May 4, 2007 Chase

Mick and I took his car on this day, targeting southwest Kansas. We didn't have a definite town in mind when we left, only that we would drive to Woodward and assess from there. We made good time, too good in fact, as I was pulled over by an OHP just outside the eastern edge of town. The trooper however was very cool, telling me as soon as I sat down in his cruiser "I'm not giving you a ticket,"  which made the rest of the experience much more relaxing. He let us off with a written warning, and sent us on our way. We told him to look out for possible bad weather later in the day.

Once we got through Woodward, we jumped on US183 and took that through Ft Supply, Buffalo, across the Kansas border, and eventually to US160. We had been eyeing Dodge City, but once we got to 160, felt it would be better to move further east, so we jumped on 160 and headed to US183, which was basically the same road but turned back to the north. We drove through Clearwater, and continued north until we hit US54/400. By this time, we were needing gas and were getting hungry. A little town called Greensburg sat just a few miles to the east, so we turned that way. We found a nice little store in the middle of town, grabbed some lunch, took a bathroom break, and gassed up the car. I'd never been to Greensburg before, and to my eyes, it looked like every other small Plains town we'd been through over the years. I had no idea this would be my first and last time to ever see Greensburg the way it was.

After lunch, we jumped back on the road and continued out of town. I noticed a group of chasers who were sitting on the west side of Greensburg, and wondered if they were doing the right thing. The surface analysis kept pointing further east as the day wore on, at least to my eyes, so we kept drifting further and further east along US54/400, through Pratt and eventually to just west of Kingman. We sat round a while, waiting and hoping for some type of development. While we did, we saw the intense storm that had developed in northwestern Oklahoma, not far from Woodward. When reports of a tornado with this storm reached us, we began to get the sinking feeling we'd screwed up by not staying further south. The tornadic storm in northwest Oklahoma was raging, we were too far away to catch it before dark, and the area we were in was void of any activity. Desperate, we turned north onto KS14, and just kept drifting north. Along the way, a supercell fired well to our north, along I-70. It looked amazing and we debated on whether or not to go after it. We started to for about five minutes, then realized we'd never get to it before dark. We were out of range for a storm to the south, and out of range for a storm to the north. We'd positioned ourselves perfectly to see nothing. So, we just kept moving north on KS 14, through Arlington, Sterling, and eventually Lyons. Once there, we turned west onto US56 and drove through Chase, Silica, Ellinwood, and eventually, right before dusk, Great Bend.

We cruised into town as anemic towers tried in vain to go to the west. The sun was setting, we'd already missed a tornado in the area we'd been earlier in the day, and there was no sign of a storm anywhere near us. Dejected, we started to look for a place to eat, to drown our disappointment with food. We stumbled across a Pizza Hut, and because they serve beer, it was the perfect place to sit and sulk. We'd noticed that new storms had started to fire south of us just north of the OK border, so as we got out to walk inside, Mick said "I'm gonna grab the laptop just in case."  We went inside, found a booth, ordered, and started a velocity loop. I wasn't even thinking about watching the radar, because in my mind, we'd busted on a day that had huge potential. All I was worried about was the large meat-lover's pizza we'd just ordered, and the ice cold beer sitting in front of me. As far as I was concerned, the day was lost. But the one oversight I made was, forgetting that the cap would hold until after dark.

It was almost dark, we were about halfway through the pizza and wings, and on our second beer, when we both glanced over at the velocity loop. What we saw made our jaws drop and alarms go off in our heads. Neither of us had ever seen such a large, intense, and well-defined velocity couplet on radar. We looked at each other, and I immediately jumped up and ran to the register, while Mick grabbed the computer and ran out to the car. I grabbed enough money to cover the meal, said "keep the change," and ran out behind Mick. Mick's a lightweight when it comes to drinking, so he was well-buzzed as he fired up the GPS once again to get us the fastest way down to the storm. I was driving intensely, trying to get us out of town and onto the open highway of US281, making Mickey a bit queezy as I made a few fast turns on my way out of town. Once we got on open road, the race was on. We were two chasers who had gone from busting to being on a collision course with possibly the most incredible storm either of us had ever experienced. I looked west at more new development, and could barely make them out in the smothering darkness. We were racing through the night, with a half-drunk navigator and a lead-foot driver hell-bent on reaching this incredible storm.

We screamed down US281, with the NOAA radio blaring warnings of impending doom. North of Pratt, we heard the first statement mentioning that a large, destructive tornado had hit Greensburg head-on. Glancing over at the velocity loop, it was no surprise. The circulation was off the scale, in both speed and size. We continued south into Pratt, and then turned west onto US54/400. We knew there would be tons of emergency vehicles very shortly racing from Pratt, so we burned it west as fast as we could, to get position before they started appearing. We took up a position just east of Haviland, and pointed to the northwest. We knew a huge tornado had just occurred, and by looking at velocity loops, we could tell another cycle was in progress, to our northwest. With each lightning strike, we could see the insane inflow feeder bands racing into the storm. We used these feeders to locate the area where the tornado would be, and rolled video. We couldn't discern anything clearly at the time, but because we knew there had to be something big in there, we kept rolling the video. Several glances under the storm base via lightning flashes were giving us teases of what lie beneath, and one of those flashes revealed this beast of a tornado, which was over two miles wide, a virtual extension of the entire mesocyclone itself. The surface inflow at this point was so strong, I could barely stand in it or hold my door open. We held this position for a few more minutes as emergency vehicles continuously flew by us headed west, then turned back to the east.

As we drove, we noticed a second velocity couplet starting to develop on the southeast side of the ongoing one, and this new one was looking just as potent. We eventually found a road heading north called NW 70th Ave, and took that, heading towards the town of Byers. We were very nervous because the "hand-off" spacing between these giant circulations was miles apart, meaning we'd have to distance ourselves at least five or more miles back away from any ongoing tornado, to avoid being possibly hit by any future cycles. We crept north in the darkness, only catching glimpses of the storm's inflow in the lightning. We passed another car coming from the north, which was frantically flashing its lights. We didn't even hesitate on this night, and turned around and headed back south after we passed the car. Less than half a mile later Mick shouted "There's a huge wedge back there!!". I immediately stopped, jumped out, and pointed my vidcam northwest. I still hadn't seen it, but I could tell from Mick's reaction it had been big. Within half a minute, a lightning flash revealed this massive tornado, our second wedge of the night. As soon as I saw it myself, I understood why Mick had reacted the way he did. We held our position for a few more minutes, getting another look at this huge wedge as it continued to move northeast. After a few more minutes, we felt safe enough to continue north without being chomped by the next cycle.

We continued north towards Byers, and stopped to regroup just a few miles south of there. As we sat, a police cruiser pulled up on us. The officer asked what we were doing, and we told him we were out chasing tornadoes, and alerted him to the presence of the large wedge northwest of us. The tornado was heading towards his hometown of Macksville, so he continued on ahead of us. We followed him into Byers, where we saw him pull over at a volunteer fire station to talk to some spotters. Feeling we owed him the courtesy, we pulled alongside and asked if he would mind if we continued on ahead with our chase. He looked at us and said "Ok, but it's at your own risk."  We told him we understood, thanked him, and went on. We took a position about a mile or so north of town, and watched. We were still getting glimpses of the large tornado occasionally, but it seemed to be on a downward trend. We could already see a new area to the east of the ongoing tornado, due north of us, that was starting to look suspicious. A few minutes later, the same police officer drove by us, and continued north for about a mile. He then turned west, driving out into the open darkness towards Macksville, and towards the tornado. I remember thinking "I wouldn't be going that way" as I watched him disappear into the night.

We held our position for several more minutes, partly because we were too scared to go any further north, partly because we were almost out of gas, and partly because it was getting very late and we still had to chase the next two days. We sat watching the suspicious area, and eventually a tornado appeared, partially-wrapped in rain. We held our position as lightning flashes gave us a few more looks at this large tornado, our third wedge of the night. Eventually the tornado became completely rain-wrapped and disappeared from view. After this, we decided there was no way to continue safely pursuing this storm with the roads we had, so we called it a day. We headed back to Pratt and grabbed a room for the night.

Unfortunately, we learned a few days later that Police Officer Tim Buckman, the one we'd spoken with at Byers, was critically-injured by the third tornado we observed that night, and eventually passed away.