May 31, 2013 was the only time that I ever thought that I might actually die while chasing storms. An erratically behaving supercell; a violent, rain-wrapped wedge tornado; and a tv weatherman giving citizens the worst possible advice, "This tornado is unsurvivable above ground. If you can't get below ground, you need to drive south"... All the ingredients came together that day resulting in a disaster like which has never been seen in the weather community. Storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young were all killed when their vehicle was thrown by the tornado, which packed winds of 296 mph.
We started the day in Norman, Oklahoma. Models were showing all the ingredients for what appeared to be a significant localized tornado outbreak over Central Oklahoma, namely the Oklahoma City Metro and surrounding areas. After having lunch in Norman, we checked the weather models again, and decided it would be best to move a little to the northwest. I chose Kingfisher as our initial target.
We decided to stop by Moore, to view the damage from an EF-5 that struck that area on May 20, 2013. The day was being well advertised as a big severe weather day, with illuminated signs reading, "Severe Weather Expected Today 4-8pm" along the interstates. There was already a moderate risk in place, and there were rumblings of a possible high risk being issued by the Storm Prediction Center. We even saw one news station report that a high risk had been issued, minutes before the afternoon SPC update was published. Nevertheless, as the afternoon update was released, the day stood as a moderate risk, but the threat for strong tornadoes was still very evident.
Driving north on I-35 towards Moore, I told everyone in the car that I had a very strange feeling about the day. I even posted a facebook status at 2:45pm that read, "Extremely volatile day here in Central Oklahoma. I have a really strange feeling right now. PDS watch will be issued by 21z. ". Just before we reached Moore, our affiliate Jared Stevenson happened to pull up right alongside of us. I called him, and asked that we stick together today, just in case anything went wrong. He agreed, and we decided to skip Moore and go straight to the target. It turned out many chasers were in El Reno, just a few miles to the south of Kingfisher, so we decided to go there instead.
We arrived in El Reno just before 3pm. We met up with several chasers in the local WalMart parking lot. We killed some time by prepping our equipment, and double checking our vehicle to make sure it was in good working condtion. Cumulus clouds began to build shortly thereafter, and by 4;30pm, the first thunderstorms of the day had formed in Central Oklahoma. At 5pm the storms had grown into a line of training supercells, and were severe warned. We stayed back several miles from them, on the northern side of El Reno, waiting for one to become dominant. The southernmost storm became the dominant supercell, and began to move east towards the city. We quickly cut back through town, to position ourselves southeast of the storm. As we drove through El Reno, a tornado warning was issued at 5:36pm for Canadian County, Oklahoma including the city of El Reno. Reed Timmer was being interviewed live on the radio after intercepting the tornado. He claimed the hood of the Dominator had actually been ripped off. It was clear this storm was not to be messed with.
We found a hill overlooking an open field on Reuter Rd, just to the west of Highway 81. As the storm began to come into view, we were in awe by how well it was sculpted. It was easily the wildest storm structure any of us had ever seen. It had a very pronounced mesocyclone on the southern edge, the entire structure rotating as it moved towards us.
Although there was a confirmed tornado on the ground, we decided the structure was too amazing to abandon, and we chose to simply allow the tornado to come to us, before quickly getting out of its way as it crossed Highway 81. We held our position just a half mile west of Highway 81, down Reuter Rd.
The lightning was very frequent in this storm, which was nearly constantly flashing. Our perch atop the tallest hill around gave us a great view of the approach, but left us in a precarious position in regards to lightning. We often squatted down, low to the ground to try to lessen our chances of becoming a target for lightning. Lightning never did hit the ground near us, but anvil crawler lightning was clearly visible above, almost constantly reaching out from its parent storm's updraft.
Speaking amongst ourselves, and with several other chasers after the event, we were all in awe at the strength of the inflow winds in this storm. They were easily at severe level threshhold miles away from where precipitation was falling, and were enough to nearly knock a grown person off their feet as the storm approached. I experienced difficulty running to the vehicle after stopping for a quick shot as the storm bared down on us.
We continued south along Highway 81, under the impression the storm was still moving ESE, when in fact the tornado had taken a sharp turn to the North catching many chasers by surprise; including Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, who were thrown nearly 500 feet in their vehicle by the tornado. All 3 were killed. Tim Samaras was very well liked, and greatly respected in the world of storm chasing. He was best known for his role on Discovery's Storm Chasers, and his project for studying tornadoes, Twistex. They weren't the only ones caught up in the tornado. Mike Bettes' and his The Weather Channel Tornado Hunt team drove straight in to an intense sub vortex, the result of their mistake is below. Despite their heavily damaged vehicle, all occupants survived.
We briefly stopped along Highway 81 to observe the tornado, before hurrying south to get out of the path. This is the only shot I took of the tornado while we were stopped. We watched it for just a minute before we jumped back into the vehicle and headed south down Highway 81. There were a lot of people stopped to the north of us, directly in the path. We couldn't help but wonder if they made it out okay.
As we continued to escape the path, we saw several cars driving northbound on 81, straight into the path of the tornado. I never felt more helpless in my life. We then saw the TIV (tornado intercept vehicle) parked along the side of the road, possibly considering deployment for an intercept. It was at that moment we realized that we may have come a little closer than we wanted.
Traffic soon began to clog the roads as we neared Union City. By the time we reached the heart of the small town, the road had basically become a parking lot. Had the tornado shifted south, rather than north, it would have been a very bad situation for everyone on that road. We would probably have been looking at a mass casualty event. I soon realized the storm had indeed turned north, so we decided to pursue east on SW 74th St.
As we were moving into position to intercept the storm for the second time, Savannah's sister Sarah received a text from her fiance, Brett Wright. The text said that he and Brandon Sullivan had been hit by the tornado, and that their car was totaled. At that point, our chase was over. No questions asked. Our plan was to allow the core of the storm to pass, then go back to El Reno to help out our friends that had been hit by the tornado. We watched as a parade of chaser vehicles exited the storm, windows smashed out of many of them. After several minutes of exchanging text messages back and forth with Brett, he informed me that their car was not totaled, and that they were limping back to Norman. Okay, great. Then it was more let's get the heck out of here, because the storm was then way too far off to chase, and new cells were headed straight for us.
I want to say, that I would have loved to have continued chasing that storm. We were in a great position to quickly move north and catch one more glimpse of that tornado, but once we realized our friends were in trouble, there was no hesitation in abandoning our chase to assist them...because they would have done the same for us.
So we decided it was time to run for our lives. We drove a few miles to our escape route, South Mustang Road. Immediately upon turning onto Mustang, we came to a dead stop in the worst side street traffic jam I have ever seen. Bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see. We stayed just on the southern edge of main complex of thunderstorms, as we crawled through the traffic jam. Ever fearful that we were about to be annihilated by destructive hail, we kept blankets and pillows in our laps. Quickly though, our focus switched from the storms to our north, to the new, maturing supecells to our west that were begining to rotate and become tornado warned, as they moved towards us, snarled in traffic.
As we dropped south of the town of Mustang, I looked out of my window at an approaching storm near the town of Tuttle. There was a very suspicous lowering on the base of the storm. A minute later, it was a fully developed wall cloud. I couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't think, as I watched a large cone funnel spin up. I looked down at the ditch next to us. I seriously considered having us put the car in the ditch, then taking shelter beneath it. There was no other shelter anywhere in the area, but even the ditch was not an option, it was filled with water, of course! It was at this moment, I thought we were going to die. I couldn't even bring myself to tell the others what I was seeing. I didn't really want them to know.
The funnel then touched down as a rope tornado, everyone in the car noticed me looking out the window, then they saw it as well. I can't remember what anyone said, other than one of us saying, "That's a tornado". I thought it would surely become a violent wedge, like everything else had that week, and wipe that entire line of cars off the face of the earth. I started to pray. I think everyone in the car did. The thought came into my mind that if this was going to be what killed me, I should probably take some photos of it. There was nothing else I could do at that point in time. I reached down, grabbed my camera, turned it on, then raised it to my eye, and looked out the window...the tornado was gone, completely, in the blink of an eye.
We were able to creep along through the traffic jam, always staying just ahead of the core of the storms. Not an easy task when your drive is, go 5 mph, stop...go 5 mph, stop. It was truly a nightmare. When the storms got really close, it became every man for himself on that road. Cars driving down the wrong side of the highway, stopping under highway overpasses, blowing through tolls, and driving down the shoulder (which we even did at one point).
At 9:30pm, we finally got to our road to safety, Interstate 44, which ran SW out of the path of the storms. It took us 3 and a half hours of pure hell to drive 30 miles. We continued south, much further than needed, to the town of Chickashaw, where we stopped at a rest area, along with hundreds of evacuees that were told to flee their homes. After notifying family that we were okay, editing a photo of the tornado,and catching our breath, we made the drive to Norman, via side streets due to the interstate being shut down, so Sarah could see Brett. We visited with them for a while, got a bite to eat, then made the all night drive back to Central Texas.
In the end, the storm cost 12 people their lives, four of which were out there purely with the intention of documenting the storm, and none of which were in their homes. We made plenty of mistakes that day, but also learned a lot about what not to do when chasing. May 31, 2013 changed all of us forever. I heard many chasers questioning whether or not they would even continue to chase. Not me, I was ready to go the next day, and can not wait to pursue my next monster tornado.