Around 3:30am on May 20, I dragged myself out of bed to drive down to Reed’s place. I’d slept for a solid 2 hours, which was the norm for this crazy week. If you watched our 2013 season of Tornado Chasers, you know how challenging it can be to get Reed out of bed. It’s even tougher when you’re half asleep yourself.
Every news network on the planet wanted to interview Reed for his Edmond-area intercepts from the day before — that meant we needed to get to KFOR before the morning news. We climbed in Dom 3 and drove north on I-35, through Moore, before sunrise. I remember Reed and I talking about how peaceful everything was just before dawn.
After 6 solid hours of interviewing (I was shooting Reed so Whiteneck and Bagby could get some extra sleep), we made our way back to the circus of Reed’s house. Everyone in the world was there: dozens of chasers, Ginger Zee, and even a neighbor who brought Gatorade and bananas and just started to clean Reed’s house (as seen in Episode 7: “Home, Part 1”). Everyone was there but Cantore.
All of the shooters were fried, but we knew the forecast was huge for tornadoes. This could easily be the biggest day yet, and pure adrenaline (plus coffee) kept us alert. There was a bit of confusion over when we were leaving and where we were going.
The “chaser circus” is great proof of Newton’s First Law: a circus at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts upon it. When Cantore arrived and Mike Morgan told us to move, that spurred everyone into action.
Chris Whiteneck again climbed in Dom 3 with Reed, Sean, Cantore, and Mike. Jason Bagby had the pleasure of riding in Dom 2 with our special guest, Ginger Zee, as well as Connor and Terry. I teamed up again with Kevin, Ray and Bill in Dom 1.
This is a strange thing to say given the events later that day: everyone was in a giddy mood. Almost carefree. The previous day, May 19th, was such a successful chase, and we warned a lot of people in process. On the production side, we captured the entire event with 14 cameras, professional shooters, the whole shebang. There was a good chance we could top that on May 20.
We stopped and fooled around at a gas station for too long. We made silly jokes. Then we climbed in the Doms and headed south, away from Norman and Moore.
It happened pretty quickly. We were chasing some decent-looking storms in south-central OK when a tiny storm popped up southwest of Moore. We didn’t really pay it much attention. After all, it was just another storm on an outbreak day.
But it tightened up fast, and a tornado warning was issued for the Norman/Moore area. That’s when the first pang hit in the bottom of our stomachs. Instead of driving two hours south, we could have stayed at Reed’s house and watched this thing develop.
Oh well, we thought. That’s just part of chasing. But… this storm looked really good on radar, with a strong hook developing.
The data coverage in our area was so horrible that we only got updates every 5 minutes or so. It was very easy to not “think” about that storm heading toward Moore. Ray’s friends were texting him screenshots (our only way to get updates) of the giant tornado being broadcast live on national networks. I remember Bill getting texts from his friends saying that the tornado was “looking like May 3rd again” and heading into Moore.
Kevin and I quickly agreed that if was truly as big as May 3rd, we wouldn’t want to be there. A large tornado going through an urban area is a horrible thing and emergency crews would be busy on the scene. With the news pouring in quickly, I got a call from my sister, Jes, who asked “have you heard from Dad?”
That hit me like a freight train. At this point, with our horrible data coverage, we were trying to figure out exactly what path this tornado was taking. Ray and Bill were trying to contact all of their friends. My dad lived in Moore, and I didn’t know if his house was in danger or if he was even home. I tried calling his cell and land line, but no one picked up.
All of the Doms pulled over. We shared all the info we knew, and Reed relayed the on-air KFOR audio describing what had been hit. It looked like my house might have been wiped away, and that my dad’s house was in the damage path.
I was getting queasy and I felt very conflicted. My job was to stay with the chase, with the production. I knew that I couldn’t do much good by heading back to Moore (it would be almost impossible to enter), and I should continue to shoot the chase. But I felt like I had to try and get into Moore somehow and find my dad. Whiteneck told me, “Ken, you should go back. We can cover the rest of the chase.”
Connor and Terry volunteered to drive back with me in Dom 2. The moment those guys agreed to come back was one of the greatest moments of relief of my life, and I’m very thankful for them. We picked up my sister, and thankfully got a call from my dad: he had survived and made it to a neighbor’s house.
In Episode 8: “Home, Part 2” you see exactly what we saw entering Moore. Even after all of my years studying and filming tornadoes, I hadn’t seen anything quite like this. One striking thing about the tornado damage was that each house looked like it had been scrambled in place. Then on top of each “house pile” the tornado had placed an upside-down car. It was very eerie.
Reed and company had continued to chase, but it was soon apparent that there was only one big tornado story. Ginger and Cantore needed to get back to Moore. Even as Reed continued to chase into the evening, there wasn’t any conversation in Dom 3. All of the in-cabin footage shows hours of stunned silence among the chasers.
One of our assistant editors, Heidi Farrar, was chasing the Moore tornado and documented its chilling approach on video. She also witnessed the destruction in real-time. The mother of our assistant editor Jacob Bartels was seriously injured when the tornado leveled her home in Moore. In addition to 350 injured, 25 people had died from this tornado including 6 children. This was the first time a tornado had affected so many of us directly.
While my home was still standing (the tornado passed about half a mile to the north), power was out and the police blocked off access to the neighborhood. Looting is another dark part of a tornado’s aftermath, and the authorities didn’t want to take any chances. So I went down to Reed’s and stayed there for the next few days. I was able to transfer and view all of the footage we’d shot this past week, and also connect with my family.
Meanwhile Reed kept chasing. It was the only thing he could do. He was getting angry that news networks wanted him to go to Moore, stand in front of the damage and do live interviews. To him it felt exploitative and opposite to his mission. “We’re storm chasers, not damage chasers. We need to worry about new tornado threats,” he’d say.
By May 25th, Reed was preparing to journey north into Kansas. Little did he know that bigger tornadoes awaited.
To be continued next time.
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers