Saturday, 7 June 2013
I haven’t had any free time to truly express the events that unfolded on May 31, 2013 when my friend Jesse Duncan and I witnessed the El Reno tornado at extremely close range. My flight back to PA left the following day, I didn’t arrive home until very late that night, and the next day I went back to work. With such insane sleep deprivation on top of the fact that I went on this second storm chasing trip putting ‘life on hold’, I’ve had a lot of things to take care of between working and sleeping! Thus, I simply haven’t had the time to really express things in words. And I’m still short on time, so this won’t be an extended post.
Our first view of the tornado was not good to say the least. We had just shot south to I-40 through El Reno and headed a few miles west of town, and stopped at an exit to view the wall cloud to the southwest. You can see in the image above a wall cloud wrapped in rain. There was already a tornado reported on the ground, but we just had too much rain in our view to see it. I decided to re-position to a county road south of I-40 and we ended up with a great view of the multi-vortex tornado to our southwest (seem image below).
Cutting this post short, I’m going to fast forward to after when got back on I-40 and shot east a few miles (actually 2-3 miles west of exit 130).
The tornado had already made the turn to the northeast, expanded and had accelerated to 40 mph! After punching through the rain core, the tornado all of the sudden became visible to our south (seem image below). We continued east another mile or so, now northeast of the tornado. Within a matter of seconds the tornado expanded like nothing I’ve seen before, and became 2.6 miles wide. This is the new record for tornado width in the U.S., and likely makes it the largest tornado in the world. It was rated EF5.
In the video you can’t even see the entire tornado because the outer circulation actually extended beyond the visible ‘funnel’. Multiple vortices touched down at random well outside of the condensation funnel. The tornado was just so huge, it was very intimidating. I remember as the wedge came within a few hundred yards of the vehicle (just an estimation, I just know it came VERY close to our location) how incredible it was just to be there. I could hear the roar of the tornado out in the field, I could hear the sound of a tremendous waterfall in front of me. The winds around me were increasing dramatically and the air pressure suddenly dropped. The car started shaking. As I looked at this massive, wedge tornado churning in the field just yards away from me and getting much closer by the second, time stood still. I could feel the energy of the tornado effecting everything around me, including my body. It was like I could feel the raw power of the tornado as it got closer and closer to us. I’ve never felt anything quite like this while near a tornado. It was almost as if the energy within me was somehow connecting to the energy of the tornado. I know that sounds strange, but this tornado was SO powerful it was like it was literally grabbing hold of me in this instant in time. This tornado was just something else.
Finally, I told Jesse to start driving east to get away from the tornado as it continued to churn closer and closer to our vehicle. Little did we know the traction control for the car was turned on (rental car, had no idea what traction control even was!) and this kept the car from accelerating quickly due to the high winds and rain now pounding the car! So all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a race to get out of the way of this massive, 2.6 mile wide EF5 tornado.
The inflow jet to the tornado was insane with winds easily 60-70 mph blowing directly against (east to west) our vehicle. Random small pieces of debris were flying around us, and driving the car was difficult. Again, this wouldn’t have been a major issue had the car been allowed to accelerate freely(thank you traction control), and we would likely have already driven far enough east – away from the tornado – to where it’s likely none of this would have been a concern. But that wasn’t the issue anymore. The issue was this massive inflow into that was keeping us within grips of the beast of all tornadoes. At one point the winds shook the car violently and the windshield wipers literally stuck to the windshield! At the same time I saw debris fly up in the air just south of the road (to my right) as a satellite tornado struck it! Pieces of debris flew twenty or thirty feet over the car. The winds were just insane, and you could see the trees were bending nearly to the ground facing west into the tornado! It was like looking at an atom bomb explosion in slow motion. Then suddenly, we were out of the inflow band feeding into the tornado, and we were free! The car accelerated at a great speed, and all was ok again. Things were calm again, it was over.
This experience is a good reminder to all chasers that sometimes unexpected circumstances occur, which can sometimes put you and others in risky situations that are temporarily beyond your control. It’s a good lesson and reminder for me as a storm chaser to respect mother nature. She is powerful and once under her grip she’s extremely dangerous. I’m thankful we made it out of there unscathed. I’ve been in a lot of dangerous situations in the past by taking calculated risks, and I’ve always made it out in the end without harm. But this was definitely the closest call I’ve had. It was also the closest I’ve ever been to such a violent tornado, and certainly the most I’ve ever been connected physically to the raw power of a tornado.
More coming soon….