Tornado in progress: it was around 6:11 PM on May 31, 2013, and Dominator 2 was charging east on Reno Road, with Dominator 1 following. Our eyes were fixed on a seemingly mile-wide wedge tornado that was racing east, paralleling the road.
What looked like cone tornadoes started to form and rotate around the main wedge. Appearing and disappearing at will, these intense suction vortices indicated that the parent circulation was bigger than we’d thought. Chris Whiteneck and I were able to shoot some rare footage of these suction vortices (seen in Episode 12, “Nemesis, Part 2″ and “Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut”).
Reed realized the immediate danger and stopped Dom 2, letting the morphing twister move ahead of us. When it was far enough away, we started driving again. At this point the tornado had accelerated, and we had to move fast to catch up.
The tornado was becoming heavily rain-wrapped, making it difficult to tell where the rain stopped and the tornado began. Later we would learn that everything in our field of vision was the tornado.
Racing after the monster at 60 mph, downed power lines suddenly emerged and crashed into Dominator 2, jamming underneath its hood. Dom 2 was stuck. Sean put it into reverse and tugged the power lines until the hood ripped off (and was never seen again). As Dom 2 drove happily away without a hood, we all laughed at the comic relief of the moment. We realized that we had to let this tornado go — there was no way to catch up to it now.
When Whiteneck and I were shooting video at that moment, it seemed a little anticlimactic to drive away from a rain-wrapped wedge and call it a day. From our perspective, it looked like the tornado missed El Reno and hadn’t done much damage — our adrenaline levels started to go down. Well… until we made it to Highway 81.
Minutes earlier, Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel had been trying to escape the tornado when his car was flipped and tossed 200 yards. We came upon the white “Tornado Hunt” SUV lying in a field — the vehicle was crushed. Mike Bettes was in shock and his crew was injured, but all were lucky to be alive (as seen in “Episode 12: Nemesis, Part 2″).
We made sure Mike’s crew was safe, and then attempted to drive home. The storm, however, had grown into a high-precipitation monster, putting down the heaviest rain I’d ever seen.
The rain became so intense that we (Dom 1) lost Reed and Dom 2. Roads were flooded under three feet of water, and Connor, Ray, and I desperately tried to make our way back to Reed’s house. Dick, whose team had aborted the chase earlier, encountered standstill traffic on I-44, and was forced to travel south in the northbound lanes.
Somehow, after hours of driving through flooded roads, we all made it home. We told stories, joked, and Ray Bohac bought us Pizza Shuttle.
Over the next day, the national media reported about the immense size and power of the El Reno tornado. Many chasers had experienced life-threatening encounters, including Mike Bettes and KFOR meteorologist Emily Sutton.
One team of chasers hadn’t surfaced since May 31st. We didn’t notice it right away, but by the early morning hours of June 2nd, rumors started to fly that the unimaginable had happened: a storm chaser died during the chase.
At first, there was a veil of secrecy over the identity of the chaser. Some people said it was a “well-known” chaser, or perhaps multiple chasers. As time went on, the truth became apparent: Tim Samaras, Carl Young and Paul Samaras (team TWISTEX) had passed away.
Like so many other chasers, I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. Storm chasing and the field of meteorology had lost three of its brightest stars. Tim, Paul, and Carl were universally beloved, even by people who hadn’t met them. Reed, especially, had known them well and was crushed. I contacted Chris Whiteneck, who had worked with Tim, Paul and Carl on Storm Chasers. Terry Rosema, Mike Scantlin and others volunteered to help recover the personal items at the accident site.
That night, Reed’s house became a focal point for the recovery effort, as well as a communication base with the Samaras and Young families. I worked with Terry and chaser Tyler Costantini to catalog each personal item, and relay that information to the families. Reed was also speaking with the families. Over the next few days, the biggest names in the field would come to Reed’s house to inherit and safeguard Tim’s research equipment.
Storm chasing would never be the same. The sense of loss was palpable. Every TV network wanted to interview Reed about the tragedy, but he only granted a few interviews before it was too much. We weren’t sure how (or if) we should proceed with the series.
In time we realized that we could complete Tornado Chasers as a tribute to all who had lost their lives from tornadoes in 2013. We were in a unique position to provide an authentic visual account, from Reed’s perspective, of these historic events.
The challenge was finding the right way to do it.
To be continued next time.
S2B1 – Tornadoes of 2013: The Ultimate Cut
The first bonus episode cut from the 2013 Tornado Chasers footage (previously called Tornadoes 2013: Raw and Uncut) contains over 80 minutes of extremely high quality video from multiple camera angles of all the major tornadoes chased by TVN during the 2013 production season. Shot with cinema cameras and delivered on our streaming and download platform that meets or exceeds the highest quality of Netflix and other streaming services, you won’t be able to find a better value anywhere else. You can get this episode by itself or as part of the Tornado Chasers Bonus Pass.