Chasing tornadoes is not exactly a low-risk activity, between the hazards the atmosphere can throw at you and the challenge of driving while keeping an eye on the sky.
However, until recently, there had never been a recorded death of a tornado chaser, despite the activity’s increasing popularity in the wake of the 1997 film Twister.
On Tuesday night, the tight-knit community of professional storm chasers suffered a wrenching loss when three well-known storm trackers, Gene Williamson, Randall Delane Yarnall, and Corbin Lee Jaeger, were killed in a high-speed collision while chasing a storm near the rural Texas community of Spur.
The accident follows the 2013 death of storm researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and chase partner Carl Young. They were killed when they were overtaken by the widest tornado ever recorded near El Reno, Oklahoma. That fierce and unusually fickle tornado proved particularly hazardous to observe, and it also injured a Weather Channel crew when their car was flung off the side of the road.
In some respects, it was only a matter of time before the incentives involved in storm chasing, such as the desire for close-up video footage of massive twisters, the scientific need to observe these storms as closely as possible, and the traffic congestion on big chase days, resulted in tragedy.
However, it would be a mistake to paint storm chasers with a broad brush. Not every storm chaser—including those who passed away on Tuesday—takes great risks for the sake of that one great picture to sell to the media. Many are researchers, while others are so fascinated by the atmosphere that they find themselves drawn to the plains each spring like a bird migrating for the season.
In Tuesday’s deadly accident, two of the chasers, Kelley and Randall, were working on contract for The Weather Channel, providing video and information to the network.
“Kelley and Randy were beloved members of the weather community,” the network said in a statement. “We are saddened by this loss and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved.”
There will be much reflection in the weather community over the coming days about how to make storm chasing safer in the future. For now, though, the community mourns while looking ahead to what could be an active weekend of severe storms.