June 11, 1997 Chase

Greg and I were still riding the high from our May 29 chase as we prepared for our first chase since that breakthrough day. Our target was the eastern Texas panhandle, and this was the first time we'd ever chased in that legendary portion of Tornado Alley. As we headed west on I-40 towards the Texas panhandle, the bag phone rang. It was Gary England, chief meteorologist for KWTV. We'd gotten our foot in the door with our tornado video from the year before, and had been desperately trying to make a name for ourselves as rookie chasers. To this point, we hadn't had too much success with chasing for the station, but between our constant sleeve tugging and now our May 29 success, obviously they were starting to take notice. I talked with Gary briefly about where we were headed, and he said the area west-southwest of Elk City looked like the best spot. After a few minutes we hung, with the understanding that we'd call in periodically the rest of the day to give them updates as things developed.

We saw a few futile attempts at a storm to our southwest, as a lone tower was trying to breach the cap to no avail. This area of activity quickly vanished, and we continued west towards Texas. As we neared the border, an anvil began to appear through the haze. Within a few more minutes, we had a great view of our first storm of the day. I made a call to the station, where meteorologist Brady Brus picked up the phone. I told him about the storm we were seeing, and he replied that it looked good on radar and he wanted us to focus on it. Other storms were beginning to fire, but this one seemed the most interesting. We hung up, as Greg and I entered Shamrock. We jumped off the interstate and turned north onto TX83, heading towards Twitty. Our storm was due north of us by now, and moving slowly towards Oklahoma, which is why the station wanted us on it. We passed through Twitty and continued north towards Wheeler, as I began to notice the new storm to our west. We pulled over when a lowering began to form from the west storm.

I told Greg this new storm was starting to look better, and he agreed. Because the station had us on the north storm (because it would soon be in their viewing area), I was a little concerned that they might not let us switch storms. I called anyway, and again Brady answered. I told him the new storm to the west was looking better from our vantage point, and that we already had position on it...and that we were breaking off the north storm to go after it. He agreed, much to my relief, and we continued to watch the lowering develop on the west storm while the north storm slowly moved away. But we were going to switch storms whether the station gave the order or not.

We watched a wall cloud form for several minutes, then decided to try and work our way closer. We had to turn around and head back south on TX83 to find a decent road west, which we managed to do in just a mile or two. We turned west and drove a fairly good distance, maybe four or five miles, before we came to an "L" in the road. Our only option at this point was to turn north or go back, so we decided to sit there and watch. The storm was a classic/HP hybrid, with familiar, textbook features but also a lot of precipitation. Random CGs would fly out from moment to moment, as the still background of a gentle breeze and birdsongs provided an amazing backdrop to the scene. Occasional chunks of scud would form, as a wall cloud tried to develop. We stayed there for a good while, until we began to experience rain. Not wanting to be constricted to the inside of the vehicle while videotaping, and not wanting to risk a vapor lock or some other technical failure with the video camera, we decided to move back east, and take a road back south that we'd passed before, to try and get out of the rain.

We backtracked a mile or so, until we found a decent-looking south road. We drove down it perhaps a mile or so, until we realized we'd cleared the precip. As we came to a stop, I looked west and saw a rapidly-developing wall cloud, as chunks of scud were moving violently. I told Greg to turn us around and face north (I have no idea why), and once we were set, I jumped out and started to shoot video. The wall cloud was rotating violently, on a scale neither of us had ever seen. I continued to shoot video as it churned, constantly changing shape. Even in my inexperience I knew a tornado was imminent. I held the video camera as steady as I could, which was challenging due to my excitement and the fact I was zoomed in extremely tight, which exaggerated every little twitch I made. Within a minute, a dust whirl formed on the ground below the wall cloud, as a small funnel appeared. Our first tornado of the day was underway. It moved south, as the condensation funnel formed more fully for a brief moment, before disappearing again. The tornado dissipated not long afterwards, but the violent rotation persisted. We held our ground for a few more minutes, me videotaping the insane rotation as Greg called the station to report the tornado. Rain began to invade the area, and once again we were forced to move south. If we'd stayed put for a few more minutes, we might've seen the start of the main show.

 We drove back east to TX83, then blasted south back towards Shamrock. Once there, we bolted west on I-40. During this time while we were repositioning, a large tornado had formed from the area we'd been watching. It quickly became rain-wrapped, a hidden giant lumbering slowly south as we blasted west, unbeknownst. The storm's main features were starting to come back into view, including an amazing double-tiered inflow feeder band. We pulled over for a brief minute, to take in the spectacle of this amazing beaver tail, the first one either of us had ever seen. After gawking for a few moments, we were back on the road headed west. A dark core loomed to our north, as it was now obvious the storm was moving due south. We cleared the path a few miles west of Lela, and then crossed over I-40 to the south side. We crept back east along the service road, not being able to see very far ahead, with a darkening sky and whipping winds thrashing us. Even back then, as inexperienced as I was, I knew something wasn't right. We'd had no word of the now-wedge tornado that was lurking just a few miles ahead of us, buried in rain, but instinct told me to hold my ground and wait things out. As we did, Greg called the station, who informed us there was in fact a huge tornado that had just crossed I-40. I was beside myself, torn between the urge to fly east straight towards it and the hesitation to go off blindly into an invisible tornadic situation. Safety won the battle, as we held our ground for a few more minutes, before eventually creeping east again. As it turned out, we made the right decision.

Less than two miles east of where we'd been sitting, we began to encounter the tornado's damage path. An area of trees and been shredded and snapped along the south side of the road. A tractor trailer had been blown over on its side. Huge pieces of trees had been ripped and thrown across the road, forcing us to weave our way through. As we were negotiating this obstacle course, we noticed a car about fifty yards off the road, that had been rolled and smashed against a group of trees. Still more large trees were snapped just four to six feet above the ground, inside a three-quarter mile-wide path of destruction. We had missed seeing the tornado, but we had also missed being in it. We continued to drive south out of the damage area, regaining our focus on trying to catch back up to the storm.

I made a call to the station to report the significant damage path, and to ask them for information on the storm. We had gotten into an area of heavy precip, and were basically blind. We knew the tornado, if it was still in progress, would be south of us, but we still couldn't see it. Using TXFM1547, we moved south towards Dozier, as Gary gave me a play-by-play of the radar, and which ways not to go. With his help, we safely made it around the storm until we could break free of the rain and see again. We turned east towards Samnorwood, eventually coming back to TX83 north of Wellington. By this time, we had a magnificent view of the storm, so we pulled over to take in the sight. It had a linear look to it, but the south edge still looked suspicious. A few minutes later our suspicions were confirmed, as a weak tornado formed, appearing as a dust whirl below a nub funnel. It lasted maybe a minute or so, and gradually vanished. By this time, it was only a half our or so until darkness, and the station wanted to see our video. We drove down to Wellington, jumped onto TX203 east across the border back into Oklahoma, then onto OK30 northbound to Erick. Once there, we met the satellite tuck, uploaded some of our video, and then started for home.

Our video of the tornado damage path aired all that night and the next day, earning us our first "call out" from the station the following day (we'd always called them to go out). This was our third tornado day in our past four chases. Despite the majority of our rookie campaign being mostly failure, we'd gotten hot late in the year. This day ended what would be a memorable three weeks towards the end of our 1997 season.