Friday, September 21, 2018
Public safety

Two Weather Channel storm chasers crash into a third while pursuing tornado, killing all three (w/video)

A few miles west of Spur, Texas, three storm chasers died while tracking a tornado when their two vehicles collided at a rural intersection on Tuesday afternoon.

One storm chaser, driving a black Chevrolet Suburban, disregarded a stop sign and slammed into another storm chaser's black Jeep, authorities with the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

The Suburban's two occupants and the Jeep driver were pronounced dead at the scene, Sgt. John Gonzalez, a representative for the department, told Lubbock's Avalanche-Journal in a statement.

Kelley Gene Williamson, a 57-year-old storm chaser from Cassville, Mo., was driving the Suburban. Fifty-five-year-old Randall Delane Yarnall, also from Cassville, rode in the passenger seat. Storm chaser Corbin Lee Jaeger, 25, of Peoria, Ariz., drove alone in the Jeep.

"Mr. Williamson was ejected from the vehicle at the time of the crash," Gonzalez said in the statement. "Mr. Williamson was not wearing his seat belt." Both Jaeger and Yarnall wore theirs, he said. The investigation into the crash remains ongoing, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Authorities did not mention whether stormy conditions played a role, but one official confirmed to CNN that the storm chasers were following a tornado through Dickens County. A storm bringing heavy rains had passed through the area. Following reports of a twister, the National Weather Service station in Lubbock, some 60 miles from Spur, issued a tornado warning for northwestern Texas. At 3:30 p.m., the weather service took to Twitter to urge residents of Crosby County to seek immediate shelter.

"We would encourage anyone driving down these remote roads to slow down and pay attention to traffic signs especially in inclement weather. It can become dangerous for all involved," Gonzalez said, reported CBS Dallas-Fort Worth.

Williamson and Yarnall worked as contractors for the Weather Channel, which released a statement mourning the storm chasers. "This afternoon we learned that three people died in a car accident in Texas, including two contractors for the Weather Channel, Kelley Williamson and Randy Yarnall. Kelley and Randy were beloved members of the weather community. We are saddened by this loss and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved."

Storm chasers and meteorologists expressed their sympathies. "Tragedy strikes our community once again," wrote veteran storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski on Twitter, "confirming 3 storm chasers killed west of Spur TX. Now is the time to pray not share names."

After the storm chasers were identified, Missouri news station KSPR published an interview between meteorologist Kevin Lighty and Williamson, discussing the dangers of storm chasing. "People ask what we do, well, we track weather, tornadoes for the Weather Channel you know," Williamson told Lighty. "About 50-50. Some people says you're crazy and the other half says — I want to go with you."

Williamson said he was aware of the risk that storm chasers posed to each other. "The biggest danger out there is the other chasers and the Grandma that's trying to get her kids," Williamson said. "You know, you've got to watch out for everybody out there, and then the storms come secondary."

Fatalities in the field are rare. In the decades since the first death, when a University of Oklahoma meteorology student's car swerved off the road in 1984, the few storm chasers who died perished in automobile accidents. No tornado killed a storm chaser until 2013 when a massive twister mortally struck four, one amateur storm chaser and three veterans of the field.

A few storm chasers predicted that deaths would continue. "Yes, more chasers will die in tornadoes (or be killed in vehicle crashes while chasing). That seems inevitable," storm chaser and retired NWS meteorologist Charles Doswell told The Washington Post in May. "What's gratifying is how uncommon it's been."

The three deaths in Texas on Tuesday came at a time when the storm chasing community had already been subject to scrutiny, in part fueled by thrill-seeking chasers who shared "tornado selfies" and other risky exploits on social media.

But storm chaser and Washington Post Capital Weather Gang forecaster/photographer Ian Livingston argued that recklessness was not the norm. He wrote in June, "there are many misconceptions about storm chasing that need to be set straight. The plains are not overrun by storm-chasing caravans every spring. There are not thousands of cars on the road preventing first responders from doing their jobs. We do not do it for the money. We do not disrupt local residents' lives."

 
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