October 4, 1998 Chase

I was working the night before this chase, and during a random trash run, noticed something I'd never seen before. Low clouds were screaming north, as fast as I'd ever seen. I knew enough to realize what they meant, and went back inside. I had The Weather Channel on one of the bar TVs, and heard the OCM mention that it was warmer in south Kansas now,  at 3am, than it had been at midnight. That really sent alarms off in my head. I went to call Greg. He and I had been getting along better than we had all Spring or Summer, and I wanted to make sure he was ready for the chase. He was drunk when I called, and still out partying. I tried to convey the urgency of the situation as it pertained to chasing the next day, but he blew me off, saying I was overreacting, because "It's October dude."  Clearly he wasn't getting it. So I hung up with him and called Matt. Unlike Greg, he had a full grasp on what was happening, and we planned to chase together the next day. The only problem was, the video camera was Greg's; without him along, I would be chasing for the very first time without being able to document the events I observed. However, Matt had a still camera, and that was better than nothing.

He picked me up the next morning and we rolled northbound up I-35 towards the Kansas border (and the moderate risk area). We set up near Attica, as early storms began to close in. These storms were severe, but not tornadic, as they raced by us at around 65mph. After a short while, Matt suggested we head south back into Oklahoma, to try and get away from the main upper jet, so storm motions wouldn't be so ridiculous. As we made our way back south towards Oklahoma, the NOAA radio went silent. There were no warnings, no advisories, and no spotter chatter. The storm that had grazed us before was long gone, and nothing else was around. We were starting to fear we had busted horribly. By the time we were nearing the Oklahoma border, we were certain of it.

Basically just trying to head back home through a new storm we'd encountered, suddenly the NOAA radio blared out a tornado warning...for the storm we were in. We were southbound on OK81 headed towards Medford, and decided to keep driving south until we got to Pond Creek, hoping by then we would clear the heavy precip. We drove to Pond Creek, then turned east onto US60, still in blinding rain. We knew we weren't in any immediate danger, because we were in the heavy rain already headed east ahead of any possible tornado west or southwest of us. The problem was, if there was a tornado back there, we couldn't see it. We drove until we came to I-35 again, where we turned south. Not long afterwards, we finally began to clear the rain.

There was a pronounced lowering with the storm we'd been in to the southwest, and we focused on that as we drove south to get out of the path. Another storm was just to our southeast, but we'd been too focused on the one immediately west to pay much attention to it. As we kept driving south, I glanced away from the lowering to our west and saw a huge stovepipe tornado to our southeast, maybe five miles away. I was so excited I couldn't speak; I started pointing at it violently. Matt, focused on the road and the lowering to our west, didn't see it. I kept pointing and finally managed to say "Look dude, right there!!!!" Matt thought I was talking about the storm's base, part of which he was seeing out of the corner of his left eye, and was getting annoyed at my persistence: "I know man, I know." Finally my patience ran out: "NO," I said as I pointed straight across his face, out his window, and at the tornado, "Right there!!!"  Now he finally saw it, as he excited said "Holy shit 18:48 we got a huge tornado on the ground!!!" We pulled over immediately, at mile marker 178.

Matt sat in the car and snapped pictures as I grabbed the phone to report the tornado to KWTV (which I no longer chased for but still had all the numbers for). I was practicing basic protocol, expecting them to already be aware of the tornado. However, the voice on the other side of the line was excited and concerned. "You have a tornado where? How big? What direction is it heading? How fast?" Little did we know at the time, there had already been a significant tornado with another storm near Watonga, well to our southwest, that had taken up almost everyone's attention to that point. We were two of just a handful of people on this northern storm. I gave the guy all the information I could, and hung up. Then I simply stood outside the car, watching the most amazing tornado I'd ever seen to date. It moved quicker as it began to rope, eventually dissipating completely. Afterwards, I jumped back in the car, and we continued to head south.

By this time, it was getting close to dusk, and new storms were developing much closer to home, so we decided to just head back to Norman. As we entered Oklahoma City, a tornado warning was issued for a storm on the west side of the metro. We made an attempt to intercept this storm, but gave up once we realized how crappy negotiating OKC traffic in rain after dark was. During the time while we broke off our route home, a new storm near Moore produced a damaging tornado that went through the west side of town, catching many motorists on I-35 off guard. If we'd not strayed off the path home to try and chase the storm west of Oklahoma City, we likely would've been very near this situation ourselves. As it was, we learned of the Moore tornado via NOAA radio as we headed back east from the west side of the city, and plotted a course that took us around this potentially deadly storm. We went east on I-40, then turned south onto Sooner Road, and came back into Norman that way. As we drove, the CGs were insane, probably the most insane I've ever witnessed. The strikes were so frequent, bright, and close, they began to hurt my eyes. After a while, I just closed them, and could still see the bright white flashes.

We made it home unscathed, and also, unfortunately, without any documentation. Greg's inability or refusal to grasp the situation cost me the ability to record the tornado on video, while none of the pictures Matt took of the tornado came out. It was a bittersweet experience. However, a few days later while at work, I happened to catch a news feature from KWTV. It was a story about a couple who lived west of Stillwater. They had been at home and were just sitting down to dinner when Gary England came on television with an urgent tornado warning for people near Stillwater. After this, they jumped up and went outside. The tornado was in a field less than a mile from their home, heading straight for them. They ran to their shelter. After the tornado had passed, they came back out to discover their home had been destroyed. They were on television now thanking Gary for his timely, life-saving warning. I felt a huge wave of pride, because I knew it was our report that had allowed Gary to get on the air so quickly just before the tornado struck. We had indirectly saved two lives, which eased the pain of having missed out on documenting the most amazing tornado I'd ever seen to date. A few months later, while calling the station to ask if they were interested in some storm video I'd shot in Arkansas, Gary England picked up the phone and personally thanked me for the report that day. It was a pretty awesome moment for a newbie chaser.