El Reno Oklahoma Tornado May 31st 2013

Sep 29, 2013


A very chaotic chase as we nearly drove into a record breaking tornado, got caught in an unbelievable traffic jam due to a mass exodus before nearly getting rolled by a smaller tornado near Tuttle, Oklahoma. Learned of devastating news that would change the storm chasing world forever as the historic storms claimed some of our own.




Tornadoes: 1
Hail: 0.00″
Wind: est 80-90mph RFD winds.

The Setup:

Off the charts. Extreme instability ahead of a favorable timed shortwave trough with outflow boundary present near the Oklahoma City area. Locally backed winds greatly enhancing directional shear under already very high speed shear. It was clear a serious tornado threat was shaping up, but over a relatively small area. Like many, SPC recognized this and went with MDT risk tornado probabilities over a section of Oklahoma.

Detailed Account:

I haven’t felt a really uneasy feeling about a chase since April 27th 2011. We awoke the morning of May 31st and knew something potentially catastrophic could unfold. If I could, I would go back and share the text messages I sent back home saying I was actually nervous to chase this day. I was told “come home then” to which I simply replied “I can’t, its my job to be out here.” The forecast was clear as day and we all knew where we needed to be. We sat around at Bens apartment watching local media, which was all over the event, perhaps even a little TOO over the event, as they had people broadcasting live in the field reporting on cumulus cloud development. With the recent Moore disaster fresh in everyones mind, people were on alert.

A PDS tornado watch was issued, and the first blips on radar began to pop. It was time. As we left Ben’s apartment with him leading and us following, there was a cluster of storms getting together near El Reno where it was becoming quickly apparent the southern storm was going to be the dominant player, a classic tail end charlie scenario. We weren’t too far away and as we made our move we could see a huge meso looming ahead of us.

The storm was very HP looking in a hazy environment. We knew it would be difficult to see from our position so we kept on.  Heading north on US-81, south of Union City we made what I believe was a fatal navigation error. Instead of continuing north on 81 to get in the path of the storm, we turned west and (from what I can only guess) attempted to approach the storm from behind. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to roads and figured they knew a shortcut. The storm ended up getting ahead of us, and the radar signatures were jaw dropping. There was no way this storm wasnt producing a massive tornado. As we attempted to approach from behind we found ourselves in a bad spot as the winds dramatically increased to roughly 80mph and began roaring from the north.

We figured this was the backside circulation of the likely violent tornado and decided to abort.  We would later learn (and will be shown later) that we were only about a qaurter mile from a record breaking, 2.6 mile wide tornado. A good call indeed. Listen to the wind howl as they increase in this video.

Catching back up to the tornado was a challenge in an unfavorable road network in hilly/forested terrain. At point both Danny and I believe we spotted a cone on the ground during a hill crest, but after regaining the view a few moments later it was gone. The dominant storm and circulation was now morphing into this giant storm blob with several areas of embedded rotation and began sliding southeast towards us. It was time to move out of the way.

Unbeknownst to us, Oklahoma City media gave the horrible advice for people in their homes to flee the city, as they would not survive a storm of this magnitude. Suddenly we found ourselves in traffic chaos that can even rival Chicago rush hour. Bumper to bumper traffic of motorists fleeing south with the tornadic circulations barreling down behind us. Using some evasic, and not entirely legal driving moves we did our best to avoid it all but at times became stuck.

Heading through the town of Mustang, the storm complex began to overtake us and we found ourselves being blasted by RFD winds nearing 90mph as telephone poles and trees came crashing down around us. Roofs were also being ripped off buildings and garbage cans/other debris was flying across the street.  Our attempts to get south were either blocked by downed trees or traffic.

After enduring this cat and mouse struggle for over an hour we managed to break free of the chaos near the town of Tuttle. The storm was still rapidly approaching when suddenly a tornado spun up in a nearby field.

The tornado didn’t last too long and appeared to be weaker, but the parent circulation was rapidly closing in on our location. Danny and Alec began telling me to punch it through town to try and beat it, but the circulation quickly moved over us, throwing a piece of sheet metal from a nearby building, striking the truck. Lucky for us, that is all that happened, had the tornado been able to maintain strength or get stronger, the outcome could have been worse. In hindsight we should have stopped and let it move ahead of us, but we emerged relatively unscathed.

Monitoring social media, we were starting to get reports and see the first clear images of the El Reno tornado. Wow. We were also beginning to learn what caused the traffic jam, and just what sort of chaos was going on this day. The storm complex wasn’t easing up and we decided to just continue west to get away from it, have dinner and then head for home. We managed to get out of storms path, found a pizza hut in the lovely city of Anadarko where we ate, and then decided to head home.

The El Reno tornado set a new record for the largest tornado ever documented, with reports of the ground circulation being as wide as an unthinkable 4.3 miles. Officially it was given a 2.6 mile wide path (still a record.) The rating has changed several times, going from EF-4 to EF-5 t0 EF-3. The tornado never hit any significant structures thus only causing EF-3 damage but mobile doppler radars measured winds near 300mph. The tornado itself began as a multi vortex of cones, then morphing into a giant wedge with subvortices within it, some of them having forward speeds of 180mph! The tornado caught many chasers off guard and some of them barely escaped with their lives, suffering massive vehicle damage and direct hits. Others weren’t so lucky…

Looking back to our near encounter with it. I took my GPS log and overlayed it onto the official survey map via google earth to show just how close we were. Our location where we turned around is the yellow pin. The tornado track is the blue, duck shaped swath.

Map of Entire chase (click to view full size:)

1 shows our decion to bail away from the tornado.
2 shows the location of our close call in Tuttle.

Chase Conclusion:

This was without a doubt one of the most frustrating chases I’ve been on, mostly due to the traffic. The videos of this tornado are incredible, and looking back I am quite miffed at myself for going west when we were south of UnionCity. I’ve only myself to blame for that one. In hindsight it could have saved us from getting into a very dangerous situation since I know myself and my agressive chasing style. Its quite possible that blunder saved our lives, but I can’t help but be angry I missed documenting this historic tornado for myself. The close call near Tuttle was just stupid on our parts as well. We would have been in less danger had we stayed put and attempted to gauge the tornadoes movement instead of acting on a whim and jsut flooring it through town. All in all this day will be studied for a long time to determine what would create such a storm. Unfortunately for us all, this day had a far worse impact…

The Inevitable Day Has Arrived:

Home safe and sound, pouring over video from the weeklong trip. I began to see some rather disturning facebook statuses. It was rumored legendary storm chaser, pioneer and most importantly, great friend Tim Samars along with his son Paul and longtime chase partner Carl Young, were victims of the EL Reno tornado. Until this day, no storm chaser has ever been killed as a direct result of pursuing a tornado on the chase. I did not want to believe the rumors, but shortly after they were confirmed. I couldn’t do anything but instantly break down and call/text some of my closest chase pals about the awful news.

Storm Chasers make up a relatively small part of the population. There are more of us than you think (1500-2000)and for the most part, we are a very tight knit community. We all know each other on varying levels from just “theyre a chaser im a chaser” to “best friends/chase pals.” Over the years Tim, his son Paul and Carl became decent friends of mine. We shared in celebratory events after the June 20th 2011 tornadoes. I have spoken at the same conventions as Tim, with him actually approaching me to tell me great job on my speech. We have had many pleasant conversations about lightning, and his work to study it. We always said hi to each other in the field, and he quickly became someone I looked up to with great respect.

I was just getting to know his son Paul in recent years. We shared in the same fun events on June 20th, and had several amusing and pointless conversations about…nothing online. Carl was a fun guy, and someone I always hung out with at chasercon while sharing a drink or 2…or 3 or 4. Theyre, team…Twistex, comprised of a great group of guys and represented what I wish I could be doing with my life. Full time, in the field research in storm chasing. They didn’t only chase for the thrill and to fulfill their own passion, they did it for science and research. There have been debates on what actually qualifies a storm chaser as a storm chaser, and these guys, without a doubt fit the bill.

We all knew that eventually, the day would come, but not a single person in the community would have named them as a canditate to take that unfortuante claim. They will be deeply missed, and I still think about them once in awhile, especially when I hear the song that was playing on my PC when I found out the awful news. It has nothing to do with chasing or even about death, but its forever burned in my brain and I will always associate it with them. That song is “what do you want from me” by Adam Lambert.

The following video showcases my last encounter with Tim, about a month before the incident. This occurred while chasing with the TIV earlier this year and shows just what I was talking about above. I join in at 3:17

The next set of images were part of a montage that headed my facebook profile for the days after. I was never one to take cheesy “here is me with so and so” photos so instead there is nothing but raw, real encounters.

Tim, Paul, Carl:

You will be forever missed, and I will do my best to chase with the same dignity and respect you tried to show us all. I am jealous of the view you will all have of future events. See you on the other side my friends.

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