Tuesday, June 24th
The Comfort Inn on Main St……..
I limped in the general direction of our red Ford
Expedition with three camera bags on my left shoulder and my
personal hold all on my right – cursing my insistence upon
bringing more supplies of everything than I ever would need.
Gene followed me out of the door after handing in our
room keys to the desk clerk, and out into the hot parking
one by one, the rest of our team surfaced from the lobby
doors also. Tim,
Pat and Carl all appeared.
We clustered around our two vehicles – Gene and I unable
to load up as Carsten Peter the National Geographic
photographer was still in the shower and hadn’t checked
out yet. Anyways
– he wasn’t here – and so we had to stand around
also gave us a good opportunity to talk forecasts and target
areas. In the back of all our heads was the fact that this mission
had already been extended by two days – Carsten’s time
was running out – and he had still to accomplish getting
any reasonable photos.
The stress of a demanding National Geographic was on
his – and our - shoulders.
There had been one event earlier this year – on May
15th near Stratford Texas – where Tim had been
able to deploy probes.
With the help of Anton Seimon, Tim managed to deploy
and get a direct hit on one of his probes.
This was a noteworthy event - as this was the first
time ever that an "In-Situ" measurement was taken
at the same time that mobile radar was sampling the storm
The probes sat happily in their wooden box in Tim’s van,
watching all us humans muse about what we were going to do
I didn’t catch too much of the target area discussion –
as the heat was strangling me and all I wanted to do was get
into an air conditioned vehicle and go for some breakfast
(which by now would be lunch).
But I do know that Gene’s unconditional target area
as far as he was concerned for today was southeast South
Dakota at an initial look at things this morning.
The warm front that was attendant to this powerful
system we had been playing for days was hanging around up
there this morning and was due to sweep east through the
whole general area by this evening.
Looking at data – we saw the hellish cold front
advancing like the end of a vacation towards us.
Chadron Nebraska at this point in time was in the
Gene thought that Mitchell was a nice idea for the start of
the day – and voiced this opinion.
I think Tim’s target area for the day had been in
Nebraska – he was liking staying around the Broken Bow
area and waiting for initiation.
I saw Gene physically grimace at this – not liking
the initial conflict of target areas.
Carl got out his video camera and began taking some more
footage of us debating – as he had been doing for most of
the trip – he was quite dedicated to that.
I heard a few more pieces of forecast-talk and then
Carl drew out a map – unraveling it on the hood of
Tim’s van to make the decision making a bit easier.
After a while of deliberation – and waiting for the German
to get out of the shower – and roasting under the
cloudless skies and beating sun and hideously high dewpoints
– I think the decision was made that we would begin
driving north on Hwy 281 towards O’Neill and see where we
were at by that time as far as atmospherics were concerned.
Carsten appeared – with his silver film cases and duffle
bags and film jackets that held secret supplies of Velvia at
all times……with the truck keys.
We all breathed a sigh of relief – at this time it
was 11.30am – and the idea was brought up of where to
catch a bite to eat.
I immediately produced a brochure for a place that I had
found information on in the hotel room that morning whilst
idly flicking through papers waiting on Gene showering.
It was in downtown York – not far away – and it was very
highly spoke of. It
had a famous buffet – too – that always sits well with
chasers on the go.
And so we saddled up, packed up, hoisted ourselves into our
cramped vehicles and headed to a little English-pub-style
restaurant for breakfast/lunch.
after the fact did I realise that the Restaurant was called
“R” sat nestled in quaint downtown York – and it was a
welcome pit-stop for us chasers.
I sat in the nicely dimmed restaurant beside the window,
watching Carsten as he dug into a mountain of food and
offered fresh salmon on the buffet – for goodness sake!
But I didn’t really feel relaxed.
Everybody else seemed capable of laughing and joking
– why was I feeling melancholy?
In hindsight, I think the pure fact of the date was
making me – and Gene – more than a little “twitchy”.
Then...something seems to happen...on those big tornado
days...do you ever notice? There's a little quirk here, a
small coincidence there...hard to pick up on but all very
intertwined with a higher force which I believe is guiding
those who are destined to see historical events.
The calendar date was already making us nervous - being June
24th - a year and a day ago today that my husband and I were
lucky enough to witness the incredible Brown County
supercell and its six tornadoes in South Dakota. Earlier
that afternoon, on June 23rd 2002, we made a desperate call
for data in a quirky bar called the "Fallout
Shelter" – that place seemed to have been placed
there right for us.
And so we turn to June 24th 2003 - the date already seemed
to have a ring to it.
We were sitting here in the quirky little “Chances
My thoughts were interrupted and I was jolted back to
reality by our team deciding that – since it was after
noon – we really should get a move on.
The bills were settled and we all made for the door
rather quickly to get on with the drive.
I had not too many fond thoughts of the journey ahead
as I clambered back up into the ungainly Expedition, and
positioned myself next to the ’Swirl” (National
Geographic’s aluminum welded photo-probe).
drive through the semi-sandhills terrain was – as usual
– uneventful as far as landscape was concerned.
Just very desolate……which encourages one to be
prone to inner thoughts and musings.
About halfway towards O’Neill I started looking out the
windows in a different way.
Behind us still looked uninteresting……but ahead
and to the east and west of us began to show some signs of
the ethereal life of convection.
Our drive northwards was spurred on by the strong
low-level jet that tugged at the dry grass which held on to
the semi-dunes at the side of the road.
Some pieces of sand I could swear were almost lifted
up and taken blowing across the road in front of us.
And the clouds…..the blue sky was now patterned
with ragged, torn-up cumulus…….the clouds and
turkey-towers almost displayed their physical pain as they
went up and immediately got ripped to shreds by the upper
didn’t want to think this because I was so
tired……but the sky looked like a tornado day.
About 10 miles south of O’Neill, we pulled off the road on
the right hand side and stopped our vehicles to evaluate the
possessed all the data online in his vehicle – and Gene
immediately got out to go and examine things.
Carsten went with him.
Tim greeted Gene with “I don’t really think
there’s any question of where to go”.
I decided not to go and crowd around in the hot south wind
– because I didn’t really need to know what was going
on. I could
look up above my head.
I could smell strange things on the wind – the
moisture – the sand mixed in as the southerly gale pushed
me on my feet. To
my northeast mainly – away in the distance – I could see
already the telltale signs.
Some towers were not quite so “turkey-like”
anymore – their small unobtrusive crystal white tops
leaning over in the right direction, and betraying their
true nature to my eyes……perhaps not to the lesser
experienced or the public.
God I wished I wasn’t so tired.
The wind played with my hair and flung it around my eyes –
obscuring the clouds from my view.
Cursing I climbed back into the air-conditioned
Expedition and saw the others break up.
it painstakingly through O’Neill – even I wanted to
hurry up now. As
we cleared the town to the north and carried on our treck, I
dug out my walkman from my bag amidst the clutter in the
trunk behind me. One
of my Yes tapes was in it – and I spoilt myself with some
Yes music for half an hour or so.
Songs like “Long Distance Runaround”, “Starship
Trooper” and “Survival” brought back a lot of memories
– and were always great to play to either relax or enliven
But at some point – as we crossed over the Nebraska/South
Dakota border – I lost interest in the mood-stirring
music. In the
front, Gene and Carsten were having some mock-argument about
how on earth Gene could look up and point out the fact that
we had a tornado-sky today – the German not believing that
we could ever classify such a thing and didn’t believe
scoffed at Gene’s “tornado-sky”, as I looked out again
at the smorgasbord of corkscrewing exploding cu,
“fists-of-God” and erect congestus on our northern
forecast had been pinpoint accurate.
I could sense Gene’s increasing unease, increasing
need to be up there – his eyes sometimes spending more
time on the northeastern horizon than the road he was
hands were idle, and so I decided to open my camera bag, get
out my 50mm lens (my "tornado lens" as Gene calls
it) and check everything over.
Fortunately for me I did - as I found a half-used
mystery film in my SLR.
Not wanting to have this in there on a possible
tornado day, I ripped this film out and started afresh with
new Provia. Next,
I took some lens paper from one of the pockets in my bag
that Hank had given me from his shop at home in Yukon, and
fell to polishing all my lenses - paying particular
attention to my 50mm Canon one.
Satisfied that all was clean and ready if need be, I
placed all my equipment back in its place.
the Lake Andes area, by this time, we were having
atmospheric explosions to our north and northeast. It was so
incredibly awe-inspiring, storms going up in the perfect
warm-front/outflow boundary environment with the perfect
shear and instability. The vigorous towers and cells were
distant to us, appearing as ruling Kings on their thrones,
and in the foreground we had the “tornado-day” tradition
of torn-up towers and pieces of cumulus rocketing northward
The crystalline white of the shredded stuff near us allowed
the true colour of the real explosions to our north to stand
out – and this was when I noticed they were orange.
Beautiful, golden-tinged castles - setting up their
battlements in the atmosphere.
There was – quite purely – nothing wrong
with these towers and developing storms.
It was as simple as that.
Not like some days when you say “well it looks a
bit mushy” or “well it’s not quite in the right
area” – today these storms were perfect.
Their prowess in examples of perfect explosive
convection was not lost on me – and that is why I am
spending such time writing about it here.
We believed that they appeared orange because of the
high-level traces of smoke that were carrying over the area
from the wildfires in progress over Arizona.
This added yet another eerie element to the day – as we
continued to creep steadily northwards – passing through
the Armour and Douglas County areas – under the unending
gaze of these golden giants.
On even dared to start to develop anvil material –
this increased our pace – the sickening feeling that we
were late once again starting to creep into our minds.
some point here I do remember Hank Baker calling – I think
– it was nice to hear from a friend at home when we were
so far away. I
think Hank was just making sure we were on the right tracks
today. I smiled
inwardly…..with Gene in the driver’s seat and anywhere
within two states of a day like this - we were
unlikely not to be.
Tim’s voice then came over the radio to us.
”Looks like we have one storm already in progress – just
to the west of Mitchell”
Our teeth were all set on edge – hearing that initiation
had started. I
decided to scrabble about in the back with all the wires –
hook up Gene’s laptop and see if I could get a small radar
the next 20 minutes or so I accomplished this task – the
Sioux Falls radar showing it up nicely.
However the storm was still very small – in it’s
infancy – and only appeared as a tiny blip on radar.
Tim came back on the radar abruptly.
“According to the latest, Mitchell’s ob is eighty over
seventy-four, east at ten.”
felt my hackles rise at my husband’s silence in reply to
looked at Gene expectantly.
Carsten dutifully corresponded Gene’s input back to Tim
via the radio.
”Ya – Gene says that vill vork….”
grinned at Carsten's German accent as we scanned around for
a small town somewhere on the road ahead to get gas - as we
decided that it would be prudent to do this before reaching
I-90 and the action area.
Hwy 281 after Armour jogs west then comes into the town of
Corsica. It was
here - just south of the Interstate, that we decided to gas
up before the chase proper.
Pulling into the gas station, my thoughts turned to food -
as hungry as I was at this hour.
Gene brought the Expedition to a halt in front of one
of the pumps - as our convoy took over the whole entire gas
Stopping the vehicle, Gene got out - closely followed
by a clamour of bells, beeps and jangles as the truck let
him know that he both had the engine running, his seatbelt
off, his door open and his lights still on.
Amidst all the chorus of irritating noises, I jumped
out also. Carsten
got out lethargically, shaking his head.
"Ahhhh.....dis American shit, ya........"
We both grinned at him - Carsten had a deep hatred for all
American vehicles and their ridiculous, paranoid beeps and
I stretched my back in the sunlight and looked around
me after the long drive.
Deciding I was definitely hungry and seeing that Gene
had gone over to Tim's vehicle to look at data, I made my
way into the gas station's store.
Inside it was pleasantly cool and darker.....and I
was faced with the usual shelves of chips, granola bars and
pondered for a while, and watched as Carsten also appeared
in the shop and bought a few things.
I couldn't decide what to buy myself to snack
on.....but then my ponderings were cut short.
Carl appeared at the door of the gas station -
flailing about wildly with his shades and video camera.
He thumbed behind him.
"Let's go…..it's TW!!!"
I stopped and looked at the empty doorway where he had stood
a second beforehand, my mind slowly trying to comprehend
what exactly he was talking about.
I came to the conclusion that he must mean that the
early storm of the day up by Mt Vernon was now
tornado-warned, and we were going after it.
Not wanting to hold up the mission - and knowing that
we still had quite a bit of driving to do to get up there, I
dumped my supplies of grain bars and drinks and sprinted out
to the truck again - ignoring my hunger.
Carsten was still at the register paying for all our
gas - and he followed me out in equal haste.
I swung myself ungainly back into the Expedition as
everybody began assembling again at a much faster pace.
Tim packed up all of his data and got himself back
into his driver's seat.
With all our bodies back where they belong, we blazed
a trail out of the gas station and back onto Hwy 281 headed
north towards Stickney and Plankinton.
All three of our vehicles were now buzzing with data
exchange and collection.
Gene's cellphone rung again - this time it was Dave
Gold (whose South Dakota plights two years in a row will not
be mentioned here). Dave
was calling to see where we were, make sure we were headed
on the right course, and to relay Roger Hill's report of a
large tornado on the ground just northwest of Mitchell.
Gene took note of his reports, thanked him thoroughly
for all his help, and hung off.
All too slowly we came upon Plankinton, and planted
ourselves on the Interstate headed east - Tim wanted to go
and seek out the Mitchell storm and what it had to offer.
Driving on the Interstate, both my eyes and Gene's
strayed to a particular pile of convective explosions to our
was very little if any anvil material associated with this
juvenile updraft, but Gene was able to identify the
mushrooming and exploding nature of it.
This updraft was already rotating, and it apparently
had a beaver's tail - these updrafts today were not wasting
any time in developing supercellular characteristics early
in their lifecycles - this one before it had even produced
an anvil cloud!
This storm-to-be seemed to be around the area of
We scanned up ahead for the Mitchell storm - slightly
unimpressed with what we saw over there.
But we were headed east and so we had to at least get
to Mitchell and then turn north.
Dave Gold called Gene back on his cellphone, asking
where we were at so far.
Gene advised him of the new convective explosions
which really had his attentions to our northwest.
He described the lame appearance of the Mitchell
cell, and relayed information and recommendations to Dave to
tell Roger Hill to go after this new development.
My own mind began thinking - strangely enough - about
Sean Casey and Jennifer in the TIV.
I was concerned as to whether they were up in the
area today - knowing that this was more than likely their
last chance day too. I
extracted my own cellphone from the rubble of bags that
accompanied me in the back seat of the truck, and dialed
Sean's number. He
answered pretty quickly, and I told him it was Karen on the
phone and I was just concerned as to where he was at today.
"Uh......we are in Mitchell."
"Alright - that's all I needed to know - great to know
you're in the area Sean - take care!"
With that we hung off.
Next Carsten leaned back over his seat and looked at
me, smiled guiltily.
He gestured at his bags, but I was already in motion - so
used was I to travelling with him and his organisational
of all I handed him his little "film vest" as I
call it - a small vest jacket that held many secret pockets
in which he liked to carry endless supplies of Velvia.
He donned that, and I then handed him his red
waterproof jacket. He
also got that over his shoulders and done up.
I then passed forward to him his silver camera bag
which he slung over his shoulder, and one other black bag
that probably held lenses and different equipment.
I had just had the honour of suiting-up a National
Geographic photographer for a tornado encounter.........
our northerly turn came up at Mitchell, and we eagerly took
Hwy 37 north to get a look at things more closely.
blasted north, following Tim feverishly - Carl behind us.
We finally got far enough north - near the turn off
for Letcher - when we could see what was going on
at the Mitchell storm as it was almost overhead, we shook
our heads in disbelief almost - as we had feared we were too
shriveled remnants of the supercell were splayed out up in
the heavens for all to see it's demise......as it
chicken-necked out, leaving the atmosphere tropically steamy
in it's footprints. Our
spirits were dampened slightly, as we saw numerous other
spotters and the odd chaser who had been on the storm from
earlier times and had stopped at the side of the road now
things were winding down - until our minds started to
remember the young cell which had been going up to our
northwest from the Interstate - which was now directly to
our west - which we had never really forgotten
about.......and our eyes turned that way.........
there it was. Probably
lying just south of the town of Woonsocket at the moment -
sat our supercell. There
was not even any questioning as to whether that was where we
should be headed......as the base presented itself about 15
miles away - low and well lit and rain free and rotating.
The wall cloud stood out like a premonition of things
to come.......as out of nowhere from vapour in front of our
noses a perfect, laminar beaver's tail seemed to
instantaneously form and start the tell-tale conveyor belt
motion, to feed the "lean" monster to our west.
Things changed in a hurry.
Gene got on the radio - signalling on no uncertain
terms that we needed to be under that base NOW if we were to
make the most of our last day (last day.......where have I
heard that before.....?).
Of course, nobody was likely to disagree - Tim echoed
Gene's urgency - and with his GPS guided us, straining at
the speed limit, towards Woonsocket South Dakota.
Not needing to be told, I immediately unzipped all of Gene's
camera bags and also placed all of Carsten's so that they
were on-hand easily. Leaning
forward and contorting myself around the damned
"swirl", I passed Gene his video camera. He was
grateful for this and checked it over and switched it on
whilst also driving.
Finally - as an afterthought - I managed to unbutton
my own old camera bag, extract the trusty Canon with it's
"tornado lens" on and Provia in (I was sure not
making the same mistake with Velvia today as I did on May
15th) and sat with it in my lap, waiting.
through Forestburg on Hwy 34 and turning northwestwards, we
quickened our pace even a bit more.
Watching glimpses of the wall cloud and lowering when
it was not obscured by trees or other traffic, we saw almost
in slow-motion the "nub" start - almost June
9th-esque in it's slow, deliberate descent.
Gradually working it's way out of the wall cloud came
the tornado - granting us all a few minutes of notice before
it touched down. Also
- we were still too far away to be able to discern any of
the finer motions of rotation within the wall cloud or
vortex - and so the tornado's slow birth made it easier on
us as we busted west frantically to try to get into
had to close 10 miles on this storm - and made a damn good
attempt at it. Once
again straining at the speed limit we travelled -
encountering the usual mid-chase traffic hazards such as
sightseeing tractor-trailers, local yokels and Sunday
drivers on Tuesday.
Carsten had already begun to sort through his film vest, his
hands expertly laying themselves on rolls of Velvia which
appeared from various different pockets.
Testing and interchanging lenses, he tested light
meters and film speeds and found himself with FINALLY enough
time to do his job semi-properly, even though we were still
in a moving vehicle which he hated working from.
Woonsocket tornado touched down - a perfect, large,
healthy elephant's trunk.
We got onto a straight piece of road down which
we could see the tornado perfectly - it was almost as
if we were lining it up in our sights.
The vortex meandered northwards - probably
crossing our road about 6 miles or so up ahead.
We quickened our speed again.
Gene was doing his best to film whilst driving
- I felt thoroughly sorry for him though - knowing his
passion for these enigmatic vortices and also
realizing that he could not possibly hope to fully
enjoy this experience when we were constantly trying
to "deploy" in the path of a tornado.
My own perspiring, cold hands managed to work
my own camera and shoot off a few frames as we closed
in on the tornado - perhaps by 4 miles or so now.
I breathed heavily, feeling the chills of
tornado-encounter start run through me again - the
first time since June 9th really.
I did my best to prepare myself for whatever it
was we were about to do.
Carsten - of course - started his legendary "80%
of his body hanging out the window" trick to get
some photography done - he probably got shots of Tim's
vehicle in the foreground driving towards the tornado
- I don't know. I
do know that the air rushing in from his open window
smacked me in the face and caught my breath away on
numerous occasions - and the occasional raindrop stung
my eye as it hit me at 80mph.
The cloudtop of the tornado seemed to loom over us at
last - at last? The
area we were in had a lot of trees - and so I could
only really guess at what the base looked like.
As we passed some barns and houses, I took a
few more shots - making sure that my light meter was
working and that I was getting a good reading.
I was. Due
to the combined facts that I was using Provia film,
and I had a 50mm fast lens on - I was able to succeed
in getting shutter speeds of 250/500ths of a second.
the first time in my chasing career when
dealing with a tornado, I was satisfied that these
images would turn out. Tim
drove onwards - it was clear that he was trying to find a
section road to turn off onto.
Just before Woonsocket we found a dirt road that
would take us north then west then north again - paralleling
the tornado. As
our three vehicles rumbled onto the dirt I mumbled something
nervously.........I didn't like the dirt road aspect of this
we had not even got to the first curve in the road to take
us west when the dirt road turned into a
Huge divots were already carved out in the track from
whatever vehicle had traveled before us - the dark black mud
making us fishtail quite extensively.
As an afterthought Gene put the vehicle on four-wheel
drive - which probably helped slightly - but we still found
ourselves sliding about the place.
Tim made the curve west in the road - Carsten laughed
and pointed out that his white van was no longer the
original colour. Gene
hauled the Expedition through the curve with difficulty -
only just making it without sliding into the ditch.
Of course - we were safe from the tornado - we were
just in the RFD and the sunlight began to glint through.
But the apparition we were chasing was still marching
on northwards - and that was where we were going.
We lost Carl in his Sedan - he got trapped in the mud
and couldn't get out on that one bend.
We would not meet up with Carl again until after this
chase day was over........
eyes finally turned back to the tornado - as
occupied as I had been with the road conditions for so
"Oh my God......."
I had never been within this proximity of a tornado
before - not even on June 9th, which I had thought was
We were now in that "magic area" - that
area which Gene had told me tales of ever since we had
been chasing together. That
magic area whereby.......when you are that close to
the tornado......everything comes alive.
It is no longer something "pretty " or
"graceful" dancing on the horizon a few
The vortex was travelling with us, to our left - to our
direct west, venting it's fury willfully. We
were now down and dirty with it.
The tornado was there to our west - about 1/4 of a
mile away - and churning its way through what looked
to me like a freshly ploughed field.
The tornado was black now - and in our closeness and
unique position to it we actually had the tornado
backlit by crystalline white towers and deep blue sky.
This made for some striking photography. And
this tornado sure had it's own personality.
A fine spray of black dirt was being atomized at
ground level and flung up violently into the air
around the circulation - which contrasted even more
with the blue sky in the background. It
took tonnes of dirt - as it had nothing more to work
with - and sprayed it out into varying levels of the
atmosphere around itself. It was a fine
elephant's trunk - perhaps slightly smaller than it
had started out now that we were finally on it. We
continued driving and mercifully on our turn north our
road turned back to solid gravel instead of mud.
We blasted north again.
Tim signalled to us on the radio that we were going
to try and go for this one - although I think we were
all dubious about being able to deploy on a tornado so
small unfortunately. As
we drove further north we raced the tornado - getting
closer and closer to our paths crossing.
It was now only one tree line separated from us -
perhaps 200 yards - screaming in the adjacent field
with it's fury and power. It
affected me - a lot. I
couldn't get its image out of my view - always in the
window across the truck from me and always there with
it's violent motions. Never
having been this close before - I now realise looking
back at the moment that I lost all comprehension of
I could not tell where the tornado was in relation to
us - or it's movement or heading.
I looked at Gene in earnest.
"What are we doing?
Should we be going this far up here......?"
I asked - my palette thick with my dry tongue.
We continued to drive on feverishly.
Gene looked back (Tim was doing exactly the same in
his vehicle) at the tornado, made a quick calculation.
"Yep - we've got it."
He said, his own lips tight, his own voice
strained.....although he still knew what was going on.
I didn't. I
looked dumbly at Gene, and then back at the tornado
which was now slightly to our south-southwest.
I began to get upset - so close to imminent danger
right there in the field next to us.
I felt - in my frame of mind - like hysterically
retorting back 'what the bloody hell does "we've got
But I didn't.
That wouldn't have helped very much in our current
kept my mouth firmly shut, but my eyes wouldn't
brought our convoy to a halt abruptly, and he instantly
jumped out of his van and unloaded a probe.
Carsten also ejected himself from our truck to do his
job. In amongst
the fear and anxiety and confusion I almost felt uplifted -
at last - Carsten was getting his shot - the expedition had
not been a complete waste of time.
The tornado rumbled towards us - about 200 yards away
to our south and going due north.
Mindful of possible path deviations during the end of
a tornado's life cycle, we did not linger too long.
Tim flicked one small switch on the underside of the
probe, and placed the bright orange, shallow cone-type
device on the side of the road.
The tornado closed in even more as Carsten finally
hopped in with us - smiling broadly.
Gene floored it, shouting "Let's go!!!"
twice to Tim out his window (you can hear this moment on the
National Geographic Ultimate Explorer program that has been
Our vehicles strained at their accelerators again to put
distance between the vortex and us - which was now right
there in the opposite field.
I discovered that I had lost the use of enthusiasm to
take photographs - I couldn't even bring myself to get out
of the vehicle when we stopped a second and third time to
deploy. As long
as Gene got out to take some video and stuff - I would be
able to justify to myself a few moments of refuge in the
vehicle, a result of pure fear coursing through my veins.
'Some storm chaser I am', I thought in my mind of
Finally - during our third stop - I heard Gene confirm that
it was dissipating. I
was half-in-half-out of the vehicle, and I decided to
shakily place both feet on the road like some newborn
animal........my camera still slung over my shoulder in case
I needed it again. Tim
and Gene pointed and grinned.
"Look - here it comes!"
A tiny circulation of fog and leaves danced towards us -
directly straddling the road.
It huffed and puffed and found the strength
occasionally to move some twigs and dust in its
hindsight this was extremely comical - at the moment itself
I was still apprehensive.
The large redundant funnel still hung overhead - I
felt like God Himself was watching me.
As the tiny multiple-vortex circulation weakened Gene
"It's going to go right over us!"
I think I tried to look enthusiastic about a tornadic
circulation going "right over me". It was
hard, but indeed when it came upon us it was like a wet
breeze for five seconds......enough to ruffle my
hair......then it had passed.
The Woonsocket tornado was dead.
leapt about on the road - enthused with the recent close
encounter and taking photographs of Tim recovering each
probe in succession. We
walked about in the sunlight directly after that tornado had
dissipated - the sunlight was warm and comforting and
small rain of shredded grass and mud settled over our area -
coating us all with a small amount of tornado debris.
The smell - oh the smell!
I think I had smelled this on June 23rd last year.
Gene savored it, too.
Overturned earth and shredded vegetation.
Tim methodically annotated each probe and recorded
the GPS position of it.
We watched and filmed Tim recovering all of the
probes..........in this brief moment of calm.
He was despondent about not being able to deploy
eyes began straying to the east.......to our east.......to
the supercell that was drifting away from us.
It almost looked as if it was all over - the only
cumulus I could see in the sunlight were low-topped and
pointed this out to Gene and he - once again - showed me the
dark side of the storm - and the rock hard explosions that
were happening under the anvil in the grayness.
This storm was still very much alive.
We discussed the situation as we drove back south
towards Hwy 34. Carsten
really wanted to go and look at any damage from the tornado
that we could find, and spoke about this with Tim on the
Horrified Gene took the mike from him and talked
"Ummm.......today isn't over and I REALLY think that we
oughta carry on and follow this storm."
Of course Tim agreed with Gene wholeheartedly in that - if
there were other tornado chances this day - we should pursue
them. Carsten asked me if I would replenish his supply of Velvia -
and I bent over the side of the back seat and with all my
might extracted his heavy box of film from under camera bags
and the swirl. I
rummaged through rolls and rolls or Provia until I found one
or two boxes of Velvia - and handed him six or seven.
Making it back to Hwy 34 we drove swiftly east again.
We took a slightly different set of roads - taking a
GPS shortcut onto some more good gravel roads to try and
make time on the supercell.
This was in an area of no towns and very little
discernable roads - which is why we were on gravel.
We traveled east, and then north.
In the spray of rain with the supercell about 20
miles away a rainbow appeared - directly under where the
meso would be (it was hard to see as the storm was SO far
away by now). But
Gene was the eyes for our vehicle, and he strained to see
into the storm as the sunlight shone on the backside.
He radioed to Tim on the airwaves.
"You know it might just be me but I think I see a
tornado in there."
There was silence for a few minutes - the Tim came back.
"Yup........I think you may be right."
Even me - when I looked over in the direction in which they
were talking - thought I saw something in there - something
pretty suspicious and tube-like.
If we were able to see it at all it would be due to
the fact that part of the tornado was in sunlight - light
that was being let in by the RFD cleft.
We carried on driving - determined - as moderate rain
were now directly west of the storm by perhaps 10 miles.
Tim took us on the GPS on a north turn - and we drove up to
Hwy 14 - coming
out just east of Cavour and west of Iroquois.
We were closing in on the slow-moving giant.
Getting on terra firma, we blasted east as fast as we
could possibly achieve.
The hook of the storm presented itself to us - at
first as a moderate rain again.
Tim radioed to us all. "I'm sorry but we may have to get some hail in
Everybody acknowledged that back to him - and we braced
ourselves to come through the hook of what was - most likely
- still a tornadic supercell on what we now suspected was a
major outbreak day.
expected we lost our visibility, and got enclosed in the
precipitation for a few minutes.
The cab of the truck turned dull and dark.
Everybody fell into an uneasy silence - all of us
knowing only too well what we were doing here - we were in
fingered nervously with my camera and adjusted a few things
after the Woonsocket event, and wondered at the back of my
mind what the rest of the chase may hold.
Polishing off my lens, I sat things down and
pondered, and took a sip or two from my bottle of stale
spring water. Though
we were in the hook of the storm – the hail never really
came – really. We
were expecting a formidable opposition from the elements in
here – yet all we got at worst was a few clicks of
pea-sized hail. After
two or three minutes the light brightened slightly as we
began to break through from the precipitation – surprised
at such a dryish, weak hook.
Was this storm falling apart? I started to look around out the windows – as did Gene and
front I heard Gene pointing out the striations on the side
of the updraft to Carsten, and I strained my own neck now
that we were drier and had more visibility to see if I could
get a look at this storm’s structure for the first
time….. My eyes had just rested upon that part of the storm that
Gene was referring to when I heard the one thing that I –
in my heart of hearts – did not want to hear.
MY GOSH CARSTEN - LOOK AT THE TORNADO!!
Gene’s voice was
high-pitched…….hysterical…….further description of
his manner is really not necessary when you are faced with a
sight like this. Carsten’s
low, reverent voice was heard.
Some brief radio communications from Tim’s vehicle added
to the exclamations.
I stayed silent for a long time – lost in my own thoughts
in the back seat – my heart lurching, my mouth instantly
drying up once again.
”Oh my God…..”
I know I uttered some of the same as what the others were
– but to me I think it had a different meaning.
Never having been faced with a sight like this in my
life before as the remnants of the pathetic hook cleared up
and the whole panorama was revealed, my mind refused to take
the sight in. It
was like the whole storm was on the ground.
The wedge tornado made me disoriented, it purely did
not seem right or possible that we could be looking at
something this huge. I
completely forgot for the moment my camera.
My jaw slack and open, I gawked until I could gawk no
is no way one can prepare oneself for an event like
this – or ever fully describe it.
Gene immediately sprung into action and started
filming as best he could whilst still driving.
Carsten of course was already hanging out the window
and taking photographs like there was no tomorrow.
I did not take any photographs – just looked on –
still unbelieving. The ¼ to ½ mile wide wedge tornado loomed on the landscape
now only about 3 miles away from us as we drove further east
on Hwy 14, closing in on it.
The lighting this day in our position was extremely
unique. We were
on the west side of the tornado and there was just enough
daylight seeping in under the storm’s base to give the
huge vortex a dirty golden colour – muddy and dirty and
sickly and unmistakably awe-worthy.
It rolled its way across the landscape, on a due
north heading – straight towards a small collection of
houses, which was named Manchester South Dakota.
I personally did not realise Manchester was
there.......until later when it was rather.......obvious.
It had already taken out some farmsteads and a whole line of
trees about 2 miles south of our position.
Looking up at it – I saw the dreadful beauty of
what we were looking at through rolled-down windows. The dirty golden colour of the tornado gave way to a dark
navy blue mesocyclone circulation above.
The concavity directly around where the tornado
joined to cloud base was of the darkest, forbidden blue.
Then, the outer edges of the wall cloud curled over
and downwards also, creating a huge umbrella effect.
On its edges were bright gray tendrils of scud –
all rotating cyclonically – forming what looked like a
canopy for the wedge tornado.
Their ghostly gray fingers clawed at the outer edges
of the circulation – taking part in the nightmarish
merry-go-round – as if bearing a warning for any who
passed under them.
finally came within about ½ of a mile of the huge tornado
– just west of the small town of Manchester – and still
we closed in on it. My
body started to feel the huge tugs of nausea and all my
mental receptors were telling me that we should be
travelling in exactly the opposite direction than we were.
The wedge still ever approaching from the south –
we got close enough to be in that “magic area” once
again – and this time with a much larger tornado it was
even more bewildering.
We could see the complex multiple-vortex structure
intimately – that which most every tornado is made up of
– now that we were up close, and within the huge spray of
the wedge they danced like concealed ghosts in the mist.
Our vehicles slowed to a stop in the middle of the deserted
highway momentarily. To
our surprise and horror we could see a vehicle’s brake
lights up ahead of us – and we thought we
were close being slightly less than ½ mile away from
watched as the tornado approached Manchester relentlessly
– fearing for any of its citizens if anybody had the
misfortune of not knowing what was coming their way.
Tim came over the radio whilst frantically looking up
his GPS. “I’m sorry guys but I am NOT goin’ in
there…..” Gene shook his head and signalled back that he agreed.
There really was no way that we could have made it
into Manchester and deployed and got out again –
now the tornado loomed over highway 14 – right on the
south side of the road.
With the monstrosity looming over us, Tim took us off the
highway onto a small gravel/dirt track which pointed north
– one half mile to the west of Manchester.
We pulled off the highway and sat there – Tim had
worked out a possible deployment route on his GPS.
Before continuing, however, we stopped on the mud
road facing north, and looked to our east.
The event that was about to happen was worthy of
watching just this once.
Our trucks sat on the road pointing steadfastedly
northwards, growling, panting........like athletes on the
starting blocks before their big sprint.
We rolled down our windows on the right hand side of the
truck – facing Manchester ......and........before my eyes
and before I had any second to think or contemplate what was
about to happen next..........I began to see things come
apart in my field of vision. One
quarter mile to our immediate east, a town
disintegrated with the onslaught of a wedge tornado.
mind was bombarded by colours in a matter of seconds – the
dirty brown and gold wedge tornado, it’s associated grays
and dark blues and myriad of other atmospheric colours, the
green and yellow field of wheat or some other crop that was
our foreground to this event, the colours of brown and black
specks of debris as Manchester came apart and was sent into
the heavens. Like
an involuntary reflex I found my hands lifting my camera up
to my eyes. I
took the lens cap off.
I checked my shutter speed and F-stops..........and
pushed the shutter speed all the way to 500ths/sec, “freeze”
Gene’s photography teaching was finally paying
Click........click........click........click my camera
went........as I forced my clammy, shaking hands to
work........the other’s video cameras rolling in the
did know one thing – what we were seeing was a moment in
history never to be replayed again.
Never to be seen again.
Never to be heard again.
And hear it we did.
As Manchester fell apart and debris was sent tumbling
across the ground or flying up into the air, the noise of
the tornado drastically increased in decibels.
A roar like that of a gale through trees ascended our
ears – a rather obvious result of all the debris
clattering against itself and the ground so near us. My eyes watched as I saw physical destruction.
A small shack came apart just on the outside of the
vortex circulation (on the west side of the tornado), and it
was sent streaming southwards at near ground-level –
peppering itself into a nearby, disused two-storey house.
The house itself gave one last great heaving sigh,
and relinquished it's standing.
Sagging to the south, it’s roof finally blew off
and the rest of it followed shortly thereafter – to be
perpetually lost in the mist and the spray that was an F-4
tornado around it.
Such was the lighting this day that, in still photographs
when looking back at the Manchester event one can actually
see into the tornado – as strong daylight was coming in
from our side of it. The
ground level just inside the tornado looks like a hurricane
– although worse than any hurricane man will ever
experience I hope. Trees
are bent at 90 degree angles depending on which side of the
tornado they are on, denuded trees on the south side of the
vortex stand lifeless and raped, as if bearing warning to
the intact trees on the north side of the small town.
I can only imagine what was happening or being seen on the
east side of this event looking west at it. And all of a sudden we started to rumble northwards, slowly
at first, and then increasing speed as our very vehicles
seemed to sense the urgency of each passing minute.
I think I remember asking just what on earth we were
intending on doing with this monstrosity – but I don’t
think I got an answer.
All the time of course Carsten had been in his
element – yelling and screaming and blasting off scores of
started to rain on us as we kept an eye on the tornado to
our southeast, and Tim came over.
“We may get some rain and hail here – maybe get into the
core – but you’ll just have to bear with me, OK?”
We drove and drove and drove northwards as fast as we
possibly could muster on the roads.
And the roads........deteriorated rapidly.
Before we knew it we were back on mud – not gravel.
I became more and more worried and anxious.
Looking at the tornado now – through the spray of
rain behind us to our south-east – we could see it was
“shrinking” to a very large cone – still with a very
large ground base........and still very much on it’s march
northwards. After driving north for two miles of sectionline roads, we
came to a corner in the road which would take us east, and
slipping and sliding took the bend to start our
mind-numbing, hernia-inducing sprint into the history
Looking down upon us must have been like looking down upon
the set of an expensive special-effects movie – or Twister
for that matter. With
one important difference – what we were doing was REAL and
the tornado was REAL. A
white van and a red Ford Expedition – speeding down a
black mud road to make a desperate attempt to get in front
of the advancing danger.
so we drove east as fast as the roads would permit – which
wasn’t very. Gene
We drove for a minute or so,
and then decided to pull up on the highway and take a
look at the tornado and where it was.
Tim also fully intended on deploying more probes all
the way up the road – seeing as the vortex was basically
straddling the highway.
We stopped and everyone immediately emerged from
their vehicles. I
waited a moment or two, and then hearing Gene say that it
was starting to rope out figured that I had probably already
blown my chances of photography due to my complete inability
to cope with the day’s events – and took myself outside.
Again I touched the ground with both my feet
tentatively, again I did my impression of a newborn
faun........legs shaky and knees buckled........camera slung
uncertainly over one shoulder.
But the tornado was still very much there – even
though now it was no longer a wedge of course.
It had now shrunk down to the proverbial snake, the
funnel having the odd contortion in it as it moved towards
us unendingly. Gene
and Pat took video, I finally did myself justice and took my
own stills, Tim deployed another probe, Carsten went with
Tim and got all the shots he could ever want.
We were actually outside and viewing the tornado when
it hit the farmstead we had been stopped at – and where
Tim’s probe had been deployed.
(Photographs from this moment in time show a large
explosion of debris on the left side of the image – the
right hand side of the tornado – which is the farmstead
being taken out). As
we watched this event, the tornado and it’s destruction
were no more than nine power poles south of us.
Gene saw pole after pole fall and get engulfed in the
tight, terrifying, dirty brown circulation.
“Oh my gosh these roads are terrible!”
Our wheels slipped and spun as they fought to gain traction
in the mess – and this was with four-wheel drive.
We were out of the rain now, and able to see our
assailant clearly. The
cone had not shrunk too much, and as we were approaching it
at right angles it appeared to be getting VERY large VERY
My heart missed several beats as we fishtailed into
the monster’s path (and I do not use that term lightly or
mouth was as dry as the Sahara – a curious reaction of
one’s body getting ready for the fight-or-flight
experience, my hands clammy and useless, my camera sat
redundant in my lap.
So........we were now in the tornado’s path, having driven
about one mile east. I
risked a glance out my window on the right hand side of the
truck – and there it was less than 300 yards to our south
– certainly less than ¼ mile.
A block or two – shall we say.
The road dipped and we rumbled across Redstone Creek
on a small rickety wooden bridge, fishtailing all the time.
On our left was a small dwelling or farmstead with a
driveway – and it was here that Tim Samaras decided to
deploy his probe – Probe No.3.
We stopped – in the path of the oncoming violent
tornado, our vehicles deep in mud.
I looked again to our south and again felt the nausea
and numbness. I
saw the tornado as it wreaked havoc on a farmstead to our
south by a block or so.
Trees were ripped from their roots, and the buildings
instantly collapsed like matchstick houses.
The roof of one of them was sent into the heavens,
and part of it ended up almost directly over our heads.
Now that I looked up there – I could see other
assortments of debris – 2x4s and other large pieces.
Seeing such LARGE debris circling directly above our
heads made me feel nauseous – I was coming round drowsily
to thinking that this may be our last storm chase – our
last day on the planet for that matter.
Everything from this point on I remember in
looked on frantically as Tim hauled out the probe, switched
it on and placed it on the ground all in one motion.
Pat screamed out to him hoarsely above the eerie
sound of a junkyard crusher..
don’t have time – we don’t have time!!!”
But the action had already been placed in motion.
Tim whisked himself out into the abrasive atmosphere
and dumped the probe down on the muddy gravel of the
driveway leading to the farmstead.
What’s that joke about if you ever see some truck come and
dump something like that in your driveway
then........well........ drive away? I had visions of our vehicles having been standing in the
mud for too long – and not being able to spin their wheels
free. I did a
quick calculation of what would be the best emergency
evasion of a tornado on foot if one had to play out that
nightmarish scenario for real.
Obviously you would run at right angles to the
tornado’s path. But
slowly........oh so slowly........we started to move again.
I saw everything in slow-motion........driving past
the farmstead.......our plain of horizon still off-kilter as
Gene took the Expedition sloshing and slipping on the move
again.......the violent spray of the tornado less than one
block to our south........time wouldn’t go fast
enough......…. Then I saw it – ASPHALT road surfaces.
This was, of course, 425th Ave northbound
- although I knew nothin of the sort at the time.
We planted all tires firmly on this God-given road
and floored it hell-for-leather northwards – leaving our
probe at the mercy of the monster behind us.
Of course it would take several minutes for my mind
to fully accept that our immediate danger was
over........and because of that I still remained in a
perpetual state of cold, solid, rigid fear.
(In Tim’s vehicle........Pat looks back with video camera
still rolling in his hand and giggles, ”Jeez! ........oh
this thing’s right on Carsten’s butt!!”.
It was probably best that I was not looking behind us
at that particular moment in time........and that our rear
window was completely obscured by mud).
are it was hitting Probe No. 3.......right now.
Then it was time to get in the vehicles again as the tornado
advanced closer to us.
No need to tell me twice – I swung myself up into
my seat in the back of the Expedition once again.
It felt like an eternity waiting for the others to
get in and for Gene and Tim to finally blast northwards
was the only direction in which I wanted to travel right
We got almost up to where a small house sat on the east side
of the highway, and stopped once again.
Tim did his deployment – placing one probe on
either side of the road – watching and altering his
projection of the tornado based on what it was doing right
tornado – after it’s little hiccup at our farmstead –
had apparently regenerated into a more healthy
drillpress/elephant’s trunk again – and displayed itself
as very erect and VERY violent.
It was east of the road now, and was whacking its way
through the cornfield directly adjacent to us.
Gene looked over at me and shouted to me.
can hear it….!”
In hindsight I am SO GLAD that Gene did say this – as it
provided me with one of the most lasting and potent memories
from this day that I possess.
I looked above my head, craning to see where the
funnel connected to cloud base.
In reality – I had to bend over backwards to see it
– even though the tornado was on the ground in front of
me. That is
what it is like to be in such close proximity to these
terrible sculptures of Mother Nature’s work.
I listened intently – and for the first time HEARD
a tornado that I was in the presence of.
So close and three-dimensional was our experience I
could cock my head and listen to whatever part of the vortex
I wished – and hear it.
The vortices themselves make a noise it would appear.
There is no better way to describe it than the
legendary waterfall sound – and when you are this close to
a tornado it sounds like you are standing somewhere near
Niagara Falls and listening to the roar of the immense
listened to the circulation on the ground, and then took my
eyes up into the heavens and watched and listened to
different parts of the vortex – all the time hearing the
waterfall sound from whichever part of the entity I chose to
For a moment........I enjoyed myself...........the
fear was not there........only wonder. Suddenly I was jolted from my subconscious place by
Carsten's urgent, booming German voice. "Let's do a deployment!
- let's do a deployment.....!!!" His face was frantic, an obsessed man, his longish fair hair
windswept across his forehead and rain drenched, his jackets
disheveled and crumpled now.
His ice cold blue eyes flashed with death-defiance.
At first I wondered what on earth he was on about - and then
I remembered the blasted swirl device in the back seat of
our Expedition. As
the tornado loomed over us, I began to think I was seeing it
turn on it's path to our southeast........taking a more
north-northwesterly heading.........and I suddenly realised
how little time we would have if the tornado began to
recurve. But Gene quickly helped Carsten as he frantically tore at
the door handle on the back door of the truck.
Finally they got the door open - and there sat the
glinting aluminum body of the swirl.
I edged nearer the truck as the tornado - a solid
drillpress with terrifying motions at the base - threatened
us on it's now confirmed recurve.
Managing to think a bit more I took some still
photographs. Carsten's right hand and Gene's left hand hauled the swirl
from it's resting place, and they took it out and across the
road to set it down a little way from us on the east side of
the road. Carsten
dropped to his knees on the hard road - so tiny underneath
the funnel of the tornado - and flicked switches and opened
shutters on the video camera and two SLRs that were inside.
Painfully slowly he rose - finally having finished
setting everything up.
Gene was already making a dash for the driver's seat
- I was hysterical and laying on the horn trying to get
everybody assembled and out of here - we were all yelling at
Carsten although our voices were now drowned out by the
waterfall sound.......the waterfall sound and the sound of
corn stalks being mulched by a 250mph weed-whacker.. ...as
the spray of the tornado came over the crest of our
was there. In
the cornfield on OUR edge of the field.
Nothing more can be said.
It was just .....there.
I'll say 150 yards.
6 power poles, if that.
and Carsten finally tasted the danger that was upon us - and
all bodies were in their vehicles.
There seemed to be resistance on accelerating - or
perhaps I was just so far into oblivion that I imagined it -
imagined us getting sucked backwards from the road.
But that didn't happen.
We finally pulled ourselves away from the advancing
F4's mist as it emerged from the cornfield and onto the
highway once again. Gene
watched disbelieving in his rear view mirror as he guided us
from the jaws of the beast. One minute later, as we
slowed to a more assured pace well head of the tornado, Gene
"I think it's hit it."
Those words seemed ridiculous to be saying.
Carsten was ever the pessimist.
"Ya well.......well we will see, ya.
I don't hope for anysing......."
We drove for a half minute or so, and then began to slow
down as Tim insisted on placing one more turtle in the
tornado's path. I felt slightly better about this one
- seeing as were comfortably half a mile ahead of it
at the side of the road yet again, just north of a small row
of trees and a cottage, we all poured out of our vehicles
once more. I wiped mud-spattered hair from my forehead
so I could get a visual through my camera's eyepiece.
Through that eyepiece, I saw everything. Tim -
kneeling down on a gravel side road placing the bright
orange probe yet again. Carsten - his bright red rain
jacket making him stand out like a beacon in the muddy, dark
landscape, poised like a human tripod with his camera fixed
on Tim. The tornado - unrelenting and unashamedly
churning directly across the road in front of our eyes, it's
dark spray debris cloud now obliterating our view southwards
on the highway, it's ever-attendant waterfall sound hanging
in the air like a verbal warning. I saw our
mud-streaked vehicles with their doors ajar. Through
the lens, I saw the very epitome of our chase.
that, everything was go again. Tim switched his last
probe on and pranced towards his van again.
Wrapping up his own photo shooting, Gene packed his own
camera away in the back seat of the Expedition (i.e. handed
it to me), and we drove north again to keep up with our
After a minute or so, something had changed as Gene and Tim
slowed to a stop again.
"That's it - it's dissipating......" We all got out - I was finally getting used to the
stop-go-stop-go rhythm and actually was beginning to get
into a routine now - I now wished that we had another hour
or so of tornadoes for me to be creative with!
But that was never likely........ We stopped and watched the rapidly weakening (for the second
time) tornado as it moved off on a final path trajectory
into the field to our southwest and west.
It gave out some amazing formations whilst dying,
displaying that proverbial
"Genie-out-of-the-bottle" look behind a small
grove of trees. It
then lost the remnants of it's condensation......and
that was left was a dust devil having a bad day in the field
about 200 yards to our west - little multiple-vortices made
out of mist dancing concentrically around each other amidst
their glee. Then
even that disappeared.
The Manchester event was over.
breathed a deep shaky breath - but it still caught in my
throat with my continued post-event anxiety.
We were left standing alone on the highway.
But as ever Tim lifted us all from our thoughts.
want to go back and collect everything." I nodded my head and agreed - suddenly finding my voice.
"Yes that must be done." I knew how important some of these probe deployments had
been. Or I
suspected. Driving south we cleared the trees on our left (west) and
were revealed the next event - a very low-hanging
mesocyclone and wall cloud.
About 30 seconds after it was revealed to us - it
began tornadoing. Our
storm lived on - it had just jumped over to the east by a
few miles. I
shook my head in disbelief as I witnessed even more
tornadoes for the day - I felt like I was sitting lazily in
a huge theater and being shown all these things - the sky
would simply not stop rotating.
Every damn cloud that went up and could sustain an
updraft for any length of time rotated and probably
tornadoed this day. We pulled up to the two probes Tim had last deployed - one
on either side of the road.
Of course Carsten was out taking photographs of Tim
recovering them and marking them on his GPS.
It was THE most eerie feeling I have ever had - nonchalantly picking up these probes and talking about the
day - whilst tornadoes dropped from the sky about 5 miles to
our east. My
husband said he had never felt anything like it - going
about our necessary business whilst this atmospheric
violence was happening behind our very backs.
That means a lot coming from one who has chased for
20 years and seen as much as he has....... Driving south again, we picked up one probe that looked like
it may have got a side-swipe from the vortex as it crossed
the road. We
carried on........wanting to get to the really interesting
area - the demolished farmstead at the corner where we had
made our death-defying turn away from the cone as it
that area - there was already a buzz of activity.
A couple of emergency vehicles were parked on the
highway - their lights flashing in warning to anybody else
of what had just happened.
Nightmarish renditions of trees stood at the side of
the road - which once enclosed the farmstead's yard -
debarked and stark. A
truck lay rolled up in a ball amongst one of those trees.
Another squashed car lay on the side of the highway
in the ditch.
Power lines were draped across the road but thankfully were
no longer live. The
power poles were either lying across the road too - or had
been relocated far enough into the adjacent fields that we
could not see them.
There was no structure left - no farmstead.
Many piles of wood and 2x4s and everything else
imaginable lay strewn around - the remnants of the house
lying in testament to what had just taken place here.
Rows of hedging vegetation lay at 180 degrees -
horizontal to the ground.
A car battery lay on the highway - fizzing acid.
Two Mesonet vehicles were parked up at the side of
the road right next to the scene.
A few people - faces unknown - were helping out at
the scene or taking it in - one of the two.
Luckily nobody had been home.
Somewhere a dog barked.
We slowed down getting ready to stop to take video,
photographs and make sure nobody needed any help.
I shook my head.
"Good grief I hope everybody's alright......"
Gene stayed silent. Carsten
had his usual exclamation.
He had probably never seen direct tornado damage from an
event he had witnessed before.
This was an almost-new experience for myself, too.
Although I did have some damage knowledge to use in
my own assessment of the scene - after our May 8th extensive
damage survey with Tim Marshall earlier this year.
My mind instantly began thinking 'F3 - possibly F4'.
I scanned around as we entered the destroyed area - picking
our tires through all the hazardous debris on the road.
My eyes scanned the scene - and down the
road.......down the highway......just south........a
destroyed boat lay in the middle of the road........a
strange, orange light flashed.......
My eyes focused.
I pointed to Gene frantically.
The silver body of the TIV lay beached like a whale,
half-on, half-off the highway - it's hazard warning lights
still flashing redundantly.
Chill after chill went down my spine - what the hell
had happened? What
had they done???
We bailed from the truck as it stopped.
Tim and Gene and Carsten began filming and taking
got some RARE footage of actual tornado damage in the
foreground with emergency vehicle lights - and tornadoes in
I began making my feet shuffle towards the TIV - my knees
still like jelly and my head still like soup - but there was
no way I wasn't finding out about my friends that we had
spent a lot of time with last year.
I began to get REALLY worried.
Suddenly a hand laid itself lightly on my shoulder from
Said another female voice.
I turned around to be faced with Jennifer from the
TIV - she had been wandering about in the wreckage all this
"Oh thank goodness!"
I hugged her for a second.
We exchanged statements of disbelief in what we had
just been a part of. I
got most of her story and their estimation of how close to
the tornado they had been.
It was not in triple figures as far as feet were
Turns out Sean had been filming out the portholes - and so
poor Jennifer has been driving the huge TIV north up the
road all the time - approaching the tornado.
Sean had kept edging her on and edging her on.
The only thing that stopped them finally was a boat
in the road. Jennifer
deserves as much if not more commendation as a chaser than I
We broke up for a minute and I walked towards the TIV -
wondering where Sean was.
I got half the way towards their vehicle when a
familiar tanned head emerged from the entrance to that
black t-shirt was mud-splattered, the arms of it rolled up
past his shoulders. He
walked up to the debris site too - his short stocky form
reminding me of June 23rd 2002.
I gave him a short hug too - as much for my own
comfort as his - and we made our ways back to the house
site. Sean was
adamant that the footage they got today was better than June
23rd last year. I
was amazed. And so ensued about 20 minutes of organized chaos and
and Jennifer got together with Tim and Gene and Carsten and
talked for a while. I
wiped my own forehead of tornado-debris and laid it against
my husband's shoulder for a few seconds whilst he stood
still, I shook my head over and over again. Coming out of my exhausted daze, I took a small sip of my -
even staler - spring water and looked around.
I saw two young lads at the side of the road by the
Mesonet cars. I
walked up to them.
One of them spoke up.
"Yeah we're fine - it's been an amazing day
He was in a hurry!
".......we're the Mesonet team and we have to get going
- there's tornadoes still happening over there and we really
need to get going........I don't know whose dog this
I smiled in understanding, and took the mutt's collar from
"We're going to be here for a little while yet - we
have probes to recover.
We'll make sure the dog is OK."
I held out my hand.
"What was your name I didn’t catch it?"
He smiled and shook my hand.
"I'm Matt - Matt Gryzch."
I replied as they got into their vehicles.
"Karen Rhoden. Keep
Happily they marched northwards.
Shortly after that - some friends of the owner of the
house appeared and took the dog.
He was safe.
got back into our vehicles and travelled further south -
there was still one probe missing.
We drove past the TIV and a bit further south.
I frowned, not recognizing where we were. Everybody else seemed to be very disoriented.
We stopped, and Tim radioed to us that he had just
checked his GPS positioning map and had realised that we had
overshot our position for the recovery of No. 3.
We all agreed, and turned around and headed north
vehicles must have looked like some lost herd of
animals....... Coming back to the junction in the road, Tim suddenly
recognised his surroundings - as much as they had changed
from the last time we were here.
We pulled off of the paved road and onto the
blasted-mud road to our west.
Stopping the vehicles yet again - only yards from
where we had been stopped the last time - we got out.
Tim immediately went into bloodhound mode trying to
locate the one missing piece of his jigsaw.
Walking speedily along, his trainers sticking into
the mud with every footfall, he pointed and shouted just as
we all saw it sitting there, mud blasted.
"And here it is!"
The small, bright orange probe sat in about three inches of
surface of the road looked smooth to the eye - a result of
the 200+ mph winds molding it as they whipped by.
But when one placed a foot on the road - your feet
sunk down several inches and broke the sheer appearance of
the surface. But
we ignored the inconvenience of the mud at this moment in
and Pat both filmed Tim as he closed in on the probe,
Carsten of course recorded it all for history in stills.
I walked with the others, contemplating.
"Was this really where we left it?"
Tim answered emphatically.
it was - remember? We
came along this mud road, over that small bridge there,
stopped by this house when it was still here, I dropped the
probe - and we took off!!!
This is it!"
Carsten came running up to the probe immediately.
His German face was ecstatic.
"This is amazing!
This is amazing!"
Tim crouched down by his probe slowly, not touching it yet -
letting everyone get more than enough photographs and video
of the event. Gene
filmed him intently - knowing how important this event was.
"Now Tim the question is - is the power light still on the bottom???"
We all grimaced and waited expectantly.
Tim tilted the probe up gently - and there was the
red light, flashing away faithfully.
Everybody chorused. We
marveled at what the little device had been through - when
Tim lifted up the probe - the gravel road underneath it was
dry and untouched - the probe had not even moved on inch! 'There'll
be some VERY lucky ant under there....' I thought.
The circle of dry gravel stood out stark against the
dark, wet, plastered mud road.
Pat pointed to a large gouge in the road just next to
the probe on it's south side.
"You just made it - just missed by something big!"
Truly amazing........no other words can describe everything
that was going through our heads right now.
Tim fell to recording the legendary Probe No. 3's GPS
position exactly on his laptop in the van.
this was over we decided we had to go and look for the swirl
- not having seen it on the road down to this area.
Knowing that it was deployed north of Probe 3's
position, we drove north again looking in all the fields and
at the side of the ditches for something big and silver.
Various pieces of sheet metal tricked us on numerous
occasions, but the swirl never revealed itself to us.
Tim communicated with our vehicle as to where he
thought he had deployed it - on the same piece of road that
he dropped two of his probes. We
looked over that area extensively, but it quite suddenly
started raining. It
was also beginning to get dark.
One thing was for sure - the swirl had been moved
from the road by the tornado - technically making the
deployment a success.
But we now eyed another approaching storm to our
southwest with suspicion.
We could see the shear still working at the updrafts
- that made us uneasy.
As we sat on the side of the road north of the
wrecked farmstead, the light was extinguished almost
completely and we were enveloped by a monsoon, with
horizontal driving rain and large gusts of wind which
buffeted the truck. Tim
communicated with our vehicle.
"Uh........I say we call off the search for the swirl
for tonight and stay in the immediate area - we can then
resume looking tomorrow morning.
Huron isn't too far away...." All three of us in the Expedition agreed - although Carsten
was still upset about not being able to find his device.
But now it was practically dark - and we had the
unenviable task of navigating through a night of storms on a
tornado outbreak day to get a room for the night somewhere.
Even worse - Tim's radar connection had been down for
most of the day, and so we were partially-blind whilst
trying to get to a nearby town or city.
We drove south past the house debris again, and
carried on south. The
TIV was gone - they had obviously found somebody to pull
them out of the ditch.
The boat was still on the road.
As darkness fell completely, we reached Hwy 14 and
turned west to target Huron for the night.
We passed the eerie remnants of Manchester - no
longer on the map - a blot on the landscape after it's
tornado encounter. The
groves of trees were bare - it was almost like mid-winter in
It continued raining and blowing wind on our journey.
It was more than a little worrying.
I picked up the radio eventually and spoke to Tim.
"Hey Tim - we're getting kind of sick of this rain -
any idea when we might be dry - and any idea about what sort
of storms are out here in the night with us now??"
Tim came back eventually to us on the radio - although it
was hard to hear him over the lashing of the rain.
"We've got a couple of supercells......still in
the vicinity I think......radar's been down........the cold
front is approaching from........west.........big squall
We drove a bit more, watching the cloud bases in-between
lightning strikes and the heavy rain.
Eventually the rain eased off - but it was still a
spray and the roads were still soaked.
Suddenly Tim came over again. "What's that to our immediate south - I think I see a
funnel in the lightning......???"
Gene looked out quickly, waiting for more lightning.
He seemed to see something also.
"Yeah we need to get out of here!!!" My heart lurched in the darkness and Gene floored the
vehicle once again - not knowing what was out there with us
in the night and not wanting to find out.
Who knows what the speedometer peaked at.......I hate
to think. We
gave the trucks free-rein until we knew we were out of any
danger area posed by what we thought we had seen out there.
Gene laughed nervously, and talked back to Tim. "Well.......who will ever know what THAT
Tim agreed. We
just wanted to get to Huron and then it would be over for
rolled into Huron about 11.00 at night, our mud-splattered
vehicles liking the looks of the "Dakota Inn"
right on the east side of town where we came in.
It had a big, friendly Pheasant statue on the
roadside - the biggest Pheasant in the world or
something......the bird sat, smiling, rain-drenched and
backlit by crawlers. Chances are we'd stay in Huron tonight........
We checked around town for other hotels and/or eating
establishments - but didn't find much.
We decided to go back to the Dakota Inn, check in and
then order out some pizza later on.
There was a Pizza Hut delivery station right across
the road from our Inn.
Emerging from our vehicles after the longest, most
tiring, most hair-raising day of our lives, we felt the cold
rain of the cold front fall upon our faces....cleansing,
refreshing, and we were given a wonderful display of
crawlers on the backside of the system.
Don't you just love Mother Nature at work?
checking in, we all disappeared to our respective rooms to
freshen up and cleanse the tornado-deposited mud and dirt
from our persons. The
rooms were nice and simple and comfortable. Whilst waiting on Gene I switched the television on -
flicking immediately to The Weather Channel out of idle
interest to see if they were showing any footage. Were they showing any footage??
Were they???! Every channel - not just The Weather Channel - was awash
with reels of tornado footage from the day.
TWC were showing some particularly striking footage
of the Manchester wedge when it was going right through
town. It was
just about identical to our footage in content - showing the
houses and shacks ripping apart up-close.
That video apparently belonged to someone called Reed
Timmer from Norman and a bunch of his friends.
I then realised that the brake lights we had seen up
ahead of US at Manchester earlier in the day had been them -
right up at the town when the tornado was approaching. There was amazing footage of a storm down by
Centerville which was being shown.
It never produced anything on the magnitude of our
storm - as far as we knew - but it had multiple tornadoes on
the ground at the same time - all rope/pencil tornadoes -
all dancing around each other. It truly had been an unusually spectacular day.
South Dakota - in June - again.
11.30 I was returning from trying unsuccessfully to rattle a
chocolate bar out of the vending machine in the lobby when I
saw a lot of activity in Tim's room.
I peeked in round the door, and saw Tim sitting at
the table surrounded by Pat, Carsten, Carsten's cameras and
Probe No. 3. Tim
had wires extracted from the probe, and fed into his laptop.
He looked at me over his glasses. "We've downloaded the data from the probe at the corner
near the farmstead. We
have recorded a 100-millibar pressure drop.
This is just amazing." His voice was slow, deliberate, almost dulled.
It was like he was still in shock. I removed myself from the doorway and sprinted over the
courtyard of the Inn to our room - and got Gene.
I told him that they were downloading data from the
probes - and Gene picked up his video camera and followed me
over to Tim's room.
Gene filmed also Tim talking about the data that the
probe was giving us - just purely amazing.
I collapsed on one of the beds in the background, and
sat watching everything.
Carsten had set up his tripod and was taking
professional photographs of Tim at his laptop.
The screen showed on the laptop a graph of the
pressure trace from Probe No. 3 - and timeline.
The pressure trace as time goes on is normal, and
then suddenly over the course of about 12 seconds it drops -
bottoming out at 100 millibars from where it started.
There was so much data that could be extrapolated
from this one reading it didn't bear thinking about. Tim mentioned a chilling reminder of what we had done today.
"Now.....the scary thing is that........from the time
of switching the probe on...........to the time of maximum
pressure drop..........was around 70 seconds."
Gene still filmed him, and said.
"That's all we had....."
"That's all we had."
Tim echoed, shaking his head.
And our vehicle was behind them - AFTER
mused about all the possibilities and facts of the day for a
while - until I felt too ill, sick and tired from hunger and
exhaustion to carry on.
I retreated to our room with Gene, and ordered out
for some pizza, Pepsi and cinnamon sticks to keep us alive.
It arrived within 15 minutes.
Our before-bed treat was pizza and Pepsi - and we sat
eating it on the beds and watching all the tornado footage
of the day on television.
following day - a Wednesday - we decided to stay in the
morning dawned bright and COLD - barely in the 60's with a
wind chill probably in the 50's post-cold front.
Carsten was up at dawn and went taking photographs
before all the debris was cleared up.
He also wanted to find his swirl.
Any of the sensible had a few more hours of sleep
after our ordeal. Carl
had also appeared at our hotel late that night - we saw his
car in the parking lot outside in the morning.
It was good to know everybody was safe. About 12 noon Carsten came back to the Inn without having
found the swirl to collect us and together go out and try
and find it.
He salvaged a cold piece of pizza from somebody's
box, and we left for the day to go back out into the field.
came up on Manchester - the ex-town was already swamped with
debris-clearing machines - there was hardly anything left to
see! Gosh they
were quick in tidying up........we wouldn't get too many
useful photographs for ourselves now......
We crossed over the railroad tracks just east of Manchester
and went north again on 425th Ave - the infamous
road we had been on last night.
Much to my sorrow we saw many animals and cattle in
distress which had been caught up in the chaos yesterday -
their farmers not having been able to do anything about them
We came up on the destroyed farmstead and stopped to
take some more photographs - although they left nothing in
their debris-clean-up efforts and we had to act quickly!
The wind was chilling to the bone when we got out of the
truck. I huddle
in my inadequate denim jacket - cursing the cold front now!
We all looked thoroughly miserable but we had to get
some shots of the house site today whilst we were here.
After taking that all in we drove up the road again.
Carsten talked on the radio to Tim and Tim told him
where he thought we deployed the swirl.
We approximated roughly where we thought we were, and
stopped on the side of the road.
It was very strange being back at the spot where -
just 17 or so hours ago we had been battling with terrifying
weather elements and evading tornadoes that were sculpted
out of the atmosphere. Getting out of our vehicles again, Tim handed Gene an extra
jacket kindly - and Gene wasted no time in putting it on as
cold as it was I can tell you!
Splitting up into groups, we began to comb the
immediate area - working out and into the adjacent fields.
It HAD to be around here somewhere!
And it was huge and silver and bulky - you would
think you would see it easily.
Gene and I headed east into the cornfield where
yesterday evening the tornado had been crunching through.
Large corn plants gradually degenerated continuously
to shorter and shorter stalks, until there was just bare
mud. We could
easily trace the path of the tornado.
Sloshing around in the wet cornfield for 15 minutes
proved nothing, except to get our feet muddy and wet again.
Looking over, we saw that away in the other field to
the west of the road the rest of our group were all huddled
Chances are they had found it...........
sprinted back to the road and over it, and found Tim,
Carsten, Carl and Pat all huddled over the missing swirl -
where it had been laid by the tornado just 20 yards or so
off the road in the adjacent field.
The portholes were all smashed, the body had not been
pierced but the cameras inside had not been secure enough
and had rattled themselves into oblivion inside.
We spent about 30 minutes taking video and
photographs without moving the swirl.
We were even able to trace the path of the swirl.
There were a couple of deep gouge marks in the road,
and then in the ditch and up onto the incline where the
swirl lay. I
pointed these out - to which many were amazed.
at the tail end of the gouge marks, one could trace the
scraping and bouncing done by the swirl when the tornado had
given it a swift kick out of it's path.
A local gentleman then stopped by in his truck -
telling us that he was watching it from his house yesterday
- he gestured behind him to the small house on the east side
of the road nearby where we had stopped to deploy again
was lucky. We
chatted with him and he kindly agreed to take some group
photographs of all of our team standing over the swirl.
this he left. It
was decided that - to move the swirl - it should be Carsten
and Gene - as they were the initial deployers.
Tim tagged along, too - and we took photographs of
them taking the muddy, battered device back to the
now I had to sit next to a MUDDY swirl for the journey home
tomorrow! We made sure we were all packed up - and that there was
nothing more to be done.
After that we headed back to Manchester so Tim and
Carl could get a couple of shots of the town, and Carsten
spent most of his time gleefully on the phone to his
superiors at National Geographic in Washington.
He had some happy yet stressed bosses, I believe.
as it was 5pm and we had had no breakfast or lunch since
pizza last night, we decided to see what Huron had to offer
as far as restaurants were concerned.
Not much was the answer.
We found a small diner-type Inn place on the south
side of town, and had steaks and buffet salads.
It was OK but not the best - but never mind it wasn't
as if food was top of our list right now. Gene and I were starting to feel the pangs of wanting to get
home - mostly for Meso - and we couldn't wait until we
started the drive south tomorrow. After our dinner - and after Carsten nearly fell asleep in
his soup about three times - we returned to the Dakota Inn
for one last night, and to laze around for the rest of the
morning dawned bright and early and Tim and Pat had already
left when we surfaced.
It was a shame we hadn't had the time to say a
goodbye - apart from the ones that were done the night
before - but Tim had great urgency to get back to Denver and
it was a long drive.
Carsten and Gene and I began packing things into the
no-longer-red, mud-splattered Expedition, as Carl appeared
to say goodbye. We
exchanged email addressed with him - thanking him for being
with us on our mission - and then said goodbye too. The two girls of the Dakota Inn watched us as we rolled out
of the parking lot - I waved to the one who had expressed a
great interest in storms to us the other day when talking
idly. She had
seen tornadoes already in her life - such is the life I
guess when you live on the Plains.
Chances are she may become a chaser.......
drive south and home was long and for the most part quite
relaxing - as we made it to I-90 and took a winding route to
Chadron Nebraska. This
route was necessary for us to get home as we had left our
own truck in Chadron at the beginning of the mission a week
ago. Before we got into the southern half of South Dakota we
stopped at a few gas stations to pick up copies of the local
newspapers which all - needless to say - had amazing images
on their pages of the tornadoes two days ago.
There were some interesting articles. We had a nice drive through the rolling hills of southern
South Dakota - as the post-system crystalline sunshine shone
down on us. Soon
enough we were in Nebraska by about 4pm, and we rolled into
Chadron by about 5pm. We
were very happy to see our old, familiar truck sitting
devotedly waiting on us in the Hotels' parking lot.
After transferring all our baggage and belongings
into the Explorer - Carsten made a surprise request.
He wanted us to accompany him to Boulder to go and
meet Anton Seimon tonight for Sushi.
Now - Sushi and I do not get on very well and this
trip actually served to prove that matter to myself - and I
was tired and beaten for the week - but we for some reason
agreed to this idea. Gene
seemed quite open about it and so I said that I didn't
really have any objections.
We grabbed a Subway in Chadron and hit the road for
* Anton Seimon was a part of Tim Samaras’ NGS team for
most of 2003. He
had just come to the end of his allotted chase time for the
year – about a week or so before June 24th.
He truly was an enigmatic person to work around –
especially when you are talking in terms of chasers.
Always keeping our spirits up – we never did get
the time to really get to know him well enough.
spending a night and a morning in Boulder, and after a
hearty breakfast to compensate for my minimalistic Sushi
experience the night before, Gene and I hit the road for
Norman Oklahoma after saying our fond goodbyes to both
Carsten Peter and Anton Seimon.
I was not looking forward to this one drive today,
and my feelings served to be right. It took us hours to even get out of the
Boulder/Denver/Colorado Springs metro areas - the traffic
and congestion and road constructions were so bad.
And of course we had no air conditioning in the old
when we made it into New Mexico I was relived.
Our route home took us past Mt Capulin and the town
of Clayton in New Mexico, and on to Dalhart Texas.
We filled up here at about 11.00pm on Friday night
– and got to watch some lightning from some dying cells on
the horizon – as if the chase season was bidding us
farewell in the Texas Panhandle. In an hour we were in Amarillo – and the drive was
straight but long to Oklahoma City.
I slept until we were well into Oklahoma – although
every time I closed my eyes I felt guilty as Gene was the
one getting more and more tired behind the wheel. We got home around 4.30am on Saturday morning – to find
all well in the house and Meso (our flamboyant pet Macaw)
was fast asleep (until we blundered in the door!).
Then.........there was nothing left but to get back to
normal life, I guess.........and I think we’ve come full
is nothing more to add to this story.
certainly came as a spectacular end to an unusual year.
Who would have thought that our finale would come
again in South Dakota – one day and a year after June 23rd
2002 near Aberdeen. And
I certainly would never have thought that we would have ever
been involved in such a successful mission with Tim Samaras
and National Geographic.
hindsight would we have cut it so fine on June 24th
– got so close? No,
probably not. It’s
not “cool” or “best” or “right” to simply get as
close as possible to the most dangerous part of a supercell
– and plant yourself under the meso – obviously.
Being photographers and being out there for the sheer
photographic opportunities and because we love these storms
so much – of course we would have loved to have been able
to stay back a bit – get in at a different angle – and
get all the footage and photographs that we could ever want.
But our mission dictated to us our actions beforehand.
For some reason we were destined to help out with
this project – for some reason our team was destined to be
in South Dakota this June 24th.
Some unseen hand was guiding us – some unseen force
was watching us – or at least that’s what we believe.
There are, frequently, too many little coincidences and
quirks on big chase days to simply shrug them off – and I
embrace the ability to scrutinize them.
Someone somewhere was trying to tell us something
about South Dakota..........and we listened.
all that – the photography gained this day was unrivalled
in its astounding power and clarity – portraying what we
were experiencing excellently.
Then again – let’s face it - when you are up that
close to something that huge and awe-inspiring, you had better
come out of it with some amazing photographs to show
others..........some little piece of the day to keep for
absence of being able to think of any other words to put
into this paper – having emptied myself already of
vocabulary – I would leave you all with this thought;
we do, everything we say, everything we aspire to – it is
all dwarfed by Mother Nature – and made insignificant.
Some people know this already – and happily a lot
of those are chasers. Those
who don’t know this will from time to time be taken down a
peg or two by Her.
The God-given atmosphere in our world is unique – possibly
one of a kind. Nothing
should be taken for granted – and everything should be
sheer scale and grandeur of what happens in the heavens
cannot fail to belittle even the most ego-prone of us.
It is amazing to think that some people on the earth
today are not full of the feelings of wonder that we
experience – every time they look up at the sky.
The shifting of the seasons as they pass us by, the
shifting of each day, the changing of the patterns of
weather systems – all are linked around a central cog of
existence which allowed our species to flourish in the first
least we can do for this fine planet is appreciate it and be
full of wonder.......and know and be content in the fact
that we can never know or
understand everything about it.