Grief and shock has seized the scientific community with the deaths of three storm chasers in El Reno, Okla., from a multivortex tornado Friday.
For the past three years, Crown Point native Matt Grzych has faced storms side by side with the three as a member of TWISTEX, the field research program featured on Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers.”
Grzych said he easily could have been in the path of the same tornado that took the lives of his friends.
“If it weren’t for a business trip in Seattle, I probably would’ve been out there,” Grzych told The Times Monday.
Grzych got to know the storm chasers, Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young, since he joined TWISTEX in 2008. This past year, Grzych wasn’t on the crew because he and his wife recently had a baby.
According to the Storm Prediction Center, this was the first time scientists have been killed while chasing a storm. While he feels shock and disbelief at the tragedy, Grzych said he and his colleagues knew there would be a fatality sooner or later.
“We knew it was coming, but we never thought it’d be our own,” Grzych said. “We thought it’d be a young, new kid. We thought it would be amateurs.”
Grzych, who now lives in Colorado, can attest to the dangers of storm chasing. In 2010 when he and the crew members were in South Dakota, a tornado almost swept them away.
They were deploying an instrument in the path of the tornado that was moving toward them when they realized it was quickly growing in diameter.
In winds gusting at 120 mph, the men struggled to make it back into the truck. Grzych’s bag and coat went flying into the tornado and Young struggled with the gear shifter, trying to start the truck.
Grzych was yelling for Young to hurry and the truck finally zoomed ahead, on the edge of the tornado’s circulation. He said if they were in a smaller car, they could’ve easily been swept away.
“It’s so powerful, you feel it in your body, the rumbling roar,” Grzych said. “I can’t describe the smell. It’s torn up earth, debris and electrical wires. It’s awesome. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
While the experience is a draw for many storm chasers, Bart Wolf, Valparaiso University professor of meteorology, said the work of storm chasers is important in keeping communities safe.
Many storm chasers collect data like measurements, observations and video for scientific research.
“They’re looking at how do these form, how do tornadoes touch the ground?” Wolf said. “It’s still not fully understood.”
According to Wolf, with growing research, meteorologists and better forecast tornadoes, so people can get out of the path sooner. Grzych said right now, there’s no other way to collect the data.
Grzych has been interested in tornadoes since he was in kindergarten. He remembers feeling both fascinated and afraid by the black and white pictures of twisters he saw in books.
He grew out of the fear as he studied meteorology and in 2000 began storm chasing and since has been on more than 250 storm chases.
“In these past few weeks, I’ve gotten scared of them again,” Grzych said. “It brought back that fear.”
Grzych was trying to catch footage of the EF5 tornado in Moore, Okla., only the week before the storm hit in El Reno.
“I was stuck in traffic, watching buildings being tore to shreds,” Grzych said. “Everyone in Moore was trying to leave, and I was thinking, `I shouldn’t be here.’ It was definitely a scary, scary day.”
The hardest part for Grzych is thinking about the final moments of his colleagues. It is still unknown how the highly experienced chasers got caught in the fatal tornado.
Grzych works at Boeing Co., where he investigates the cause of airplane accidents. He plans to use his expertise to look at the data collected from the TWISTEX equipment and digitally re-create what happened.
“It’ll definitely give a lot of closure,” Grzych said. “Right now it’s a complete mystery.”
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