Sunday, June 2, 2013
Danny Welch might have been a little closer to a massive storm in El Reno, Okla. Friday if fellow storm chaser Justin Dean hadn't pulled back the reigns.
The chasers, who also serve as KAKE First Alert Storm Trackers, had begun watching the storm before the first wall cloud ever formed. Dean developed a feeling the storm was dangerous and unpredictable.
That feeling turned out to be a reality.
Dean and Welch learned Saturday night well-known storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, had been killed while tracking what turned out to be an EF-3 tornado.
They had been seen Samaras and his team at a gas station off I-40 just hours before the storm hit. Welch had talked with Tim Samaras before in 2009 and 2010.
"Having that interaction with him and seeing him that same day of the tornado certainly hits hard," Welch said. "It was a real reality check to know that could have been us."
Welch and Dean, who are both part of the Forever Chasing team, say the news weighs especially heavy on their hearts because Samaras had extensive experience and was considered one of the most cautious chasers.
"He wasn't out for the fame and the glamor, he was all about the science," Dean said. "It just goes to show you mother nature has a mind of her own. It doesn't matter how well-trained you are in a certain situation, she's going to do what she's going to do."
In other words, nobody is invincible.
"If they got caught up in it, anybody can get caught up in it," said Bryce Kintigh, a 14-year storm chasing veteran who is part of the Forever Chasing team.
Samaras and his team weren't the only chasers to get caught up in the storm in Oklahoma Friday. The others did not lose their lives but they experienced frightening close calls.
While some admit to taking too many risks and getting too close, a number of unexpected factors made the situation very difficult for all the storm chasers out on the roads that night.
"This particular storm caught some of the greatest veterans of all time off guard," Welch said.
Not only was the storm especially volatile, it happened on a Friday evening at rush hour. Also, people still reeling from the Moore disaster, followed what these chasers call, "bad advice" from some Oklahoma City meteorologists who told people to flee by car. In their opinion that suggestion caused clogged highways that made eluding the storm for the chasers, and the citizens, a challenge.
"It was a nightmare, probably the worst-case scenario," Dean said.
At one point, Welch and Dean say they had to drive southbound on a northbound stretch of the highway to escape.
"It was actually very scary, probably the scariest moment I have ever dealt with in the six years I have been doing this," Dean said.
The chasers on the Forever Chasing team say they know what they do is risky, but they're not just a bunch of thrill seekers as some may think.
"This isn't something that we just jump in the car and just go. We have been doing this, we have been studying this, we have been watching everything how it's been happening, for years and years," Kintigh said.
While chasing, they work closely with the National Weather Service and local news organizations to provide potentially life-saving information based on what they're seeing on the ground.
"We are trying to educate them about the situation, where the threat is, where every storm and warning is," Forever Chasing's Jon Behle said.
The members of the Forever Chasing team say while there are an increasing number of inexperienced and irresponsible storm chasers out on the roads, most chasers like Tim Samaras have extensive training.
And like Samaras, they say, most chasers aren't motivated by capturing the best video. Instead, they're passionate about protecting the people and the communities they serve.
"We just want to keep the public safe," Welch said. "That is our ultimate goal."
NOAA statement on storm chasers' deaths
NOAA Statement on deaths of storm researchers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young
We are terribly saddened by this news. Samaras was a respected tornado researcher and friend of NOAA who brought to the field a unique portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing and videography. His work was documented through an extensive list of formal publications and conference papers.
We extend our sympathies to the family of Tim and Paul, and to the family of Carl Young. We also extend our sympathies to all victims of the May 31st tornado and the other horrific tornadoes that have recently devastated central Oklahoma.
As far as we know, these are the first documented scientific storm intercept fatalities in a tornado.
Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways. Scientific storm chasing is performed as safely as possible, utilizing highly trained personnel and extensive technology including mobile Doppler radar.
We know storm chasing is also done by local government and media personnel who provide valuable warning information, and by amateur storm chasers who wish to see and photograph storms. We encourage all who chase to do so as safely and as responsibly as possible in order to avoid danger for themselves and all those threatened by tornadoes.