CHICAGO — Rockford is still standing today, a bulletin to the contrary by the National Weather Service not withstanding.
The 4:55 a.m. bulletin, sent to hundreds of radio and television stations and other news organizations in the Midwest and read on the air by some, said: "At 4:35 a.m. CST a tornado hit the Rockford, Ill., weather office. This storm was moving southeast at 50 m.p.h. This is a dangerous storm. Take cover immediately. The entire town of Rockford has been demolished.
"If you are in the path of this tornado, you should go to a basement shelter if available. Otherwise go to a central interior room . . . abandon cars and mobile homes. . . . "
The bulletin actually was a test that weather service personnel were conducting to prepare for the coming tornado season. A disclaimer explaining that it was sent out by mistake was sent five minutes later, meteorologist Steve Kahn said at the weather service's Chicago office.
"The message was coded to stay inside the weather service system" and was designed only for weather service personnel, Kahn said.
But a change in computer software at the Chicago office "allowed it to get out" on the weather service wire, which is used by news organizations across the Midwest, Kahn said.
"We had a lot of calls" from subscribers, Kahn said. "They were all asking, 'This is a test, isn't it?' "
A worker at the weather service office in Rockford who had seen the bulletin called the Chicago office and said, " 'I'm a survivor' and laughed," Kahn said. Rockford, 86 miles northwest of Chicago, has a population of about 140,000.
But broadcasters fooled by the bulletin didn't think it was funny.
The overnight announcer who read the bulletin on the air at radio station WLAK-FM in Chicago "was a little shook up over the whole thing," news director John Gleason said.
"He said it was upsetting to read. Afterward, when he found out it was a hoax . . . that's very upsetting to find out you may have panicked thousands of people needlessly," Gleason said.