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Tornado down the street gives Hilbert campers a taste of breaking news

It was Day 4 of Media Camp at Hilbert College in Hamburg Thursday and the nine school-aged campers had just returned from a field trip to the Edward Cotter – the Buffalo Fire Department's historic fire boat – to learn about how to do a feature story.

Then a tornado touched down just a mile down South Park Avenue and turned the day into an unexpected lesson on breaking news.

"It was not on the original syllabus," said Dan Higgins, one of the camp instructors.

When the tornado hit, some of the campers from high schools around the region had been goofing around in the auditorium, apparently trying to hold a seance of some sort to conjure a ghost, explained Harrison Drozen, 15, a student at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs.

They had their cell phones in a circle on the ground when the lights suddenly went off. Rain came crashing down. All their cell phones sounded an alarm: It was a tornado warning.

"Everyone was scared when the lights turned off," Harrison said.

Higgins, an adjunct journalism instructor at Hilbert College, and another instructor, Chris Gallant, an associate professor of digital media and communication at Hilbert, gathered up the students and rushed them into their "newsroom," a computer room away from the windows, to shelter in place.

After several minutes, they emerged and saw the skies were starting to clear. They started checking social media and learned a possible tornado had touched down nearby.

After the tornado warning had expired, Gallant asked the students if any of them would like to go to the scene and shoot some photos and video.

Hannah Johnston, 15, didn't hesitate.

"My hand shot up. I didn't even have to think about it," said Hannah, a student at Mount St. Mary's School in Kenmore.

Harrison volunteered too. They grabbed a still camera and a video camera and drove down to the fairgrounds with Gallant.

"There were firetrucks everywhere," Hannah said. "Trees were down. It was complete chaos ... I've never seen Hamburg like that before. It looked like a blizzard came through but there was no snow."

Across the street, an accountant with an office there invited the young journalists to the backyard where a giant tree had been ripped from its roots.

They also interviewed a witness who said he saw the tornado touch down.

The students rushed back and edited the footage.

On Friday – the last day of the camp – all of the students were finishing up their stories.

"We're putting the kids on deadline," Higgins said. Their work had to be done by 2 p.m. sharp and it would be posted to the college newspaper's website,

"It's a little bit stressful but I feel like we'll get it done," said Alex Shapiro, 15, a student at Williamsville East High School. "This week has been incredible. I'm having the time of my life."

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