3 Texas deaths underscore the dangers of storm chasing

AP News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2017 3:37 PM
3 Texas deaths underscore the dangers of storm chasing

DALLAS (AP) — As a powerful storm system swept across Texas, storm chasers raced to record its fury and witness a tornado. But one such pursuit ended tragically when three men were killed as their vehicles collided at a rural crossroads.

An SUV containing two storm chasers working under contract to The Weather Channel ran a stop sign Tuesday about 60 miles east of Lubbock and struck a Jeep driven by an amateur from Arizona, authorities said.

It was not the first time storm chasers were killed trying to document violent weather up close. In 2013, three researchers died when a twister packing winds up to 165 mph turned on them near El Reno, Oklahoma.

The latest tragedy just underscored the risks of speeding after storms to capture meteorological data and hair-raising video — a field that has become crowded in recent years with seasoned professionals, amateur weather enthusiasts and thrill-seekers who like getting their names and footage on TV.

Here are a few things to know about storm chasing:

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EARLIER TRAGEDY

The deaths in 2013 of longtime storm chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul and colleague Carl Young were probably the first "storm intercept fatalities" among researchers, the National Weather Center said at the time. They died racing down a storm that killed 13 people in Oklahoma City and its suburbs.

Tim Samaras and his Twistex tornado chase team produced material for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and meteorological conferences.

Just before he died, Samaras tweeted a photo of clouds rising through a volatile atmosphere and noted: "Dangerous day ahead for OK stay weather savvy!"

An amateur storm chaser named Richard Charles Henderson died pursuing the same storm. He sent a friend a cellphone photo of the tornado that killed him minutes later.

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CROWDED FIELD

The father of storm chasing is widely considered to be David Hoadley, a retired U.S. government administrator who has recorded some 230 tornadoes over more than half a century of running down storms.

But the field has grown far more crowded because of the financial incentives, the rise of social media and entertainment such as the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" and the 1996 movie "Twister," starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

Tim Samaras told National Geographic shortly before his death that it's not uncommon for hundreds of storm chasers to line the roads as a storm develops. In fact, investigators learned of Tuesday's deadly crash from a fleet of other storm chasers who came across the wreckage.

Many amateurs are looking to capture terrifying video of a huge twister and cash in by selling the footage to TV stations or documentary filmmakers. News outlets generally pay up to $500 for such video. Sometimes the storm chasers are not even after money but the thrill of hearing their names read on the air.

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ENDURING FASCINATION

The awe-inspiring power of tornadoes has long fascinated people. In 1755, Benjamin Franklin described a tornado chase on horseback, according to the American Meteorological Society.

Attempts to set up instruments in the path of tornadoes have been made since the 1970s to map the winds and gather other information. Armored vehicles have been positioned inside twisters to collect data, and mobile radar has been used since the 1990s to track the winds in 3-D, along with precipitation and debris.

The society said in a 2014 report that professional storm chasers are highly mobile and aware of the hazards, and know to keep their distance. Also, because twisters are usually short-lived and not on the ground for very long, "the risks posed to storm chasers by tornadoes are relatively minor."

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Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.