May 3, 1999 Chase

This event was supposed to happen on May 2, which is what everyone was expecting, including Matt and I. We chased southwest Oklahoma, and busted under the cap. The big outbreak everyone had expected had not materialized. But we wouldn't have to wait long. I was expecting to chase again this day, but the urgency we'd had the day before wasn't there, likely because we'd been so pumped up and then were let down. So, I went into work as usual, with no major plans to try and get out early. I expected a typical chase setup and that we wouldn't have to go very far. I was right about the latter.

I went through my work day like any other, but as we got into the last hour before quitting time, I started to get a sense of urgency once more that I needed to get away as quickly as possible and get on the road. The problem was, we were working on the east side of Norman, Jeff and I lived in the middle of town, and my boss asked me to take all his tools off the jobsite and drop them off at his shed, which was on the west side of town. So basically, I was going to have to make an extra stop before I could get on the road. I loaded up the tools and headed home. Bursting through the door, Jeff was sitting on the couch watching a tornado live on KWTV. He said "It's going nuts out there already" to which I replied "then why aren't you getting ready to leave?" He explained to me that he had a job interview at 6pm, and that he couldn't reschedule it. I was like "okay man" as I grabbed my stuff and bolted out the door. I drove through town to the west side, agonizing over the live play-by-play blaring through the scanner. It seemed like an eternity as I finally got to my boss' shed, threw all his tools inside, and busted west out of town on OK9.

As I came to the intersection of OK9/62, my gear shift broke. I limped my truck through the intersection and onto the shoulder of OK9 westbound. I went into panic mode; I'd missed the OKC metro outbreak the previous year, and now it seemed I was about to miss out on another major event in my own backyard. I tried in vain to fix the shifter, and as I did, another chaser pulled over. He got out of his car, walked up to me, saw what had happened, and went "oh man, that sucks. But don't worry, I'll see a lot of tornadoes for ya." And then he just walked back to his car, without so much as offering me a ride or a cell phone to make call with. What a prick. I snapped back to the moment and suddenly remembered Jeff. I looked at my watch: 5:37pm. Maybe I could still catch him before he left for the job interview. I dialed our number. It rang once, twice, three times, and then on the fourth an out-of-breath Jeff answered "What dude? I was halfway down the stairs to leave for my interview." In an epiphany, I embellished a bit to sway his decision: "Dude, my truck broke down, and I'm stranded in the path of an F3 tornado. It'll be here in twenty minutes." It wasn't that much of a stretch of the truth, as it happened, but it worked. "I'm on my way."

Jeff showed up in no time. We grabbed all the gear from my truck, threw it in his car, and left. He was in full blown chaser mode, not even mentioning the missed interview. We blasted west on OK9, and the storm everyone was buzzing about on the radio and scanner was slowly coming into view to the northwest. Eventually we caught a glimpse of the base/wall cloud, about the time the handoff was occurring between the Chickasha F3 and what would become the F5. We turned north onto OK92, making a beeline for the base. As we drove north, the tornado formed right over the road ahead of us. We continued ahead, and over the next few miles, the rock solid updraft base and incredible RFD cut became visible. It seemed like forever before we could clear trees and hills and finally see the developing tornado clearly, but after a few more miles, it revealed itself. We pulled over immediately, and I was out of the car before Jeff could completely stop it.

The tornado was incredible, easily the biggest I'd ever seen to date, and was morphing from a large truncated bowl back into a full blown wedge. As the moments passed, the contrast improved, giving us a crisper view of the amazing updraft/RFD slot. The tornado was a monster wedge, and continuing to grow in size and strength. It became over a half mile wide as we got back in the car to head further north, roaring across the open prairie. As we drove north, a CG hit next to the tornado, giving us our most amazing shot of this giant. We went through the town of Amber, and by this time we were starting to lose the tornado as it continued northeast away from us, growing to almost a mile across. Despite our distance, we had an incredible view of the entire tornado/mesocyclone above the F5 wedge, one of the most incredible and unforgettable moments of my chasing career. By this time we were starting to realize the tornado wasn't going to stop, and would be affecting populated areas before much longer. Because of this, we decided to let it go, and turn back west to focus on the next supercell. We took our last look at this historic tornado, before turning back south on OK92 towards Amber. As soon as we did, we looked to the southwest and saw another large tornado. We quickly stopped and shot video.

 This large tornado was well to our southwest, near Anadarko, but we could see forever from our position. We just held our ground, and sat watching and taping this tornado for over ten minutes, as it gradually thinned out to a stovepipe. It was still ongoing when we decided to move to try and get closer to the storm. We headed south on OK92 to Amber, then blasted west. The pavement ended fairly quickly, leaving us on some questionable back roads that had already seen rain from the first storm we'd been chasing. We caught a glimpse of our third tornado of the day, a brief touchdown from a ground-scrubbing wall cloud. Now we were dodging giant puddles and potholes on a road that resembled a minefield. I hit one particularly nasty hole, which was actually more of a trench cutting diagonally across the road, and Jeff went flying up into the roof of the car, hitting his head and becoming mildly-concussed. We continued to struggle and grind our way through this horrid road, while Jeff slurred and I cussed the whole time. Finally, we came to OK81 south of Pocasset. We turned north and headed towards town. Somewhere between Pocasset and Minco we stopped to check out the storm. Jeff continued to act woozy, while I stood outside and shot video. Storm B was incredible, with a classic leaning, barber pole updraft structure. During the time we stood marveling at the storm, it produced a pair of tornadoes, our fourth and fifth of the day. After a while of this, we decided to head further north into Minco, then blast west to meet the storm head-on.

As we approached Minco, we caught glimpses of a large tornado to the west, our sixth of the day, but were unable to capture it on video due to hills, trees, and buildings in the way. Upon reaching the city limits, we could hear sirens blaring. We also noticed our gas gauge was getting close to empty, so we did a Chinese fire drill fuel stop. I ran in and paid (and alerted the folks inside they needed to take cover) while Jeff pumped the gas. We were in and out in no time and back on the road. North of town, we turned west onto OK152 headed towards Cogar. After just a mile or so, we pulled over. After gawking around a bit, we eventually noticed a large tornado crossing the road ahead of us (the second time we'd had that experience this day). We shot a few moments of video, then jumped back in the car to try and get closer. As we drove, we were focused on the tornado due west of us over our road, which is why neither of us noticed the even larger and closer tornado to our southwest, until it popped out through the haze. Now driving west with two tornadoes ahead of us, we carefully approached. Tornado number seven was beginning to move behind a group of trees to our west while tornado number eight was approaching rapidly from the southwest, on a collision course. We drove a mile or two, as tornado number seven vanished, before cresting a hill. We knew the tornado would be there, and probably be close, but this was our first taste of big time, close-range chasing and we wanted to get as close as we felt comfortable getting. Over the hill we went, and there it was, maybe a half mile to our southwest.

Jeff went into a panic, screaming at me to "turn around now!!!"  I was less concerned with our safety and more concerned about getting the shot. Because Jeff had the video camera, I wanted to make sure we were capturing the moment. I began my six-point turn, as he continued to freak out. I kept saying "go out your window" meaning for him to lean out and get a clear shot for the video. I finished the turn and started to head away as Jeff shot video out the back glass. Once we got turned back east, it was a game of cat and mouse, as I drove just fast enough to pace the tornado, letting it "chase" us. The tornado continued to follow us, while almost wedging out upon nearing the road. After it crossed the road, we pulled over to stop and shoot video. Not long after it crossed, it began an erratic phase, morphing into a skinny multi-vortex with only single, random debris whirls and intermittent condensation. When it finally condensed fully again, Jeff told me to stand in front of it, which I did, for my signature "me with a tornado" shot. Just after that, it formed a classic stovepipe, producing what's probably my favorite tornado image of my entire collection, complete with beautiful structure. This beauty continued for another minute or so, then began a rapid decline, roping out in just a matter of seconds. We continued to shoot video of the still-rapidly rotating wall cloud, but after a few minutes, decided we needed to head back east to OK81, so we could go north and intercept the next tornado near Union City.

As we drove back east on OK152, I kept looking back over my shoulder to the northwest, because the wall cloud was still rapidly rotating. A group of chasers were stopped, including Gene Rhoden and Carson Eads. I slowed as we drove past them, and when I looked back to the northwest again, I saw a quick needle tornado condense fully to the ground, and then evaporate immediately afterwards. The entire tornado couldn't have lasted more than ten seconds. Despite having missed getting it on video, I was excited because the storm was still wanting to produce tornadoes. We made it back to OK81 and turned north, but didn't get very far before we were stopped by a roadblock. We were the third car from the front, and the first one that wasn't a media chaser. We watched the cop let the two news vans go, but when we tried to follow, he stopped us. He stuck his head in the passenger's window, looked at both of us, and asked us what we were doing. I said we were chasing storms for channel 9 (a sort of lie, as two years prior it was the truth) and he just shook his head and said "no way."  Dejected, we sat there while he walked back to the several other chasers who were stacked up behind us. After he'd gotten several yards away, I looked at Jeff and said "screw this" and took off, driving around the police cruiser and continuing north on 81 towards Union City. In Union City, we turned east back onto OK152. Not long after we did, we saw our tenth and final tornado of the day, a classic-shaped funnel. We kept driving as it danced north of us a few miles, then quickly dissipated.

By this time it was nearing dusk, and in our inexperience, we assumed the tornadoes would be winding down. We made our way through the south side of the metro, and turned north onto I-35. We drove to the KOCO-5 station with the intention of sending our video to The Weather Channel via satellite. Once we got there, we had to wait in line, as several other chasers had beaten us to the punch. While we waited, we watched live radar of still-ongoing tornadic storms, and started to think that maybe we'd given up too soon. After another hour or so, we finally left the station and headed back home. We'd been so busy chasing, and had spent the majority of our day on the second supercell, so we had no idea the magnitude of the disaster that had unfolded with the first supercell and F5 tornado. It started to come into focus for us as we came through Moore, OK. There was debris piled up on either side of the interstate, at least twelve feet high, all along the 35/Shields Blvd intersection/overpass. It was like driving through a junkyard at highway speeds...one of the most vivid memories I have from this day.

It was a duality of sorts. From a chaser point-of-view, it had been a career day, filled with all types of joy and wonderment. But from a human standpoint, the day had been one of the worst disasters in state history, devastating thousands of homes, businesses, and lives. It was somewhat difficult to know how to feel the following week. This had been the first major tornado success of my career, but it was hard to really let loose and enjoy that success because of the human tragedy. I quietly went about my business that week, as quietly as a person who's doing interviews and shooting television shows can be. It was all very surreal. It's an experience I'll never forget, but perhaps even more than the tornadoes themselves, it was the effect of the twisters that I really learned from. This event definitely took me to the next level as a storm chaser, not only via the invaluable chasing experience I gleaned, but with how to conduct myself around others when disaster strikes. A day - an event -  I will never forget.