I am often asked that by regular, non-storm chasing folks. I’ve gotten a little nervous from time to time, but what I am going to share with you is probably the scariest thing that has EVER happened to me in my entire life. It quite possibly changed me as a person and may possibly affect any future storm chasing I might do. In fact, I am not even sure at this point if I ever want to chase again. I am not much of a writer, so please bear with me...
On the night of 5/24/07, I ended up northwest of Canadian, TX on an absolutely incredibly intense supercell that I had been chasing since Stinnett, TX. I had already seen a couple of tornadoes and experienced some 2+ inch hail along with all the other chasers that got stuck on Hwy 70 by the Canadian River Valley.
I had just repositioned to re-intercept this storm NW of Canadian. The lightning was INCREDIBLE ....continuous. Very much like strobe lights. It was very easy to see the storm structure/features. I could see a beautifully sculpted mesocyclone to my northwest with LOTS of scud/wall cloud activity under it. Inflow into this storm was in excess of 60 mph! It was HOWLING in to it!
It was not long until another tornado had formed, and then quickly dissipated, and then another. I was amazed there wasn't a wedge sized tornado down the whole time. I repositioned again to SW of Lipscomb. The storm had been tracking northeast and I was stair-stepping the roads northeast with it. There was a HUGE rotating bowl shape under this updraft. The lightning was so repetitive you could actually SEE the rotation. I don't recall EVER seeing something like that at night before.
It was time to reposition again and my plan was to go up Hwy 305 from Lipscomb where CR-N goes east. Every map I have looked at shows this road to be paved, and my Delorme mapping program on my laptop did as well...it was my next east option to stay out in front of the storm.
When I got to it...it was a MUD road...not paved at all. Earlier storms had made it unsafe as a chase road. Oh no! My next east option was several more miles north at Hwy 15. I could still see the mesocyclone to my NW and made a judgment call that I could "just" make it to that in time.
I could see a HUGE precipitation core to my west coming in and I KNEW there was HUGE hail in that, which I wanted to avoid. So I punched the accelerator and moved forward. What happened over the next half hour or so will be forever engrained in my memory.
As I proceeded quickly north, I could see some of the rain starting to wrap around the huge rotating lowering. The storm seemed to accelerate at this point, and what I didn't know at the time, but saw later on the radar loops, made a brief right turn and went due east. It was the combination of that and my originally planned east option being mud that almost cost me my life.
I floored it trying to hurry and get to Hwy 15, but it was just not meant to be. I became engulfed in the rain wrapping around the rotating lowered area, near the ground now. Visibility was ZERO and I could barely make out a center road stripe just off the left fender. This would become my guide for what seemed like an eternity.
Blinding rain and hail came from the west horizontally at well over 80 mph. I am pretty sure about the speeds because I was barely moving at the time and that was what the weather station on my vehicle was showing. All I could concentrate on was getting to Hwy 15 so I could blast east and get away from it.
Then the wind began to shift to the south, and was "pushing" me to the north. The rain was more like a vaporized mist/fog, moving very rapidly. Then it began to shift around in all sorts of directions. There was a little bit of small hail, but for the most part it was this very spooky, fast moving mist/fog that would shift around quickly from all directions, sometimes even going UP! If felt as if several people were outside my chase vehicle shaking it from different directions.
I thought “Oh my God, NOOOOO! OH please NO!” I knew there either was a tornado very nearby or was right on top of me. In my mind, I decided, “OK I would just stop where I was and maybe it will miss me”. That was a worse idea. It turned out that misty/foggy rain was actually moving at 107 mph and really WAS pushing me.
At this point I became more scared that I have ever been in my entire life. I have been in (and in close proximity to) low-end tornadoes before, but this was different somehow. I was never scared before. Perhaps it was because I knew this storm had the potential to produce a large and violent tornado? Perhaps it was being alone, at night in a very rural area? Perhaps it was the fact I couldn’t see a thing? I don’t know, but this time was different, I was scared beyond all belief that I was about to die. I would die alone.
Thoughts rapidly ran through my mind how to make the best outcome of this. I grabbed my cell phone and shoved it in my pocket, thinking if I got separated from my vehicle maybe I could call for help if I was injured. I fully believed I was about to be flung across the countryside. Despite all the stuff you hear about getting in low lying areas etc, there was no way I could even FIND a low lying area, and even if I could it was most likely flooded.
I saw some lights on the side of the road ahead, and thought there might be a house or something there. I could just barely make out the orange sodium lights. Just then, there were multiple green power flashes very near me...some sparks coming from some unknown place flying around with the rain/fog. I still could see nothing and KNEW I had to do something. I decided if the tornado was moving northeast as it had been, I could keep going north and it would move northeast away from me. I knew I would be in the precipitation core, but anything was better than the tornado! So on northward I crept. I am not very religious normally, but I began seriously praying to God. I guess the old saying is true ...there are no atheists in a foxhole.
I was just saying out loud, “Oh please God don't let this be a tornado ...please, please, please, oh God please”. That went on for some time. I could feel my heart racing and realized I had a death grip on the steering wheel with both hands. I have literally never been so scared in all my life and for the first time in my whole life I seriously thought I was about to die and there was literally nothing I could do at this point to prevent it.
I don't know how long this went on exactly. I was expecting side windows to be blown out at any time. I could hear stuff hitting the van...some of it I know wasn't hail. But nothing sounded big. I finally made my way to Hwy 15 and thought, “I could blast east now and escape this nightmare”. As I started heading east, it got even WORSE. I finally just stopped in the middle of the road, turned my windshield in to the wind, (which was coming from the northwest now)....in the middle of the road....and just stopped. I figured my windshield at least won't shatter like the side windows will. I briefly wondered again why they had not broken yet. I grabbed a thick towel I had in the vehicle and put it over my head and laid my seat back. I was shaking uncontrollably at this point and just praying it would be over soon. ...and then it all just stopped instantly. Just like that. I could see around me again!
There were no lights anywhere to be seen. No other cars, nothing. It was pitch black except for the lights from my vehicle. I straightened my vehicle up on the side of the road. It was still raining, but only lightly now. I quickly checked the radar to see just where I was in reference to the storm. To my surprise, my Sprint data card was still active and connected and feeding my radar. The worst had passed ...although there were some other storms lining out to the southwest...but it looked like most of it was going to miss this area.
I had had enough. I was done chasing storms for the day. I just wanted to get home as fast as I could. I slowly drove back to the 305/15 intersection and turned south on 305. After a mile or so I saw several cows standing on the side of the road. They appeared to be injured ...there was some blood, but nothing gushing and they were still walking. I think there were 3 of them. I continued on…
I saw a power pole with transformers lying beside the road. I was thinking to myself, “This isn’t good!”. I was STILL very much physically shaking. I then turned all the perimeter lights I have on my vehicle to light the area and proceeded slowly southward, thinking there might be some power lines on the road I didn’t want to drive in to. For three tenths of a mile, power poles and lines were strewn all about the area. Some poles were still standing and leaning way over and others were snapped off only a couple of feet above the ground. There were a lot of them. I began seeing parts of some trees. I could see some trees off the road that had that "tornado shredded" appearance that is unmistakable. Then I noted large and small pieces of mangled sheet metal strewn all over. I could see in the lightning it was all over the fields too, both east and west of the road. Some of it was wrapped around the tops of the downed power poles, as if it was wrapped on there before they went down. Some of the large water troughs used for cattle were lying around, some other stuff I couldn't identify. This is when it really hit me ...I had been there ...RIGHT THERE...just moments before. I don't know why, but I just immediately and uncontrollably began to cry. I really don’t even understand why actually. I am normally a very strong person in the face of difficult times and this was very uncharacteristic of me, but I guess it was partly in relief, maybe partly in thanks for what I had just survived. I felt a huge amount of tension drain out of me and I stopped shaking. For the first time in my life I believe I finally realized what tornado victims feel. I just sat there in the vehicle in the middle of the road and cried for a bit.
When I finally began to compose myself, I realized I STILL had not seen any other vehicles out there. I know this is a rural area, but there are some small towns near there. Were they not watching this storm? Did they get wiped out? I had no idea. But I remembered the sodium lights that went out earlier and thought there might be people living there, so I went looking for them. I did find them; they were flagging me down with a flashlight. Most of their property remained intact. It was an elderly couple and they were very much shook up. They said they thought their house was going to go. Sound like a jet was sitting on top of their house, they said, and they knew the roof was going to go any minute. They had heard the warning just before the power went out, but their cellar was outside and it hit so fast they could not even get to it. So they hid in their house. They were shook up, but OK. They were thankful I had checked on them. Seems the tornado passed just south of them, between their place and another one down the road. I could find no one home there. Between the two places the pivot irrigation systems had been mangled, almost beyond recognition.
She told me of a neighbor’s house on the small hill to her northwest. I later learned that house had a large metal barn. The type that would have had sheet metal like what I had seen strewn about the countryside. I could not see the house in the lightning, and the road to it was mud and covered in power lines. As of this writing I don't know if it was intact or not. The last volunteer firefighter I talked to said they had not been able to reach the people on the phone.
It was about that time I realized something. There was a lot of this debris lying around....exactly in the location where I had just experienced all that I have just told you about. I had been there...in the middle of all the chaos. Yet, somehow...I remained untouched by ANY of it. Not a single piece of it hit me. Aside from a few new hail dents, not a single bit of damage to my vehicle. Not a single power pole lay on the pavement. Not a single piece of power line was on the pavement. In fact....there wasn't even as much as a piece of vegetation on the pavement. It was very unsettling as you always at least see leaves and grass and rocks plastered on the pavement when a tornado passes. Not this time. The route through the mess remained clear. How could this happen? How did all of that stuff flying around miss me?
I ended up calling the Amarillo National Weather Service, reporting what I was seeing. Then I went to the nearby small community of Darrouzett, TX to tell them what had happened. They had just got their power back on and were sending some volunteers out already.
I tried to make my way back home and it was difficult finding a way out of the area. Many roads were either blocked with debris from the storms or flooded and low crossings.
I can't explain what happened to me or rather what didn't happen to me, other than someone was definitely looking out for me. How I made it through that unscathed is beyond my comprehension right now. Perhaps guardian angles really do exist? I am still very emotional about this today. As of this moment, I don't even want to ever chase another storm again. I have seen much over the last 23 years, but maybe it's time to move on to something else. I don't know, maybe I will feel differently in a few days, or when the next severe weather setup comes around. But right now, I just want some nice days with no significant weather to deal with.
I may get blasted or ridiculed by certain other storm chasers for sharing this. I really don't care. It was a trying, horrifying and extremely emotional experience. I feel like I would be letting myself and others down if I didn't share it. I feel like I HAVE to share it to get past it somehow.
For the first time in my chasing career, I feel like I finally understand the tornado fear...