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Storm chasers flock to Denver to learn, remember

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at 10:19 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 31, 2014, at 6:14 a.m.

— They have converged on the national storm-chasing convention in record-breaking numbers and from around the world.

More than 400 chasers are here for ChaserCon 2014, the most in the 16-year history of the event.

“We had to turn people away,” conference co-founder Roger Hill said. “The room only holds 408.”

Some have been coming for years. For others, like Melissa Capps of Wichita, it’s their first time.

“I had to come,” she said, “in honor of Tim.”

Tim Samaras, a co-founder of the conference, was killed along with his son Paul and chase partner Carl Young by the El Reno tornado in Oklahoma on May 31. They were setting probes in the tornado’s path when it accelerated and grew, catching them before they could escape.

If it could get Tim, several chasers gathering for the conference said, it could get anybody.

The conference banquet won’t feature a keynote speaker this year. There will be a tribute to Samaras, his son and Young instead.

While 2013 saw a much lower number of tornadoes than normal, several of them were memorable.

On May 20, a tornado that grew to more than a mile wide at times and was rated an EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale ravaged Moore and other parts of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, killing 23 people and injuring dozens more.

The El Reno tornado just west of Oklahoma City was part of an outbreak that saw 19 tornadoes touch down in Oklahoma on May 31. Of the eight people killed by the tornado, four were storm chasers.

A massive tornado near Bennington in north-central Kansas appeared to churn in place for nearly an hour, and another large tornado just missed devastating the small town of Rozel in central Kansas.

While storm chasers have long acknowledged what they do can be dangerous, El Reno was the first tornado to kill a chaser.

That sobering truth is reflected in the title of presentations scheduled in the conference: “Dangerous and Unpredictable Tornado Paths.” “A Jaw-Dropping Season.” “Chasing’s End of Innocence.”

If the turnout for the conference is any indication, however, the deaths of Samaras, his son and Young hasn’t chilled the appetite for chasing.

Consider Phillip Leonard. He flew from Adelaide in south Australia to Denver for the conference, and he plans to spend a few weeks getting a feel for Tornado Alley – including spending a week in Wichita with veteran chasers he met via social media.

Come next spring, he’ll return in the spring to chase tornadoes.

“I’ve just always been interested in severe weather,” he said.

And large tornadoes simply don’t happen in Australia, he said.

Large tornadoes do happen in Kansas, and they hooked Capps early on.

“I’ve been obsessed with tornadoes since I was 4,” she said.

Her parents took her to see the devastation caused by the EF-5 tornado that tore through Haysville, south Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover on April 26, 1991.

She was fascinated by what the tornado did.

When another tornado touched down not long after that and ripped the roof off the family’s barn, Capps didn’t go to the basement.

“I actually ran upstairs to go see it because I was so curious,” she said. “Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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