In my mind you would have to be either totally crazy, Bill Paxton, or both in order to drive head-on towards an incoming tornado. But Reed Timmer and Chris Chittick do it all the time and, what’s more, they do it on television. As part of Team TVN on the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, these two riders on the storm put themselves in harm’s way daily, all for the sake of scientific research, adrenaline and good TV. So in honor of the premiere of their third season Sunday night, we asked them to give us their Top 5 list of scariest, close-call, “Oh-my-God-I-think-I’m-gonna-die!” moments. So batten down the hatches and get the kids into the cellar, we’re in for some nasty weather.
Reed: June 17, 2009. Aurora Nebraska. We have our tornado vehicle, which has armor on it, and we have these bulletproof glass windows that we manually lift up. It’s safe for intercepting a tornado, F3 and below. But in this case we got in the tornado’s path and it intensified right on top of us. I’m trying to lift the bulletproof glass, but I couldn’t get it up. It was stuck. One of those mini-tornadoes inside the main circulations, they’re called multiple vortices, rotated around to the front of the vehicle and blew the glass window right into my face. It hit Chris in the face too.
Chris: A salad plate-sized piece of glass hit me in the ear and severed my earlobe. So it was just hanging down. I don’t do well with my own blood. Anyone else’s blood I’m cool with, but not mine. We have a medic that follows us at all times. He came to us and he put super-glue on my ear to hold it together. It’s fine now, I don’t have any scar or anything, but I had to lie down in the production car with a little bit of post-traumatic stress.
Reed: We were inside our vehicle and the supercell storm we were on was about to put down a tornado near the New Mexico-Texas border. We were southeast of it but it made a hard right turn and the tornado came right at us. Suddenly, softball-sized hail starts falling. It’s pretty sporadic at first, you know. One hits the windshield and blows a big hole in it, which is fine, that happens all the time. But we kept driving south and they were becoming more and more numerous. Normally when you get hail that big, there’s only a few, but in this case they were everywhere. Softballs flying everywhere. Glass flying everywhere. And we got a little cut up from that too. If you get outside in hail that big, it’ll kill you. Thankfully we had our bike helmets on.
Reed: That would probably be Hurricane Katrina. We were in a Honda Civic and the hurricane went by, but the weird thing about where we were in Slidell, Louisiana, was when the hurricane hit full-force, the floodwaters actually weren’t too high. So you think that you’re OK, but after the hurricane went by, all the winds on the back side allowed all the water to come out of Lake Pontchartrain and we were hit with a 15 foot storm surge. We evacuated to a second floor balcony and kept going up, and the water kept coming higher and higher and suddenly there were fishing boats everywhere. One guy had one and we just hitched a ride on it. We got to an elevated railroad track and walked on the track, and then climbed over all these trees to a highway. We started walking west and hitchhiked all the way to Jackson, Mississippi.
Chris: That would have been more of a slow death, but I remember looking down and seeing this clump of fire ants just going nuts. It’s a survival strategy for fire ants to clump together when floodwaters rise, so if you bump into one of those they’d probably cover your whole body. That’s not fun.
Reed: May 12, 2004. We were chasing this tornado that was east of us and the rain was concealing it, so we were trying to go east and get through the rain and so we could see the tornado. We were going 20 miles an hour down this mud road, so it felt like we were staying completely safe. There were these big ditches on either side that were filled with brown-colored fluid, and we think it’s just mud. The driver, my friend Dean, lost control of the vehicle and started fishtailing. We swerve and then suddenly we’re heading towards the ditch and we slam into the wall. Of course, my window was down and, in a matter of seconds, we’re on our side and I’m up to my neck in the brown liquid. All our computer equipment’s destroyed. Our uninsured equipment. So we’re sitting there and then this farmer, who saw it happen, came up and he stood on top of the vehicle, looked down and said, “You guys know you’re in raw sewage right now, right?” Ugh.
Chris: Last season we had Joel (Taylor) on our team. He’s 6’7’’, and he’s a great meteorologist and a great chaser. So anytime that we’re out in hardcore lightning I like to stand next to him because it’ll probably strike him first. We were in Lamesa, Texas and we had just seen a brief tornado. We were all just standing out there, waiting in the next position, just looking around, and then all of a sudden a lightning bolt just came down. Literally feet away from us. I felt it travel up my leg, and I found I couldn’t move my right leg. I had to crawl back to the car with just one leg.