Posing with a tornado near Minco, OK May 3, 1999
(Image by Jeff Johncox)
Chasing tornadoes and documenting them on video is my life. Nothing else in the world makes me happier. It's my purpose, my passion, and my reason for being. The joy and happiness chasing/documenting these elusive forces of Nature brings me is unmatched, unrivaled, unrelenting. All other decisions in my life revolve around my passion for chasing. It's a life of much sacrifice, but for the reward it brings me, it's quite worth it. To better understand me and why I am the way I am, it's necessary to look closer at how I got this way. The following paragraphs will hopefully explain (as best one can with written word) how I became the person I am today, a person who's absolutely obsessed with and driven to capture the amazing tornado in all its splendor on videotape.
I was born January 18, 1972 on a cold Tuesday morning in Oklahoma City, OK. I lived there until the age of four, when my parents divorced. The result was a move by my mother and I, to the small southern Oklahoma town of Healdton. This is where I would spend the next seventeen years of my life.
By the time I was seven years old, I was quite familiar with severe storms, but had no concept of what a tornado was. I'd seen the old ticker tape warning scrolls, and understood what a severe thunderstorm was, but I didn't know what that other word that so often popped up meant: "tornado". I had asked my mother about it, and she had done her best to explain, but my young mind simply couldn't grasp the concept. Then came April 10, 1979.
On this day, a massive F4 tornado ravaged a large part of Wichita Falls, TX. This event would serve as the spark that eventually ignited my passion for tornadoes. A few months after the event, a local news station did a special report on the tornado. I happened to be sitting in front of the television with my mother at the time. Suddenly a large, black, boiling mass of cloud appeared on the screen, extending from the sky and raking the ground with incredible motion. My mother pointed to the screen and said "There. That's a tornado." I was instantly hooked for life.
Upon my discovery of the tornado, I began to immerse myself in anything I could find about them. I would spend hours at my grandma's house, staring at pictures of tornadoes in the "T" volume of an old Encyclopedia set she had. My mother, who was city clerk of Healdton for 32 years, would let me come to her office after school, which was connected to the public library. I would spend countless hours in that place, looking up every book I could find about tornadoes, as well as digging through old magazines and newspapers looking for stories on tornadoes. But my interest was always aesthetic; my desire was to simply observe, to witness these amazing creations of Nature. I was never the curious, need-to-know, need-to-understand-why type. I guess from the very beginning, I was trodding the right-brained path towards sensory tornadic bliss, instead of an academic, scientific path to discovery.
My first real-world encounter with a tornado warning came late one night in May of 1980. I was suddenly awakened by the sound of my mother bursting into my room. She pulled me out of bed, emptied my closet by throwing toys left and right over her shoulder, then stuffed me into the corner, sat down next to me, threw a blanket over us, and started praying aloud. She was in tears and completely hysterical. I could feel her shaking, and heard the fear in her voice as she continued to pray over and over. I was still half-asleep, but was never scared or even worried. I just remember feeling sorry for her because she was so scared. And then my next thought was "I'm not going to be able to see the tornado from in here." However, there was no tornado. Later I would realize, largely from the experience of that night, my mother had a huge fear of tornadoes, bordering on phobic. In the years since, she's overcome that fear.
A year later, my mother and I were stepping out of the car, having returned home from the grocery store. She mentioned we were under a tornado watch, and I looked up at the sky. To my young, ignorant eyes, it looked like a perfectly nice day; lots of sunshine, bright blue skies, and bright white puffy clouds. I know now that those puffy clouds were in fact developing thunderheads. About an hour later, I heard the sirens go off. Once again, my mother went into panic mode, grabbed my arm, and ran us over to the neighbor's cellar. Everyone on our half of the street it seemed was over there, with the women and children packed away inside the cellar, while the men all stood outside the door, a few even leaning on the metal fence (not wise). A teenaged girl who lived down the street from us said "I can see a little one right over there." I heard those words and reacted automatically; I zoomed up the cellar stairs, reached up to lift the door all the way open, stood on my tippy toes, and craned my neck to the west, desperately trying to see the "tornado" she had mentioned. All I saw was gray sky, and then my mother started yelling "Shane!!! Get your ass back down here now!!!" Though I failed to see any, there were tornadoes near town that day. The fact they had really happened and I missed them only made my passion more intense. That would be the extent of my real world encounters with tornadoes as a normal citizen.
This initial burst of passion carried me a long way. In fourth grade, my friend Brad Glenn and I started "SB Weather", which consisted of nothing more than he and I scribbling "Severe Thunderstorm Warning" on a piece of notebook paper and passing it around the classroom anytime it rained with thunder and lightning. As I grew older, I started watching live television weather. I can remember Wayne Shattuck of KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City doing live tornado warnings, just standing in front of a map reading a teletype he was holding in his hand...and, before he could finish reading the first warning, being handed another by an off-screen assistant. This was how a major tornadic event went down on live television in 1985. I looked forward to the 10pm news when I knew their crews had seen tornadoes and captured them on video. I can still remember one ghostly-brown tornado on KOCO, shot at night but lit up by the street lights near it. One of the images of my early years I will never forget. Issuing my own "warnings" and watching tornado coverage/video on television was awesome, but my desire to see a tornado with my own eyes continued to grow. My grandparents, who were always pushing me towards the academic road of life, suggested I go to school to be a meteorologist. But I just wanted to drive the news station's chase van. Again, my path was right-brained headed towards the aesthetic.
In 1988 I became a member of the licensed driver fraternity, and this opened up a whole new level of possibilities for me. The concept of actually, physically chasing a storm on my own had never occurred to me, but the fact I was out there driving lent itself to some accidental intercepts. Of note was a severe storm a friend and I encountered near Lone Grove, OK late one night after returning from a double date. We got into hail up to quarter size, and he asked me if there was going be a tornado. I told him that 50% of the time when you have big hail there could be a tornado behind it (that's what I believed in 1988). Nothing ever came of it however. In April of 1990 I shot what would be the very first storm footage of my life, a golfball size hailstorm that seemingly came out of nowhere. There was no rain, just hail. I remember watching the stones pounding off the grass in my front yard, as I stood on my porch taping with a gigantic RCA VHS camcorder. I have no idea what ever became of the tape itself. That was as kind as the early 90s would be to me, regarding severe weather.
In 1991, the first of a series of three significant events in my life occurred. On March 21, 1991, the city of Ada, OK was struck by a large F3 tornado. It damaged parts of East Central University, the local college. Two weeks prior, a friend and I had planned a trip to ECU, to visit a friend from high school. The night before we were to leave, the trip was canceled. The day we were supposed to be at ECU? March 21. I was livid.
Then came May 8, 1993. After spending seventeen years living in Healdton, OK waiting for a tornado, I moved to Durant, OK to take a job. The weekend I moved, a tornado struck just northwest of Healdton, doing damage to houses. I was in Durant, watching the live coverage of the storm as it was coming out of Texas (over an hour before it was near Healdton), but had plans that night. Also, I replayed in my mind all the times I'd seen near-misses close to Healdton that did nothing except disappoint me. So I decided I wasn't going to ruin my night over a wild goose chase to Healdton for nothing. Then the reports started pouring in; I had balked at my chance to drive west and meet the storm, and had paid dearly for it, having missed multiple tornadoes. I was devastated, and swore I would no longer care about tornadoes or ever seeing one. That lasted about 3 days.
Finally, May 7, 1995 rolled around. I was at home and didn't have a car at the time. A storm formed south of the Red River near St. Jo, TX, and rapidly became severe. Soon, it produced a significant, long-track tornado. My little brother's scanner was alive with reports from local law enforcement and spotters, who were tracking the tornado as it moved north towards Ardmore, OK, just twenty miles to my east. I started plotting an intercept course, and decided that the tornado would pass just west of Ardmore, about three miles west of I-35. I had plenty of time to get ahead of it and watch as it moved through, but I didn't have any wheels. I begged my mom and stepdad to drive me or let me use their cars, to no avail. Even our neighbor, a guy I had gone to high school with, refused to drive me. So I sat dejected in my brother's room, listening to his scanner, and hearing how the Uniroyal tire plant had sustained a direct hit...only a few miles from where I would've been. This one broke me. I was completely depressed, and accepted the fact I would never see a tornado with my own eyes. I was cursed. However, as painful as these misses were, had fate intervened differently, any one of those three dates would've been the start of my chase career.
By September of 1995, I had forgotten (or blocked out) the pain of missing the May 7 tornado. I had become immersed in a musical project with a friend of mine, which brought me to Norman. For nine months I partied, womanized, and did all the crazy things young single guys do, working just enough to pay for it all, saving nothing. In April of 1996, I quit my job, and loafed around for the better part of a month, living off my last paycheck and doing odd jobs to supplement income. Eventually I took a landscaping job for steady cash, and this was nothing more than enough to pay my bills and sustain my night life. After a month or so of this, I realized I was coming to a crossroads in my life. I was still young, but wasn't getting any younger. I had no money, no direction, and no ambition. Though I'd never had a problem being a working man, I knew in my heart I was destined for more than just a life of getting up and going to work. I didn't mind the fact I would have to work my whole life, but I needed a reason beyond just paying my bills. I needed something to work for. But I had no clue what it was, and I was running out of time to figure it out.
The morning of June 6, 1996, started out like any other, the latest in what had been a string of typically hot, early Summer Oklahoma days. My friend Greg Clark and I were still doing landscaping, and we had been working at one residence for over a week, preparing the backyard for the wedding of the owner's daughter which was on June 8. That day at around noon, I noticed a thick field of cumulus had developed. I had zero experience chasing, but had lived in Oklahoma my entire life, and knew what those clouds meant. I mentioned to Greg that we needed to be on the lookout for storms in a few hours. As I suspected, at around 3pm, storms rapidly developed. Not wanting to expose ourselves to lightning, I suggested we take off early and go try to chase one of the storms and see a tornado. Greg not only agreed with my idea, but suggested we stop by his mother's place and grab her camcorder (this would be incredibly significant to my path to chasing). We stopped at my place to grab a television weather update, decided on our plan, and took off. The rest is history.
I'm blessed beyond measure for the gift of passion, the fiber of my very being that drives me. To be able to garner such happiness from anything in life is a wonderful thing, and my path happens to be chasing tornadoes. The emotions it produces in me are indescribable, there simply is no way to truly convey what it means to me. Let me just say that I will always be out there chasing storms, as long as I am physically able. When the day comes I can no longer chase tornadoes, I will be ready to greet death with open arms.
As for our wedding day landscaping project, we never returned to work. I don't even know if they're still married.
Me with a tornado in the background near Rozel, KS May 18, 2013
(Photo by Wes Carter)