Via a thread post on Stormtrack, Dan Robinson and Tim Vasquez have outlined storm chasing fatalities since the inception of storm chasing.
The above bar graph graphic,
produced by Robinson, illustrates all the storm chasing fatalities (which is
fifteen) since the inception of storm chasing.
Robinson, with the help of Vasquez, wrote extensively about eight separate incidents which lead to the deaths of storm chasers’.
2nd April 1984:
The first “in the field” chaser death, Christopher Phillips was a twenty-one
year old OU meteorology student from New Jersey. Phillips died when he swerved
to avoid a rabbit and his car rolled over into a ditch in Oklahoma.
11th July 2005:
Norman, Oklahoma resident Jeff Wear was killed on Interstate 20 near Kilgore,
Texas after he hydroplaned in heavy rain and struck a flatbed truck head-on.
Wear was returning from a chase to intercept Hurricane Dennis.
6th June 2009:Fabian Guerra of Chicago was killed on
Interstate 80 in Iowa when he swerved to avoid a deer, crossed the median and
struck an oncoming tractor-trailer in the early morning hours of June 6th.
Guerra was heading to Nebraska to meet up with two other chasers for a chase in
the area later on that day.
4th February 2012: Andy Gabrielson was killed on Interstate 44 near Sapulpa, Oklahoma in a head-on collision with a drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway. Gabrielson was on his way home from a chase earlier on in Oklahoma.
31st May 2013: Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young were killed when the El Reno, Oklahoma Tornado overtook their vehicle. Richard Henderson, resident of Oklahoma, was killed by the Tornado when he went out near his home to observe the storm and take pictures. Something we didn’t know! A fifth fatality involving a likely chaser was uncovered by researchers studying the Tornado and its impacts.
12th July 2015: David and Mildred Frank were killed when a storm chaser ran a stop sign near the town and collided with their vehicle. We have to stipulate that the Franks were not chasers. The chaser survived with minor injuries and was later criminally charged, receiving a ninety-day suspended jail sentence and one year probation1.
28th March 2017: Corbin Jaeger, Kelley Williamson and Randall Yarnall died
when the Yarnall/Williamson vehicle ran a stop sign near Spur, Texas and
collided with Jaeger’s vehicle. This particular incident has been in the news
recently, as Jaeger’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against The Weather
According to the thread post, Yarnall/Williamson were chasing and live streaming in “official capacity” for The Weather Channel at the time of the crash.
Thank you to Dan Robinson and Tim Vasquez for putting this together. We learnt a lot from it and we think others will as well. That’s why we’re writing about it! We recommend that you read the replies in the thread, it’s worth it.
FYA: There is another thread on Stormtrack which lists/memorialising all storm chasers who have passed on – read here.WE URGE YOU TO TAKE A LOOK AT IT!
1: A subsequent civil suit by
the family yielded a one hundred thousand dollar judgement. Fatal accidents
have happened at the same intersection before, and residents had submitted
previous complaints. The chaser despite being in the vicinity of severe storms
and posting about them to his Facebook page prior to the accident, states he
was not “actively” chasing at the time of the accident.
Original post can be found here. Like Meteorologist Tony Laubach’s Facebook page here.
Meteorologist Tony Laubach has given us permission to turn his Facebook post in an article. It’s a much-needed read for chasers that head to Tornado Alley from across the world + homegrown ones.
So with that, enjoy the thoughts from a Twister-era storm chaser.
Originally posted: 23rd May 2019.
This will get a little personal, so bare with me. Somewhere over the years, I’ve lost the ability to really get things from my head into words, so this may be much more ramble than I intend it to be. But it’s important for me, and thus I am going to give it a whirl between arm-chair chasing this moderate risk.
(this was published the day after that event)
Over the last few years, I’ve seen a change in my storm chasing philosophy. I come from the Twister-era generation of chasers, and that’s kinda by circumstance as that movie came out around the time I was learning to drive. I consider myself an “Enemy Wind” guy (1992), which was really the first tornado special I saw that introduced me to the concept of storm chasing. In the years between that and Twister, I accumulated a bunch of tornado VHS tapes, and a lot of those had some parts that talked about the idea of storm chasing. I learned, read up, etc, and fortunately my first opportunity came to me in my backyard back in Ohio where I had success on my first chase in 1997 (almost a year to the date of Twister’s release).
Back then, there was no social media, barely any world wide web, and you actually had to KNOW Meteorology in order to have any kind of success. After my chasing debut and first tornado in ’97, it took three years before I nabbed number two in Oklahoma (during my one semester living in Moore), then it was another three years before I nabbed my next five during the 2003 season. My breakout year was the following year in ’04, which included amazing chase days on May 12 and May 29, both here in Kansas. Things took off from there.
Point being, it took a LONG time before I got to a point where I felt comfortable with chasing, and lets face it, remotely could consider myself a “good” chaser. And because of the lack of social media, I was forced to actually engage with other chasers in the field. I met many in my early years, and they all took me under their wing. We had short caravans of vehicles that prowled the plains, often only a couple of those vehicles having mobile data of any sort in the car. I got my HAM radio license so I could communicate, and that’s how it worked. I listened to their observations, how they navigated storms, and it brought me to a new level. All this while struggling through a Meteorology degree, which I ultimately would FINALLY get many years after starting.
It took patience, it took persistence, and it really took a HUGE investment not only in money (which lets be real, was probably the least of the investments when compared to the others), but in time and effort. If you wanted to be good, you wanted to see tornadoes, you had to know what they hell you were doing. And it took years to get to a level where I felt I could say that with some confidence. It’s called patience, earning your way… it’s a lost art in so many areas these days. Kind of like the art of storm chasing…
Between Twister (1996) and the Discovery Channel era (2007), I think there was a lull in the increase of chasers. In fact, I ponder the notion of knowing how many Twister-era chasers survived that stint. With lower success rates and freelancing video had not yet exploded into what it is today, I wonder how many regulars back then made it. Sure, there was probably a slow incline in the numbers, but I recall most of the people I saw were the same groups year-after-year. I think tornado tours originated during this time as well, but they, too, were very limited in numbers.
So then came Discovery Channel, and thus storm chasing became mainstream. Social media was becoming a thing, and forecast models had increased in their accuracy. The boom had begun. And I think this is also when you really started to see storm chasing become a business. Multiple tour groups sprang up, freelance video companies multiplied, and access to earning money to offset costs was much easier. Success rates were also going up, and the introduction of “spotter network” combined with updates from the field allowed a lot of novice chasers to follow others, and suddenly the newbies were enjoying success by literally riding coattails. And better forecasting models made it much easier to forecast where to be.
Discovery was a trigger, arguable THE trigger, and when it introduced people to storm chasing, it was a wildfire out of control. And it just grew, more people got their gas tanks filled through video selling, models got better to the point where people didn’t have to know Meteorology, and suddenly there it was. And the trend that has not slowed since. Now high-risk days are more about navigating traffic than seeing storms and tornadoes, and what once was a enjoyable down-time post-chase activity of watching a couple tornado videos from an event has turned into 100 of the same views of tornadoes from people, whom a majority of, don’t know how to shoot video in any real capacity to make it an enjoyable viewing.
“But Tony, you were on Discovery Channel. Didn’t you contribute to this process?” , In a word, yes. I was on Discovery Channel as part of Team TWISTEX for three seasons (well technically two, I was in the opening credits for the fifth and final season, but never appeared in an episode; a topic for later over a drink in a bar). We had a mission that was focused on science, and we took advantage of the chance to gain some exposure for our work, and lets face it, get some funding for a project that did not have the luxury of the exposure that groups such as VORTEX 2 had. We did our best to portray ourselves in the most professional light we could. We were not parading around as “Extreme Meteorologists”, and the work that was done in the field during TWISTEX has actually be published in countless peer-reviewed papers and academic journals. We took the risks we felt were necessary and as comfortable as we felt we could. We did not intentionally drive into tornadoes for “research”. We tried, even against the odds of favorable editing in post-production, to portray our group in the most professional, respectful manner to which we could. And we did so in a way that allowed the least amount of opportunity for production to later dramatize us. And I think we did a damn good job, even into the last season which was a gratuitous stretch of reality, lets be real. We took advantage of the stage we were presented in hopes we could display a side of chasing that I think really needed to be displayed. Did it ultimately work? That’s arguable. But it’s my hope that a few of those out in the field are doing good work because they were inspired by Tim’s passion and work-ethic to better the sciences, and do so in the most professional, respectful, and passionate way possible.
The passion, though, has been replaced with something else… I don’t even know what to call it anymore. The need to sell video, the need to garner social media followers, the need to do something. I don’t know… there’s a term for it, and it’s escaping my mind. It’s different, it’s much different. And it’s not good, let’s be real. Storm chasing is now a sport, and it’s a sport where the players as a whole are not very good. It’s about competition, who can get the most extreme video the quickest, who can get the closest, get more social media likes, whatever. I’ve fallen off the grid over the last couple of years, clinching to my close friends and long-time chase partners I’ve accumulated over the years. My social media following is much larger than I would come to expect given the relative lack of posting I do in the grand-scheme of things. But it’s something I’ve built over the years, and something I am proud of. But even still, my lack of posting is apparent is a lot of instances outside of my day-to-day chasing.
Look, I’m not trying to denounce people (I do denounce highly the dangerous behavior and carelessness exhibited all-too-frequently). I know this has carried a largely negative tone, but I’m happy to a point that we’ve inspired people to pursue this. And it’s not my place to judge others by their motivations behind pursuing storms. I’m expressing my thoughts on the matter. But where I am coming from is probably that of an old man perspective. The ability to simply be able to do something does not translate into one actually doing it. The lack of experience clogging roads has become dangerous, and it’s both the new and old. When you factor in those reasons I stated above, it makes anyone dangerous in the wrong circumstances. And it’s truly a miracle of miracles that incidents like what happened in Texas when long-time chasers recklessly killed a young chaser haven’t happened more. It’s truly a matter of time, and it’s not anywhere out of the realm of possibility that a much larger scale incident will occur due to the excessive amount of people being out on higher end days.
I’ve adapted… and not in the way I wanted or even envisioned to. A lot of people come back at me and say “if you don’t like it, don’t chase”. And while it’s not to accommodate their requests in any way, here I am sitting out a moderate risk day (started this on 5/22) to type this because I’d rather not go out of my way to chase a high-stress event. I’ve definitely come into a different place in regards to my chasing in recent years, and sitting out higher-end days is not something that bothers me as much anymore. Does that mean I will sit out every high end event from here through the end of time? No, of course not. It just means I am going to be highly selective on those I do opt to take part in. And these last last couple, in the midst of a very busy pattern with plenty of opportunities coming down the pipe, I decided to sit out.
It helps living in the Alley now, which was one of the reasons why I came out here. I’m not limited to a “chasecation” any more. I can be move selective, the opportunities will come to me. It’s called getting older, the idea of being out for dozens of days in a row just doesn’t have the appeal as it once did. I will get scattered chances to see storms all year long, and that’s a big reassurance. I’ve settled down in life a bit, it isn’t about how many tornadoes I can cram into a week, or how many miles I can drive (which trust me, still add up faster than I can keep up with), it’s about enjoying the storms a bit more. I’ve focused on picking up my Nikon more, filling up my wall with beautiful storm structure, lightning and tornadoes. I still have a job to do around that, but for me now, I just want to return to something earlier where it was about the storms, and get in those moments between work. Which is much harder to do when you’re in a high-end, higher-risk situation.
I’ve enjoyed very much the lower end days, the rewards of seeing beautiful storms and tornadoes and have done so in environments that allow me more focus on the skies and less on trying to survive the masses. I’ll have plenty of opportunities for higher end setups as a result of the job I work here in Kansas, but the days of going out of my way for those types of intense setups are highly numbered. And as much as it amazes me to say it, I’m not bothered by this nearly as much as the younger version of me once was. There will be other storms, other tornadoes, and I will see more than my share in the years to come. I’ve taken that step back, and have really come to appreciate that more in the last couple of years. I want to enjoy the weather again as close as I can to how I once did when I started.
Look folks, higher risk days are NOT the days to try to get your first tornado. They’re not the days you go out on if you’ve only chased a couple times, and certainly are not the days you want to venture out solo if you’re chasing experience can fit into a shot-glass. Baseball players who swing a bat in batting practice in the minors and drill a home-run on a slow hanging slider don’t immediately get to start in the World Series. They start small, and for many, it takes years to get to a point where they can make that start. I know many of you do not understand the idea of patience, persistence, actually taking the time to learn something. But that experience grows, and it will get to a point where you won’t be a liability on higher-risk days. There are ALWAYS going to be tornadoes, and the ones you really want (the photogenic, non-damaging rural tornadoes) tend to gravitate toward lower end risk days, and they always have fewer people. Remember, learning about chasing is knowing the weather, and it is VERY difficult to focus on the weather when you’re constantly navigating traffic and have your heads in a computer screen. And look, there is more to chasing than just tornadoes. Seriously, let that sink in a little. There is so much you’re missing out on.
Go chase, enjoy mother nature. By all means, please do. But start small, learn it. Appreciate it. Grow with it, and eventually you’ll get there. I did, lots of us did, and I enjoyed the journey, even as it took years to get to that point. You have so much more at your disposal than I, or many of us early-generation chasers did, tools that can help you grow and learn. Don’t just use it. Absorb it. Take a step back and think about those days you go out, do you know why? Do you understand how the forecast works? Or are you simply driving to the center of an outlined bulls-eye? Think about that, wouldn’t it be cool to understand WHY you’re chasing something. Then again, maybe you just wanna see tornadoes, and that’s cool too. But you have no idea what you’re missing, and it’s a blessing and a curse. If you truly understood what myself and others have invested over the years, you’d be as envious of us as you would lucky you weren’t us. Because it hurts to see what chasing has become in the last few years. It was never meant to turn into what it has today.
My final piece of advice… obviously I am not your father, nothing I have said here as advice is meant to be an order and probably has gone in one eye and out the other. And while you don’t have to listen to all that, please be sure to listen to this. Be respectful out there, be professional. While the practical obligations of chasers are largely up for debate, I feel we all owe it to ourselves and others to treat this activity with respect and professionalism. I understand how one can get caught up in the moments, and I am as guilty in this as anyone from time-to-time, but you have ALL THE CONTROL over what you put out for public consumption. If it’s your first tornado, or your 500th, act like you’ve been there before. Remember that many times over, these acts of nature that you may be rooting for and cheering on like a bunch of drunken high school students are doing awful things we cannot imagine to others. No one needs to see the levels of disrespect that are flung across the medias of the world now-a-days. Respect this craft. Respect the laws. Respect others. Be professional, and perhaps we can all go out there and do this thing and enjoy the moments while actually contributing something productive to the science and in some other ways, aid those in the paths of these things. Above all, be safe and be smart. And remember, your actions out there are not only being captured by you, but by every single other person out there with a camera. And if you’re acting carelessly, doing stupid stuff, you’re going to get called out for it. And you should! And when that happens, don’t get defensive, don’t go off in a huff, LEARN FROM IT. We’re all guilty of those moments, we’ve all been there. But for God sake, LEARN!
No storm, no tornado, NOTHING is worth your life out there. There will be plenty of storms, plenty of tornadoes… you don’t have to see them all, you don’t have to sell them all, you don’t even have to be there for them all. Know your limits, respect your skill set, and grow them all over the years you’re out there. No one is asking you to stop chasing, we’re just asking you respect the craft a little more, take a step or two back and appreciate and respect what Ma-Nature has to offer. This coming from one of the old guys in the craft now. Happy Hunting out there!
Thank you Tony for allowing us to publish your excellent piece to a wider audience. Take a look at some of Laubach’s work below, it’s worth it!
We will not being making comment at this time. We will making comment when the lawsuit has gone through the courts.
Mum of a National Weather Service (NWS) storm spotter (spotter) killed in a 2017 car crash has filed a one hundred and twenty five million dollar lawsuit against the Weather Channel – organisation that hired the storm chasers involved in the fatal car wreck.
Karen Di Piazza filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal district court in Lubbock, Texas. Piazza’s son, Corbin Lee Jaeger – who was 25 – was killed on the 28th March, 2017 in a two-vehicle wreck on County Road 419 – just west of Spur and southeast of Lubbock.
The lawsuit suggests The Weather Channel’s on-air personalities Kelley Williamson and Randall Yarnall ran stop signs and traffic lights and broke other traffic laws to capture video for their show, ‘Storm Wranglers’.
Officials at The Weather Channel knew of their dangerous and reckless driving habits – according to the lawsuit.
The duo ran a stop sign on County Road 419, travelling at seventy miles per hour to video a Tornado for The Weather Channel – according to lawsuit.
Williamson and Yarnall were also killed in the crash. Jaeger, a certified spotter for the NWS was driving away from the Tornado when his vehicle was hit, the lawsuit suggests.
“We are saddened by the loss of Corbin Jaeger, Kelly Williamson and Randy Yarnall. They were beloved members of the weather community and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved. We cannot comment on pending litigation.”