April 15, 1998 Chase
Greg and I had a falling out of sorts during the off season, so I went in search of a new chase partner. I met a guy named Dwain Warner through an internet chase partner search page, and another guy named Jeff Johncox, who I'd met through Matt Sellers, a young chaser Greg and I had met the year before. The three of us became fast friends, and by the start of the 1998 season, we were partnering regularly on chases. After arriving home from work around 3am on the morning of April 15, they alerted me to the fact SPC had issued a High Risk and was calling for a tornado outbreak. That was good enough for me, so the three of us piled into Jeff's Ford Tempo and rolled out of Norman at 4:30am headed towards southern Illinois.
We drove and drove, only stopping for gas, until we reached our preliminary target of Murphysboro, where the infamous "Tri-State" tornado(es) had struck so many years before. We found a Kroger, and set up shop in their parking lot. Jeff laid down in the back seat getting some sleep, Dwain monitored NOAA radio, and I paced back and forth, watching the sky. The terrain in southern Illinois, as we were discovering, was less than stellar, so our visual observations were quite limited. We stayed put for hours, and eventually we began to worry that perhaps we were missing out on something somewhere else. Eventually we left and drove from one end of town to the other, trying to find a spot that afforded a decent view of the distant horizon. There was none. Finally, we decided to drive into town, look for a motel/hotel, and ask if they would allow us to look at The Weather Channel on one of their televisions. We found a place, and Dwain ran inside. He was only gone a few minutes, but was running when he came back out. He said there was a lone supercell just southeast of St. Louis, and it was the only thing out there. It was northwest of us and moving east, so we had great position. All we needed to do was get to it.
We blasted north on IL127 out of Murphysboro towards Vergennes. The sky was thick with haze, so we had no visual clues about the storm we were chasing. We passed through Vergennes and continued north to Pinckneyville, where we turned northwest onto IL13. The NOAA radio was beginning to pick up warnings for the storm, so we were starting to get a handle on the situation as far as storm track and speed. We moved through Swanwick and finally ended up in Coulterville, as the sirens in town were blaring. A tornado report came over the scanner, stating one had been sighted west of Red Bud, about twenty miles to our west. We still didn't have a decent view of the horizon, so we drove through town one way, then turned back and went the other way until we came to the southern edge of the city. There, we finally had an unobstructed view of the horizon to the west. The sky was still thick with haze, and the only discernible structure we could make out were chunks of scud, being pulled into whatever was lurking west of us, carried by strong southeast winds. We held our ground, and waited to see if the storm or possible tornado would eventually show itself.
We decided that we needed to be on the northern edge of town instead of the southern edge, so we blasted back through town, turning north onto IL153. By now we could see the storm, which was an HP beast and closing in by the minute. Unfortunately, the further north we went, the worse the view got, until we were driving next to forty-foot trees on both sides of the road. Eventually we found a small break, and stopped. The storm's base was very low and ragged, but had a ton of motion. We saw what we thought was a tornado through the trees, but in hindsight, it was probably just a rotating wall cloud. In either case, we turned around and headed back south to a west road we'd passed before. We found it and turned west, driving past a farmstead that stood on the intersection. The farmer and his family were outside walking around, as we rolled to a slow stop in front of their driveway, because trees were starting to block our view. We began to see what looked like a possible tornado again, but could not be certain. I told Jeff to back up so we could see beyond the tree line, and as we did it seemed a tornado was imminent.
Just as we cleared the trees, Dwain yelled "tornado!" as I spotted it myself. Then Dwain yelled to the farmer about the tornado, who at first didn't hear him: "what?" When Dwain pointed towards the tornado and repeated his message, the farmer turned, looked, and then grabbed his family and ran for their shelter. Meanwhile, we continued to back up as the tornado continued to move by. We stopped, and I jumped out and rolled video. The tornado appeared as a small funnel on the southern edge of the large wall cloud, which began to snake downward as it moved behind the farmhouse. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, as the large wall cloud continued to move swiftly past our location. We jumped in the car and drove back east to the intersection, watching the lowering move swiftly eastward to our north. After hearing local FD reports of softball hail north of our position, we opted to turn south. As we did, I leaned out of the car, sat on the window, and shot video of the lowering as it moved by, only catching the portions visible between the huge tree line on either side of the road. We made it back to Coulterville, where we jetted southeast on IL13.
We spent the rest of the day trying in vain to get back in front of our original storm, as darkness slowly crept in. We managed to get on another severe storm just after dark, while moving through the city of Mt. Vernon. We were starting to hear tornado reports and reports of damage associated with them, to our north. By now, it was pitch black and we were driving in blinding rain. We trudged north, figuring we'd come further on this chase than we'd ever gone, and we weren't going to give up while still so close to seeing more tornadoes. However, the rain kept pounding us, and the tornado and damage reports kept getting closer to our position. Eventually, the three of us decided it simply wasn't safe to continue blindly, so we threw in the towel, and began the long journey home. This was my first Illinois tornado, and the longest chase I've ever had to date at 1,436 straight miles.