I never thought I would be blindsided by a tornado in downtown Washington, just steps from the Lincoln Memorial.

But Thursday night, I was inside the tornado on the National Mall with a front-row seat to this chaotic, whirlwind performance.

Here’s how it happened, what I did to keep myself safe and what I could have done differently.

Why I was there

I’ve reported on D.C.-area traffic and weather for more than 15 years. Exhausting shifts in the WTOP Traffic Center call for decompression time. Your success as a credible traffic reporter hinges largely on your ability to cope with extreme uncertainty. It is like being a weathercaster during a severe storm outbreak, except you aren’t handed official guidance and warnings until the event is nearly over.

To unwind after long work days, sometimes I chase storms and take photos.

On Thursday, with my lighter camera bag and a single tripod, I made my way to the old Constitution Avenue overlook, just south of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

I arrived with time to spare and began setting up to capture the lightning in the distance over Arlington. Parkway Drive is a good place to shoot lightning, because it offers both a nice vantage and safety; the camera can be triggered with a remote while the photographer sits next to it protected inside a vehicle.

How the storm unfolded

After a round of raucous daytime storms, the atmosphere above D.C. was reloading for a grand finale at dusk.

Lightning softly flickered inside the body of the storm. The shelf cloud, a smoothed and rounded arc fanning outward just above the ground, was lit from below as it tumbled over the urban glow of Ballston, Clarendon and Rosslyn.

Suddenly, a jagged “bolt from the blue” exploded in the sky over Georgetown, as if the storm was firing a warning shot.

I began fixating on a ringed, collar-shaped cloud above the curtains of rain. Shortly before 9 p.m., the lowest portion of the cloud appeared to be curling inward, deviating from the storm’s heading. The notch in the cloud’s base was a distinctive and foreboding clef-like formation.

A tornado warning was issued at 8:58 p.m.

Over the next several minutes, there were dozens of bright neon power flashes bursting like fireworks inside the heavy rain as power lines were brought down in Arlington. A bright flash of light would pulsate within the maelstrom once every few seconds, demarcating the destructive path of a rain-wrapped tornado.

I was transfixed as the Rosslyn skyline disappeared in a veil of heavy rain.

Knowing I was potentially in the direct path of a tornado, I positioned the car in a way that allowed for a quick escape to the south toward Memorial Bridge, but also in a way that would give me access to a concrete storage well underneath Parkway Drive in case things took a bad turn. It was a close call. It was a lot closer than I had expected.

Heavy rain and wind surged across the Potomac River. The wind-driven droplets pounded the side of my car. Visibility fell below 50 feet.

Whereas most gusty summer storms unleash their strongest winds at the onset of heavy rain, the howling wind continued this time. For someone who has mapped and witnessed countless tornadoes professionally and recreationally, the sequence of events that followed was alarming.

A second burst of fierce winds from a different direction began rocking the car back and forth. Suddenly, to my left, a giant, 80-foot-tall tree snapped above the ground and was lofted toward the volleyball courts along Ohio Drive. Its wind-whipped companion trees thrashed around violently. Leaves and twigs, some probably weakened by Brood X cicadas, were ripped, shredded and launched into parts unknown. Trash cans and other small objects started skidding across the ground. My normally stoic partner beside me said bluntly, “I’m scared.”

The visible world appeared to be bending and swirling toward an invisible vacuum.

We cracked the doors and were prepared to barrel-roll into the storage well for quick shelter. In the interest of self-preservation, we stopped filming. A vehicle is a dangerous place to be in a tornado, since it can easily be crushed. But the burst wind subsided as quickly as it began.

The aftermath

Incredibly, a man on a bicycle hastily pedaled southbound toward Lincoln Circle in the pouring rain less than a minute after the most ferocious winds. It is probable that this person, whether he realizes it or not, biked around the edge of a weak tornado and survived.

Although it hadn't yet been ruled a tornado, it was obvious the damage caused by the wind was going to be a story. I dialed into the newsroom and braced myself for several hours of overtime. As a reporter, you're never really off the clock, especially when the story comes to you.

It was immediately clear that the elm trees had taken an especially hard hit. As I stood beside the elm that was felled just a few feet from the car, I remarked on air to our evening anchor, Dimitri Sotis, that the magnificent tree might have been planted more than a century ago.

According to a National Park Service document, my estimate was not too far off. Most of the elms in this area, it reads, “were subsequently moved to new locations near the Lincoln Circle and Watergate area during their development in the 1920s and 1930s.”

It’s amazing, and somewhat sad, to think about how many historic snowstorms and windstorms, not to mention diseases, this tree withstood over the past century, only to meet its Waterloo in the Arlington-Washington 2021 tornado. Without a doubt, thanks to tenacious Park Service efforts, these denizens of the Mall receive some of the best care possible.

I brought home a small clipping of the old elm as a keepsake. The twig, with its shriveled leaves, is sitting beside me as I type this, a small piece of local botanical history lost to a memorable moment in local meteorological history. It’s also a moving reminder that severe weather is as dramatic as it is dangerous.

Dave Dildine is a traffic reporter for WTOP and previously guided storm-chase tours in the Plains.