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Veteran takes storm chasers to task at ChaserCon for reckless behavior

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at 8:31 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 31, 2014, at 6:14 a.m.

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— There’s no telling how many people storm chasers have killed – or will kill in the future – as a result of their videos of dangerous or reckless behavior.

So declared Chuck Doswell, one of the first storm chasers, during a national convention Saturday in Denver.

Doswell said storm chasers have inspired those who have little or no idea of what they’re doing to grab a camera and try to photograph dangerous storms.

“Why would that happen? Why would people be so willing to risk their lives to obtain tornado video?” Doswell asked more than 400 people gathered for ChaserCon 2014. “We, all of us, bear some responsibility for that.”

In the wake of the El Reno tornado, which killed four chasers and four others in Oklahoma on May 31, Doswell said it’s a good time for storm chasers to take a hard look in the mirror.

“All of us, myself included, have done irresponsible things,” said Doswell, who began storm chasing in the early 1970s. “There are no saints. I make no claim to be one.”

The El Reno tornado killed veteran chasers Tim Samaras – who held the first ChaserCon in the basement of his house 16 years ago – his son Paul and chase partner Carl Young.

This year’s conference attracted the largest gathering in its history. Roger Hill, who co-founded the event, credited the turnout to chasers who wanted to honor Samaras.

“Surely, the first chaser to be killed would be anyone other than Tim,” Doswell said. “That’s what we all thought.

“Tim was experienced,” he added. “He was very safety conscious. Tim had a reason to be close to the tornado. His mission was to collect the data that no one prior to Tim had been successful in collecting.”

That required Tim Samaras and his crew to take great risks, Doswell said, and those risks finally caught up with them.

In a presentation earlier in the day, weather researcher Jon Davies – who until a few years ago called Wichita home – showed how the El Reno tornado expanded dramatically, accelerated, took a hard left turn and even looped back around, catching and killing Samaras and his team.

The fourth chaser killed by the El Reno tornado, Richard Henderson, had little to no experience chasing storms, Doswell said.

He asked how many chasers at the conference had put themselves in the path of a tornado, were close enough to be hit by debris or had to race to avoid being hit by a tornado. Hands – sometimes dozens – were raised in each case.

For any of those who raised their hands, Doswell said, “all it would have taken is some unforeseen circumstance, and we’d be dead. No one is immune. Anything can go wrong.”

Samaras wouldn’t want his death to discourage people from chasing tornadoes, Doswell said, so he wasn’t going to try to discourage it.

“If we want to honor Tim and his teammates, if we want to have the loss mean anything, we have to think seriously about why we need to be in close to large, dangerous tornadoes – and we better have a damn good reason,” Doswell said.

“Just be responsible, that’s all.”

The El Reno tornado didn’t teach chasers anything new, Doswell said.

“Rain-wrapped tornadoes are dangerous – gosh, what a revelation,” he said. “Being close to a large, rain-wrapped tornado, it’s hard to judge when it changes direction. Duh.”

Many chasers tracking the El Reno tornado misjudged its size and speed, including Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel, whose three-vehicle team was hit by the tornado. A subvortice of the tornado hurled the chase vehicle Bettes and two members of his crew were in an estimated 125 yards, though they survived.

Bettes spoke about that experience in a presentation Saturday morning, admitting he and his team didn’t realize how large and fast the tornado was. They were north of the eastbound tornado and tried to get south of it so they could get better video of the tornado – the widest ever recorded at 2.6 miles – but ended up driving right into it.

Bettes said he will continue chasing, but he’ll take fewer risks.

“Nothing thrills me more than being able to show a live tornado on TV,” he said.

But from now on, he said, “I’m not going to risk my safety or the safety of my crew to get that shot. I can always record it.”

Bettes urged the chasers to act as if their families were along for the ride.

“If you had your kids in the back seat, would you do what you did?” he asked. “Most of us would probably say no.”

Speakers at previous ChaserCons urged chasers to learn first aid and take first-responder classes so they could assist the injured after a tornado has struck a city or a farmstead. But Doswell went the opposite direction.

“Storm chasing is a hobby,” he said. “Chasers aren’t out there to save lives. So quit saying that crap. It’s a lie, and you know it.”

The people who save lives are the National Weather Service and emergency management agencies, he said. Chasers can help them by calling in information, but that’s as much as they should do unless they can render first aid to a victim right where they are.

“You’ve got no business hanging around after a tornado has gone through a community,” he said. “You are only in the way of people who know what they’re doing.”

Realizing that what he said may not be popular with his audience, Doswell closed his presentation – which he had called “holding up a mirror” the night before – by saying he was open for questions, comments and “death threats.”

But there were none.

“I’m glad he said what he said,” Wichita chaser Melissa Capps said.

Veteran chaser Eugene Thieszen, a Mennonite pastor from Cordell, Okla., also praised Doswell’s candor.

“It’s something we need to be reminded of every five or 10 years,” Thieszen said.

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

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