The El Reno EF-5 Tornado: The Darkest Day.

On Friday May 31st, 2013 Skip Talbot and I chased in Central Oklahoma.  When the day began, I had a foreboding feeling but never could have guessed the magnitude of the storm we were about to see, or its devastating effects.  Ultimately there were 19 victims in this tornado, three of which were my friends, veteran storm chasers and scientists Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young.  They will live on forever in our hearts, and we will miss them tremendously.  The research they did has undoubtedly saved countless lives and they gave the ultimate sacrifice to their research and passion.

I am not currently at an emotional and mental point where I can dive in and account for all details of the day and the setup.  I am sharing some photos and some information here for now, and feel free to scroll down to see some of the screen shots and images saved regarding the setup, radar and survey on the path of the tornado, which was ultimately 
determined to be an EF-5 with a 2.6 mile wide path; the largest in US History.


My dear friend Tony and I before the storms initiated:

As we sat at the lake in El Reno, we knew something was brewing but we couldn't possibly know what.  I remember exclaiming to some of the other chasers waiting in the area with us, "Isn't it strange to think that this little cumulus tower could be the thing that becomes the beast?"

A panoramic shot of the view from our spot in the parking lot - a momentarily partially cloudy sky - with clouds bubbling with convection and ready to "break the cap."

As we saw the towers starting to explode we realized that some towers were returning on radar.  That meant "storm initiation" had begun.  We left the lake and re-positioned northeast to take a look.  As the storm was first severe warned it was actually a line of three individual cells that intensified very quickly.

We re-positioned south and once we got to our new location the storm was tornado warned.

Below in the radar you can see the cell and the red "tornado warning" polygon.  The white line is the estimated storm track.  The white square indicates the "updraft base" or the main rotation area of the storm, and each tick mark in the line indicates where that main area of rotation might be in 15 minutes.  You can see then, that we are on the very outskirts of the storm (under the far reaches of the anvil blowoff) and are in a very safe position.

It was incredibly difficult to see through the rain, it was very very low contrast so several of these images are highly contrast enhanced to see the tornado.  This first one below shows a very pronounced wall cloud hanging under the storm.

And before we knew it we could make out a tornado in the distance.

We saw what we believed to be the outer circulation of the tornado off to our west and I took this last shot before we hopped in our cars to blast east to stay safely ahead of the storm as it was to cross north of us from the west.

We repositioned about 6-7 miles east and when we got out of the car I could not believe my eyes as I looked up at the supercell.  It was an incredible bowl like structure I had only perhaps dreamt about.

You can clearly see the classic horeshoe base and RFD clear slot here - with the dusty, rain wrapped tornado at the base of the back edge.

Slowly the tornado became easier to identify as rain curtains cleared and the low, menacing tornado came into view.  From this point on we were between 3-4 miles from the tornado as it moved from our northwest to our northeast.

Around this time the tornado took on a shape I've never seen in my life, and this storm was actually spitting off small funnels (anti-cyclonic?) off the leading edge.  You can see one in the photo below, it looks like a scratch mark or small line in the upper forefront of the image in the clouds.  It was a fully formed funnel when we saw it; this image is the result of a lag in my response time with the camera to what I saw with my eyes.  Having seen that, it makes complete sense that this storm was basically a meso on the ground with surrounding vortices as individual tornadoes. 

A new wall cloud is starting to form over on the right-hand side now; you can see the main tornado as it starts take its fateful turn north and is obscured by the RFD curtains of rain before it starts to occlude.

The new rotation started to drop another tornado but we had to continue on in another re-positioning.  There was a 45 minute gap between the photo below and the next one I took.  I was focused on making sure we had roads to safely travel on while looking miles ahead.

We dropped back southwest to look at the new hooks on the storm as it was back-building to the west and forming new circulations that were tornado warned.  We saw some wall clouds and some neat features but at this time we were pretty exhausted.  I will share this final shot, instead.

We were unaware through the entire following day in our drive home (Saturday) about what had happened to Tim, Paul and Carl.  We would not discover they had perished in this tornado until the early morning hours on Sunday.  It has broken our hearts to learn about their passing.  They were pillars in the storm chasing community, but more than that were kind hearts, open souls and wonderful human beings fully dedicated to their scientific efforts.  They were our mentors, and they died heroes.  Our thoughts and hearts are with their families in this truly devastating time of loss.

The storm spotters and storm chasers tribute to 
Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young:

And my tornado map on the wall with one black pin to signify this sad and tragic date.  


Some of the parameters in place the day of, and some other information:

PDS = Particularly Dangerous Situation.

A screenshot of the overwhelming number of Spotter Network icons over the OKC area.  Needless to say there were a TON of chasers out to chase this event.

El Reno Tornado Photos : scroll up