June 12, 2004 Chase

They say beggars can't be choosers, but that's exactly what I was on the evening of June 11, 2004. I didn't have a car of my own, Mickey was promised to a family event, and Chad was nowhere to be found. I had a great feeling about southern Kansas, and my target was Wichita. But I had no ride. I desperately posted to the StormTrack forum, asking anyone who was targeting the Wichita area if I could ride along...but only if they were targeting Wichita. I've got a ton of pride and having to publicly plead for a chase ride was bad enough, but I wasn't going to just take anyone's offer: the person would have to agree on my target, or I'd just sit it out. Fortunately, Graham Butler and David Drummond answered my call.

They arrived at my apartment early the next morning, and we were off to south Kansas. I'd been up all night working both the ST forum and the phone to secure the ride with Graham and David (who were coming from Lubbock), and eventually, somewhere north of Perry, I crashed. Graham managed to snap a not-so-eloquent photo of me slumbering, which made for a great laugh later on (at least for Graham and David). It didn't matter though, because the three of us were in strong agreement for the Wichita area.

We arrived in Wichita early in the afternoon, and took up a position in a motel parking lot on the south side of town. Bob and Floss were out as well, and had been calling to get updates on our position, as they were looking to hook up and convoy. They arrived at our parking lot shortly after we did, followed by Philip Flory and eventually, Chad and Susan out of nowhere. We all hung outside the vehicles, milling about, making small talk, and discussing the day's potential. David sat watching a radar loop, as this was the first time I ever chased in a vehicle that had a laptop and mobile internet access. The radar eventually showed what we had already banked on: storm firing south and west of town.

We decided to target the storm southwest, as it was making a beeline right up towards us. We all jumped in our vehicles and hit the road, working our way southwest out of Wichita via KS42, through the towns of Schulte and Clonmel. We turned south onto KS49 in Viola and headed south towards Conway Springs, as the storm southwest of us became severe-warned. We observed considerable tornado damage as we passed by Conway Springs, from the massive wedge we'd seen two weeks ago to the day. We moved by town and continued south to US160, where we turned west. We drove a few miles and pulled over near Argonia to watch the storm, which was now due west of us.

The storm was still in its infant stages, and moving very slowly, so we all piled out of the vehicles and more or less set up camp. David and Graham pulled out some lawn chairs and relaxed, while I walked back and forth between them and Philip's van, to see what the storm looked like on radar. This was the first time I had ever seen or heard of "WX-WORX", which was a satellite-generated radar display. I was surprised at how well the storm looked on radar, because it had yet to impress me visually. David was so unimpressed at this point, he took a small catnap. Though the storm didn't look tornadic at all, it remained severe and we continued to watch it.

After a long while, the storm had finally advanced close enough to us that we decided to move. We made leisurely jogs north and east to stay ahead of it and in the path, which was basically northeast. Over the next half hour or so we continued this, using county roads between KS49 and US81. As we neared Anson, the storm's base finally began to lower, and started to look more robust. A line of weaker storms had fired to the southeast, and while they grabbed our attention briefly, were soon ignored as our storm looked better and better each passing minute. Near Riverdale, the storm was tornado-warned, just as we expected. Visually it was beginning the classic pre-tornado cycle of behavior, with rapid inflow tails from the east and a lowered base. We continued with the storm to US81, where we stopped to watch some dramatic rotation at cloud base, although it was slightly elevated. After a few minutes, we needed to go north and east again, so we continued north along 81.

About a mile south of KS53, a sudden blast of wind hit us hard, sending Graham's Tahoe flying to the right. He was able to catch it and correct very quickly, but it was one of the strongest winds I've felt in a vehicle. As we turned east onto KS53, we looked back south to where the incident had occurred and saw large pieces of cardboard or some other debris whirling rapidly in a circle. We had been underneath the area where we observed strong cloud base rotation a few minutes earlier, but hadn't suspected there was a risk of a tornado. We couldn't tell at the time if it had been an RFD spin up or a weak tornado, and soon forgot about the incident altogether as we crossed over I-35 and headed towards Mulvane. We managed to penetrate the backside of the storm as we negotiated the south part of town, and came out onto KS15 ahead of the storm once again, just southeast of Mulvane. Once clear of town, we stopped to observe the storm's lowering.

About a minute after we got out of the vehicle, a tornado developed from the cone-shaped funnel. The lightning activity seemed to suddenly ignite as the tornado formed, with close CGs hitting all around us as the tornado continued to evolve. The funnel continued to reach towards the ground and the lightning continued to threaten us. Even through the constant CG barrage, I was transfixed as a classic backlit tornado now spun about a mile west of us. Eventually, the funnel began to recede back to cloud base, leaving only a debris whirl as evidence of the ongoing tornado. The tornado continued as a weak debris cloud under a nub funnel for a few more minutes, then gradually dissipated into nothingness. Just as it did, we started to notice new rotation almost directly overhead. We packed it up and moved about a mile southeast, stopped again, and looked back to the northwest.

Again, like with the first tornado, just a few minutes after we'd gotten out of the truck, the second tornado of the day started to snake down, in roughly the same area we'd just left. It rapidly transformed into another classic backlit beauty, whirling just west of the highway. It began to widen as it grew stronger, nearing KS15. It picked up trees and other debris as it continued its slow march towards the road. A few more daring individuals lingered along the stretch of KS15 in the path as the tornado neared, with a few barely escaping in time as the tornado moved over the highway, taking out the Mulvane Saddle Club and a few rural residences as it went. After it crossed the road, it began to turn to the right. Because we remained stationary as the tornado moved in an arc around us, the color began to fade from dark brown to a more grayish hue. The tornado continued to move southeast, becoming lighter as it went. Because it had turned so far to the right, it was now getting closer to us. As it drew nearer, it began to rope out, only instead of weakening the tornado, this shrinking phase caused it to intensify. As this was happening, the sun, which was behind us, broke through the clouds completely and turned the tornado bright white. By now the tornado had greatly intensified, and was practically glowing as it moved less than a mile to our east. Just when we were admiring its beauty, the dark side of Nature reared its head, as a two-story farmhouse and barn were obliterated, sending an explosion of structural debris into the air. The roar of the tornado (as well as the subtle crackling of snapped lumber) was quite audible, as the twister earned its name with outrageous movement and shapes, contorting into a snake-like curve as it made quick work of the farmstead. As it continued southeast, the tornado began to weaken, but not before striking a pond and sending a brilliant spiral spray of water skyward. Just when it seemed the tornado could be no more spectacular, it hit a plowed field as it gasped its last breath, creating a surreal scene as it dissipated. Once it was over, we raced back northwest, then east, and then southeast to check on the residents of the stricken home. Help was already there as we arrived, so we resumed the chase.

We continued east with the storm, negotiating various county and unmarked roads east of Mulvane. Towards sunset, we found ourselves south of an old occluded mesocyclone that had actually broken away from the parent storm, and was drifting north-northwest. From this meso, a beautiful brown funnel began to develop, as an amazing lightning display sparked from the storm. Eventually this funnel became a tornado, which spun beautifully against a near-setting sun sky. After a few minutes, the tornado began to narrow and weaken, slowly dancing itself to graceful death. Once this tornado ended, we continued east, in an effort to catch back up to the parent storm, which had gotten ahead of us as we lingered with the old meso/tornado.

We chased down the storm, finally catching back up around twilight near the town of Atlanta. Peering through the near-darkness, we were able to observe our fourth and final tornado of the day, which appeared as an intermittent funnel about a quarter of the way to the ground, with an intermittent debris whirl underneath. Eventually, the tornado became a fully-condensed serpentine funnel, snaking down briefly before returning to its original form of a visible debris cloud with no funnel, at times ripping trees out of the ground and sending them straight upwards for some distance. The tornado, which was to our south, was starting to get ahead of us, so we continued east. Our road and terrain was going downhill rapidly, and it was nearing darkness. We were able to get one final glimpse of the tornado, as it brought up a landspout-like debris column, before losing it in the trees. After this, we decided the day was done.

After throwing in the towel for chasing tornadoes, David and Graham decided they wanted to shoot some lightning pictures. We found a nice deserted stretch of US160 southeast of Wichita, and while those two snapped lightning photos, I had a few ice cold beers from Graham's cooler, enjoying one of my most successful chases of all-time.