Jesse Cohea, also known as Outlaw JACC, first noticed the gloom when he left Universal Rehearsal, a popular rehearsal and recording studio off Walnut Hill Lane, to buy cigarettes at the gas station around the corner. It was late evening on Sunday, Oct. 20, and he’d been staying at the rehearsal studio with his friend and producer, Celestine “CJ” Okwilagwe, for a couple of months.
When he returned from the store, Outlaw smoked a cigarette outside with CJ and realized that it had grown deathly silent, as if you could hear footsteps in a room. Then he noticed the leaves swirling into the air.
“I’ve never seen leaves do that,” Outlaw told his friend.
Lightning began dancing across the gloom, displaying a light show that seemed unreal to the two friends, and the wind began picking up speed, sending dust and rocks into the air.
“Man, it’s getting really bad,” Outlaw said.
“Man, I think it’s a tornado,” replied CJ, who’d seen something similar when he was younger.
They rushed toward the rehearsal studio door. Outlaw quickly entered the code on the keypad, but the glass door wouldn’t budge due to the wind pressure. They began pulling on it but soon found themselves holding on to it.
“All of a sudden, it sounded and felt like a train was coming down the parking lot,” Outlaw says. “I never heard wind that loud in my life.”
“(We were) lifting off our feet,” CJ says. “(I thought we were) going to get sucked into it.”
As they struggled to remain on the ground, Outlaw noticed two businesses across the street collapse, leaving two concrete walls as markers.
Someone inside noticed them struggling to get in and ran and hit the door like an NFL linebacker and pushed it open, allowing Outlaw and CJ into the rehearsal studio. Then the building began to shake, the roof ripped off and the rain poured in, damaging thousands of dollars in musical equipment that musicians had been leaving there.
“I never been through anything like a tornado,” Outlaw says. “But I was the victim of [Hurricane] Katrina, so I guess [I’ve seen] the worst of nature’s bad side.”
Nature’s bad side would drop nine tornadoes throughout North Texas that Sunday evening, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages, leaving thousands without power and destroying institutions like the KNON radio offices.
Two weeks later, Outlaw and CJ are living in a motel room that a church helped them secure for another week, wondering what they’re going to do next, while Universal Rehearsal’s Walnut Hill location owner Michael Gardner is trying to salvage his business.
“I’m kind of exploring all my options,” Gardner said. “I’m just blessed that the 40 to 50 people [who were there] weren’t injured.”
Universal Rehearsal has been a staple in the local music scene since the late ’80s, when Vince and Dawn Barnhill opened its first location off Markville Drive in Dallas, followed by another location in Arlington. It’s a place with studio spaces that can fit midsize bands to big bands and orchestras. They offer choice gear like 8-channel mixers, PA systems, vocal mics and, most important, soundproof rooms where metal bands can unleash their inner demons.
But it’s not just metal or rock bands like Drowning Pool and Pantera igniting the soundproof rooms at Universal Rehearsal with pulse-pounding riffs. Erykah Badu, the Toadies and even Miranda Lambert and The Dixie Chicks have all perfected their art there.
“Opening Universal was kind of a fluke,” Vince Barnhill said in a Q&A with the Observer in 2011. “I entered a drum-off held by KZEW. I had a few weeks to rehearse before the event at the Hard Rock. I set up my drums in a vacant room, and after a few nights of jamming out it just came to me. Universal was born.”
The Walnut Hill location opened in 2005, and Gardner picked it up in 2011.
Gardner wasn’t at the rehearsal studio when the tornado struck, but he arrived soon after and saw its devastation.
“The sirens didn’t go off until after the tornado passed,” he says.
Along with the roof damage, Gardner says five commercial-sized air-conditioning units had been flung away and into cars. One landed atop Outlaw and CJ’s friend’s car while he was hiding underneath his steering wheel as the tornado ravaged the area. Outlaw says they tried to get him to come inside the studio, but wind pressure trapped him in the car.
Tornado experts recommend you don’t stay in your car when a tornado strikes. “There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less dangerous ones,” according to the Storm Prediction Center. “If the tornado is visible, far away and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible.”
If you’re stuck outside, the Storm Prediction Center recommends you lie flat and face-down on low ground and protect the back of your head with your arms and get away from cars and trees because they could land on you.
Outlaw says he wasn’t thinking about his final prayers when the tornado struck Universal Rehearsal, but he and others trapped inside were panicking.
“I was thinking, ‘Am I gonna die here and now with the roof caving in?’ and wondering about my kids, my life, unfinished business,” Outlaw recalls. “I was asking God to spare us and thinking how lucky every second of life after this really was.”
CJ wasn’t thinking about unfinished business but survival. “I know about survival and the will to continue through fear and adversity,” he says. “My instinct saved us that night.”
As soon as the tornado passed, their friend was able to get out of his car, and Outlaw and CJ rushed across the street to make sure no one was trapped inside the buildings that collapsed.
No one was.
Unlike Outlaw and CJ, who lost their livelihoods in the storm, Gardner isn’t a struggling artist. He owns a couple of other businesses but did take a significant financial hit from the tornado damage. He shared on Facebook the day after the storm: “Our Walnut Hill location is a total loss! We need a building ASAP to accommodate 50-60 bands. Any of my broker peeps out there hit myself or Mike Gardner with any affordable leads. Beggars cannot be choosers but please be fair in our time of need for our loyal customers.”
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Some musicians had rented out secure rooms where they would leave their equipment, some of which was damaged by 3 inches of flooding rain. If they had rental insurance, they could possibly recoup their losses.
CJ didn’t have it.
“Equipment was destroyed,” he says. “I can’t work. I’m a producer. (It was) all my life’s work.”