.

Finally we made our way into my command center just about the time our other crew member, Michael Frazier, showed up. We all screened both of the videos from the storm. We were all in agreement that we were going to share the first video and hang onto the second video (we might release it down the road) for the time being. Once I uploaded the video to YouTube and shared it to Facebook and Twitter, I had no idea what was fixing to happen.

Approximately an hour or two later my phone started blowing up with texts and voice mails from friends, family, and media people. I didn’t talk to many people that night because it was hard getting calls to go out and to receive them just given the bandwidth of everyone on their phones at once as well as the damages our infrastructure here sustained. So, what I ended up with was over 140 voice mails, texts, tweets, and Facebook inboxes alone from just Media representatives wanting permission to use my video.

The next morning I agreed to do CNN, Fox, NPR, NBC, ABC, Good Morning Australia, and a handful of radio stations. I had no idea at the time that the video had already received over 240k views on YouTube and was climbing by the minute. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this thing was out of control. At the time I know I had over 600 shares on Facebook and that only fanned the flames and yielded about 200 friend requests and inboxes from people I haven’t heard from in years (not complaining, looking forward to connecting later on down the road).

Finally after getting a request to do an afternoon interview w/ one of my heroes in the news game, Wolf Blitzer, that I realized the time and energy being spent on this video and it’s shock factor could be time that was better spent. I finally crafted a note and placed it on all of my social media asking that they not interview me but instead they should pursue Drew Davis w/ the Arkansas Dream Center because he was on the streets providing relief to the victims and was a lot closer to the “real storm” than I ever thought about being.


Hopefully this helped bring attention to the relief efforts. We also posted links to all of our updates to the http://ardreamcenter.tv/tornado page for people to donate to the cause. All along it has felt weird for me to do an interview when the real story was that people were hurting and so many lives have been changed forever in the blink of an eye.

It wasn’t long before I had several offers from outlets wanting to purchase the rights to my video. Some of these folks threw out some stupid numbers for what the video might be worth (apparently there aren’t that many videos out there of guys actually inside the tornado –little did most of these guys know but that was never our intention, in fact we never would have been that close had adrenaline and the idea of the tornado literally tracking miles from our homes kicked in and clouded my judgement as the driver). I gave some thought to the idea of what the video might be worth and negotiated w/ one of the companies that called me persistently. My attorney is reviewing the contract right now –or will be in the morning. I get sick at my stomach to think about personally gaining from the sale of this video when it’s at the expense of so many hurting people so from the beginning the plan has been all along to donate all of the proceeds to the Dream Center’s relief efforts. To be perfectly honest, I still feel a little dirty negotiating the sale and rights to this video –but I know that it’s out there and it’s going to be used anyway so at the urging of several friends that’s what we decided to do. This will all go into action in a few days.

The persistence of some of the media has also been very surprising to me, I was getting phone calls on phone numbers that I thought were somewhat unpublished by news agencies from around the globe. On Monday alone I was interviewed via Skype by agencies on 3 or 4 continents. My favorite was probably the one agency from Hong Kong that would ask me questions I didn’t understand and I would just talk about the storm and how people could donate each time. I can’t imagine how horrible that interview was once they edited it down. Also, one really nice group out of Australia called and said that they wanted 15 minutes of my time, that 15 minutes turned into about a 45 minute conversation that took place in the parking lot of David’s Burgers here in Conway.

Of course I was happy to oblige old and new friends in the news industry like my new friend Ed Lavandera from CNN who was a really great guy, and my old friend Jeff Matthews at B98, who I think was hesitant to ask I think because he had seen my twitter rant earlier in the day. I love Jeff’s show, plus he’s a great friend that didn’t mind one bit if I shared my faith during the interview –that’s the only condition I laid out to several of the interviewers was that given the magnitude of what I had experienced, the only thing that I could do in the heart of the storm that might have an impact on the outcome (aside from ducking and covering my head) was to pray. That’s the only thing that we could do, we were completely at the mercy of the storm, prayer was the only option on the table that I could see real value in –so that’s what we did. In fact, the second video, that we decided not to share publicly, has a lot of praying on it, and honestly it is way more intense than the first video once you understand what’s going on, maybe someday we will share that video, but it will be a while from now when it won’t detract from the most important thing right now, and that’s getting relief and support to all of those people affected by the storm.

I want to thank Greg again for allowing me to share my ramblings w/ his audience, I’m honored he asked, and I’d also like to ask each of you that read this post to consider giving to the Arkansas Dream Center to assist in the relief efforts, you can give online at: http://ardreamcenter.tv/tornado.

For more posts related to the storm, and additional ramblings, visit my blog: http://cotton.buzz


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He Started Chasing Tornadoes to Save Lives, It Almost Cost Him His Own | Arkansas Strong