Monday, April 12, 1999

Gawkers strip tornado victims of dignity

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They set up roadblocks to keep them out. They rolled out signs along the interstate ordering them not to stop. The gawkers, the sightseers, the rubberneckers, the morbidly curious never took the hint.

        They wanted to see firsthand the destruction delivered by Friday's deadly tornado.

        The pictures in the paper and on TV weren't enough to make the gawkers stay home and count their blessings. The stories about lives lost, forests turned to fields of splinters and homes ground to dust couldn't satisfy the gawkers' curiosity. They had to see for themselves.

        At the first sign of trees snapped like matchsticks, the gawkers slammed on their brakes along Interstate 71. Traffic on both sides of the highway slowed to a crawl Sunday afternoon. The gawkers just had to see the wreckage, even though the message signs at the side of the highway read:

        No Stopping!!!!

        By Order of Police

        In my book, gawkers are uglier than a funnel cloud at dawn and lower than looters.

        A funnel cloud strikes once and moves on. Tornadoes don't keep returning to batter the same house and the same family over and over.

        Gawkers never let up. They show no sense or sensitivity. Never offering to help, they hurt by stopping and staring at the devastation, mouths agape and stares blank, just like their minds.

        Looters steal things. They sneak in and cart off worldly goods from homes already humiliated by a tornado's fury.

        Gawkers rob disaster victims of something they cannot replace, their dignity. They look with dehumanizing gazes at these people and what's left of their houses and their lives. Gawkers view these victims as casual entertainment, exotic beasts in a zoo of horrors, a sight to see from the car window while they're out for a Sunday drive.

        “They all say the same thing when they try to get though,” Rod McGaha told me. "I just wanna see.'

        Rod is a Hamilton County sheriff's deputy. Working his third consecutive 12-hour day, he manned a roadblock Sunday afternoon, directing traffic and turning away gawkers.

        He spoke with me as we straddled the double-yellow line at the intersection of Cornell and Snider roads, not far from the site of some of the tornado's worst destruction.

        Deputy McGaha waved residents through as they showed him an address on a driver's license or an official pass.

        Gawkers tried to slip past with a smile.

        “One out of every 10 cars,” he said, “is a gawker.”

        A dark dusty car rolled up. A man was driving. A teen-ager rode shotgun.

        “I got my son here in the car,” Ed Frost said with a smile. “We're from Hamilton.”

        Leaning out the window and lowering his voice, he said:

        “We just wanna see.”

        Deputy McGaha was polite but firm. “Sorry sir. Please turn around and go home.”

        Ed Frost waited for a truck to pass before complying. As he paused, he told me why he took his son to see the damage.

        “Never lived through a tornado. But always wanted to see what it did to a place.”

        Ed and his son, “Frankie, he's in high school,” did not plan on volunteering to help in the cleanup efforts.

        “I work a 60-hour week,” Ed said. “I'm an auto mechanic. I'm tired.”

        So are the people who lost their homes and their loved ones. I'll bet they only wish they were working on cars for 60 hours a week.

        Ten cars later, a rusty beast rolled up with Clermont County plates. The car held five. Each person had a soft drink and a bag of chips, as if they were going to the drive-in to see Twister.

        “Is there some road that will take us straight through to where the damage is the worst?” asked the smiling man behind the wheel.

        “We don't wanna get out,” he added.

        “We won't walk around. We just wanna see.”

        Deputy McGaha took a long look at the driver. He could have told him: This is not Kings Island. You are not entering Tornadoland. People died here. Homes were lost. Lives changed forever.

        Instead, he politely sent him on his way.

        As a line of empty dump trucks rolled by on their way to be filled with downed trees and debris, the deputy talked about the gawkers. “It's a pretty sad situation when people want to see someone else's pain and suffering.”

        He recalled a night in August when a plane crashed into a van on Ronald Reagan Highway. The crash killed the plane's pilot and two women in the van.

        “I was one of the first officers on the scene,” the deputy said as he let a carful of residents go through the roadblock.

        “People that night kept coming up and looking into the van. They weren't there to help. They told me they just wanted to see.”

        Fortunately on Sunday, Rod McGaha saw more good than gawkers. Volunteers had the sightseers outnumbered, five to one. Their cars held food and blankets, ladders and tarps, and chain saws — as well as people willing to help.

        The volunteers looked different, too. The gawkers were pathetic sights to see. The volunteers were sights to behold.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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