COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER: Chasing the Andover Tornado By Tim Marshall

(published in Weatherwise Magazine June/July 1992)

April 26, 1991, dawned cloudy and windy. It looked like a dreary, rainy day in Dallas, Texas. The window screens were rattling on the south side of the house and power lines howled in the stiff breeze.

As I do on most chase mornings, I tuned to the A.M. Weather program on public television. A major storm system was forecast to strike the high plains. It was a classic severe weather situation, with low pressure in eastern Colorado and a dryline (see the April/May issue, page 25) extending southward into West Texas. I was certain Mother Nature had set the stage for the first tornado outbreak of the season.

I already had checked my chase equipment. Cameras had been cleaned, film purchased, and batteries recharged. Other chasers had called to compare notes. My adrenalin was pumping and excitement was in the air. The only question was where would the storms form?

The National Weather Service was forecasting a high risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over much of the central and southern plains by afternoon. I began plotting hourly surface weather observations across Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The best chance for tornadoes appeared to be in southern Kansas, a seven-hour drive away.

All the weather features seemed favorable for severe weather. The jet stream was overhead. Cold temperatures aloft would ensure an unstable atmosphere. The winds spiraled and increased with height (proper ingredients for rotating storms). And low stratocumulus clouds were racing northward across the Dallas skyline, carrying the moisture that would fuel thunderstorm development later in the day.

The Chase Begins

I called Carson Eads, my chase partner. Carson is a ham radio operator and has a custom "chasemobile" complete with two-meter and high frequency radio transceivers, a portable weather station, and color television. A trailer towed behind the vehicle carries a tapered metal stand supporting a rotating, telescopic antenna. We call it the "Eiffel Tower." The antenna boosts reception so much it allows Carson to talk to people in the next state!

Carson and other chasers arrived at my house around 10 a.m., and we immediately headed north on Interstate 35. We heard the first severe-weather broadcast of the day as we crossed into Oklahoma:

"A potentially dangerous severe weather situation is developing as a powerful storm system moves into the plains states. Moist and very unstable air is moving rapidly northward into Oklahoma and Kansas. The dryline will begin moving eastward by about midday as strong upper-level winds over 100 m.p.h, swing around the south side of the storm system and into the southern and central plains. By early afternoon, thunderstorms are expected to develop rapidly along and ahead of the dryline across western Oklahoma and spread into central Oklahoma by late afternoon and early evening. Extreme instability and strong winds aloft indicate the potential for a significant severe weather outbreak later today including the possibility of very destructive tornadoes "

We arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, around 1 p.m., pausing briefly to top off the gas tank and grab some groceries. The latest satellite image showed a cluster of thunderstorms developing in northwest Oklahoma west of Enid. Within minutes, the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for a large portion of Oklahoma and Kansas. I was concerned about the damping effect of the high-level cirrus cloud cover overhead and believed we needed to continue north into Kansas, where clear skies prevailed.

Tail-End Charlie

As we crossed the Kansas border around 4 p.m., we sighted the first storms developing to the west. However, the storm tops were being ripped apart by strong wind shear. The radar display on the television showed a line of thunderstorm cells extending southwestward to the Oklahoma border. A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the storm at the southern end of the line, a position chasers call "tail-end Charlie."

We left the Interstate south of Wichita and headed west toward tail-end Charlie. The sky was milky white, veiled by a thick haze bleached by the sun. At 5 p.m., the severe thunderstorm warning was reissued for the county just to our west. As we approached Argonia, Kansas, the sky darkened and a rain-free cloud base came into view just ahead--a ragged, turbulent cloud base with a tail cloud extending off to the north. In an instant, I knew it was the classic tornado storm structure. White-hot lightning bolts zagged through the darkening blue sky in increasing tempo. "No question we could have something here," I said.

We pulled off the road and grabbed our video cameras. There was a stiff east wind, and pea- to marble-sized hail was falling. I focused my attention on the wrapping rain curtains to our southwest. Black clouds were boiling in what seemed to be time-lapse motion. "We are going to have a tornado here!" I shouted. Sure enough, at 5:15 p.m., an elephant-trunk-shaped funnel dipped towards the ground. Immediately, the sirens sounded in nearby Argonia. My heart rate quickened and my breathing became shallow--the tornado was heading right at us! Fortunately, it was several miles away, but we kept the motor running just in case.

In picture-perfect contrast, we began filming a black tornado against a white cloud background. For 10 minutes, we watched in awe before the tornado shriveled and dissipated.

Entering the Bear's Cage

The storm was heading northeast, on a direct course to Wichita. Local television stations were still warning of the tornado we had just witnessed. Radio scanners were buzzing with spotter reports about a new cloud "lowering" gathering over the town of Conway Springs.

There were no direct roads, so we lost valuable time by having to first drive east, then north. In the process, the storm beat us to the town. To keep pace with the storm Carson and I would have to enter "the bear's cage," the wrapping curtain of rain on the back edge of the storm that could hide a tornado.

My hands grew cold as we drove into the rain. The visibility dropped dramatically and strong north winds buffeted our vehicle. We turned east and in a few minutes the rain ended as we passed through the town of Clearwater. A large cloud lowering had massed on the east side of town. We came upon an open field where all the clouds came together. Suddenly condensation shot upward

from the ground about a mile to our southeast. "Multi-vortex tornado!" I shouted. Spotters immediately relayed their reports to the local National Weather Service office.

The tornado crossed the road in front of us and hit a house. The roof disintegrated and a plume of attic insulation was sucked into the vortex, appearing like smoke from a fire. In anger and disbelief, I witnessed the destruction of two more farmhouses. "Damn, another house just went down there," I muttered. Never had I felt so helpless. And other houses still lay in the storm's path.

Carving out a swath of destruction, the tornado ravaged homes in the northwest part of Haysville, then entered south Wichita. In seconds, homes disappeared from their foundations. Broken plumbing lines created water geysers were homes had once stood.

The tornado then turned east, striking McConnell Air Force Base and just missing rows of parked fighter planes. We tried to keep pace with the twister to no avail; it had toppled power poles across the road in front of us, cutting off our pursuit.

The town of Andover was next on its hit list. We could hear spotters frantically telling emergency officials to look to the southwest. A policeman in the town responded, confirming that a large tornado was bearing down on them. With no operational sirens, one officer tried in vain to warn residents of the Golden Spur Mobile Home Park on the edge of town to evacuate. Unfortunately time ran out for many of them at 6:35 p.m., when the tornado obliterated hundreds of homes and left scores of dead and injured.