Everything felt “off” on the morning of May 31st, 2013. The Storm Prediction Center had issued a “PDS” Tornado Watch (Particularly Dangerous Situation) for central Oklahoma — the same area that had been devastated less than two weeks earlier. Gathered at Reed Timmer’s home in Norman, OK, the whole chase team was acting strangely. Hardened chasers like Dick McGowan vowed to abandon the chase to rescue pets if necessary.
Reed himself was especially direct and blunt about how bad the day could be (as seen at the beginning of Episode 11, “Nemesis, Part 1”). “It’s gonna be bad today, real bad,” he said. Our Director of Photography, Chris Whiteneck, was concerned about his fiancée and baby, who didn’t have access to a tornado shelter. Shooter-producer Jason Bagby offered to let them use his shelter if necessary. The mood was a weird form of suppressed panic.
We started driving north through Moore, where traffic was crawling as rubberneckers gazed at the damage from the May 20th tornado. It was very ominous, and there wasn’t much conversation in any of the vehicles on the way to these storms.
On this day, Whiteneck was riding in Dominator 2 with Reed, Sean, and Seth Deckard. Seth is our wiz programmer at TVN, responsible for creating almost everything you see on our site, TVNweather.com. Because Mike Scantlin was out of town, Seth stepped in to run our live, streaming internet video. Bagby was shooting Dick, Dick’s girlfriend Shalyn, and Terry in the SUV. I was shooting in Dom 1 with Connor and Ray Bohac, our Kickstarter backer who had returned to chase with us.
I have trouble remembering what exactly happened on this day until we stopped in front of some windmills in the countryside north of El Reno. For what seemed like 20-30 minutes, we watched three discrete storms merge together into one dark mass. The sky was electrified. We should have been excited in this situation, but we just weren’t. No one, not even Reed, was having fun or cracking jokes.
As for the shooters, we just focused on capturing the beauty of the scene. There was so little banter, however, that Bagby, Whiteneck and I started shooting each other to get the “behind-the-scenes” perspective (some of this footage appears in “Behind the Scenes, Part 2”).
After Reed’s “phoner” with KFOR, we were off and we knew this was the point of no return. We were going to see something today, and it was probably going to be bad. We just had to hope that the tornado would stay away from major populations.
We briefly chased some red-herring funnels, and Dom 1 accidentally backed into the SUV — luckily both vehicles had steel and/or Linex coatings! We finally journeyed to the southernmost circulation, west of El Reno, where the rain cleared and we could see the entire side of the supercell. The sight of this storm made our jaws drop. It was beautiful and fearsome, everything that gets a storm chaser’s blood pumping.
Reed charged directly toward the developing circulation. Things were happening fast, and we needed to get there as quickly as possible. While driving toward the huge, rotating wall cloud, little wispy fingers started to appear and disappear underneath. These were the initial “spin-up” vortices, and when you see them rotating underneath a broad wall cloud, it’s a sign that a large tornado is imminent.
The frustrating part about shooting in Dom 1 is that there’s almost no visibility from the backseat. The windows only roll halfway down, and the steel armor blocks the view forward and back. I had to stick my head and the camera outside of the vehicle to get a good view (definitely not safe in this situation). Luckily, Bagby and Whiteneck had a better field of view in Dom 2 and the SUV.
All of us shooting, including Terry Rosema, were breathlessly trying to capture these strong, fully-condensed suction vortices. Two vortices appeared for one second, and in the next second there were eight on the ground simultaneously.
Reed stopped the caravan twice, and the second time he stepped outside of Dom 2 to stand on the road. The dancing vortices had crossed, and the situation was so loud and chaotic that Reed didn’t notice a baseball-sized hailstone crashing 15 feet away from him. Dick blared the horn to warn Reed. Then Dick bailed.
At the beginning of the day, I had told Dick to stay right behind Reed. In the past, if Dick didn’t agree with Reed on how to chase, he would leave the team and chase solo. Today was too important, I told him, and we couldn’t get separated. He agreed and promised to stay behind Reed.
But at this moment in El Reno, he decided to flee and abort the chase. In retrospect (and I’ve told Dick this), it was the smartest move he could have made. The SUV didn’t have steel armor like the Doms, and could easily have been tossed by the tornado. Or have its windows blown out by hail.
With Dick gone, Connor, Ray and I (in Dom 1) pulled up behind Dom 2. The next eight minutes would be more dangerous than any of us realized. The Doms drove east along Reno Road, trying to keep pace with this tornado, which had quickly grown into a wedge. Reed and the rest of us watched as the wedge grew to become a mile wide. Or so we thought.
To be continued next time.
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers
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.