Death of the storm chaser (no Trump for a moment)

I have a friend who is a storm chaser.  He is not the high-tech type of guy with a million computers and radar and fancy photographic equipment filling his “tornado tank” to the extent that he barely fits in.  He is not a scientist.  In fact, he doesn’t even use the very latest technology to find out where the tornadoes may be; he draws his own conclusions from older methods.  And he has never, ever claimed to be in it for “saving lives” (a lie about the purpose of storm chasing that started during the life of the Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers”).

So why is he there?  For the adrenaline rush of seeing a powerful tornado sweep over an open field, not so very far off.  For the sake of videoing that tornado, and taking photos of it, and recalling it with his friends decades later.

The massive influx of newbies to the hobby/profession since 2009 (and “Storm Chasers”) has caught him off guard and made him cautious about going out.  Too many of the newbies are stupid and reckless, he says, and if they didn’t have all this modern technology they wouldn’t even be able to find a rain shower, let alone a tornado.

Two of the the TWISTEX team, on the other hand, were former cast members of the series “Storm Chasers.” Later they and one of their adult children would become, along with a newbie chaser, the first storm chasers to be killed by a tornado.

Nevertheless TWISTEX were no lightweights, nor were they among those who, as the saying goes, “seek glory in the cannon’s mouth.”  They were a serious scientific team and among the most experienced and cautious of the old guard, which included semi-pro hobby chasers like my friend as well as scientific chasers.

TWISTEX was, in fact, well-known for being cautious.  They had to be; their work involved getting in the projected path of an existing tornado, placing scientific equipment there, and getting out of the way as fast as possible.  But somehow that went awry on May 31, 2013, when they were killed by a sub-vortice of a massive, 2.5 mile wide EF3 tornado.

One would think this event would deter a lot of potential newbies, but it did not.  “It could happen to anyone,” became the new rule, and no one was scared off from chasing.  Everyone wanted their storm-chasing TV show, and some even created their own.  And so the avalanche of new chasers continued, and as a consequence, stupid behavior increased.  A whole new storm-chasing danger arose, and that was the simple act of driving.  This was what my storm-chaser friend had been saying all along.

Just after the deaths of the TWISTEX team I became aware of a new guy named Kelley Williamson.  He was an older man, in his 50’s, who started chasing after his wife was injured in a tornado-related automobile accident (I’m guessing sometime around 2011).  Right away I was struck by the fantastic amount of employees this guy seemed to have — he was on some sort of online network and was constantly talking to people who were telling him where to chase, where his partners were, and other information.  “Where did he come from all of a sudden,” I wondered; however, I found him entertaining and in subsequent years I always looked for his live stream before those of some other chasers.

Turned out a lot of people liked Kelley’s presentation, and in the last year he found himself with his own TV show on the Weather Channel.  Whether that led to what happened the other day is anybody’s guess.  And as the accident is still under investigation, perhaps I shouldn’t say much.

Suffice it to say that Williamson and his buddy were rushing toward a tornado, blew a stop sign, and took out not only themselves but also a young chaser named Corbin Lee Jaeger who happened to be at the same intersection, traveling on the crossing road.  It was a high-speed crash and all three died instantly.

Could this have happened in the old days when chasers were few and sometimes never crossed paths?  Maybe.  Would it have happened without all that modern technology making it easier to find a potentially tornadic storm?  Maybe.  Would it have happened if Williamson weren’t trying to get footage for a TV show?  Maybe.  Those are all questions that no one has a firm answer for.

But I’m thinking that perhaps my friend has a point.  Sometimes one just wonders if the good old days weren’t actually better.

My sincere condolences to the families and friends of those involved.

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