When Hailey Wilson climbed to the top of the Sleeping Giant State Park tower in Hamden with her camera last Tuesday, she expected to capture photos of the incoming storm in the distance.
Instead, she found herself in the middle of a tornado and microburst, stuck on the top of the mountain while the passed over her.
Wilson, an avid hiker and Meriden resident, said the experience has given her a deeper respect for Mother Nature and greater understanding of natural disasters.
“It was my first time going through something like that, and even though it was small compared to most world events, I see how it brings people together,” she said. “It's amazing what comes from it.”
The National Weather Service later determined a tornado transitioned into a microburst near Sleeping Giant. Winds of about 110 mph took down area trees and utility poles, knocking out power to thousands of customers and damaging homes.
Wilson was setting up her equipment around 5 p.m. last Tuesday when she realized she needed to take cover fast. She snapped a few photos on her cellphone of the approaching storm before taking shelter inside the stone observation tower, along with another couple.
“I went in the corner, away from window, which was really my main concern, because the windows aren't gated, they're open,” Wilson said.
“There were a couple bursts of wind when I realized the winds were calming down, I would take my phone out, try to record outside the window,” she added. “I tried doing the best I could to document it.”
Later that night, she posted the photos now ubiquitous on social media, and gathered media attention from across the region.
Wilson, a freelance photographer and owner of HIKED Productions, said she’s passionate about hiking and knows the trails at Sleeping Giant well, but hiking down the mountain after the storm proved taxing. At points, she was forced to duck and crawl under downed trees.
“It was so foggy I could barely see that far off in the distance,” she said. “It just felt so surreal, really.”
When she made it back to the parking lot, she was relieved to find her car intact. A branch had broken part of the windshield, but the car was still driveable.
Trying to get back to Meriden proved an ordeal in itself, taking about five hours total due to road closures. For some time she stayed next to the park at Quinnipiac University, where officials were offering restrooms and food.
While heading to the university Wilson met Syd’nei Hoffler and her friend, who ran down the mountain during the storm. Wilson’s car was out of gas, so the women offered Wilson a seat in their car while they waited things out.
“We ran all the way down,” Hoffler said. “Branches and twigs were snapping around us.”
Hoffler, a student in New Haven, said she was about 40 minutes up the mountain when the rain started and she turned around. She described being in “survival mode” trying to get out of the woods in low visibility.