2023-06-21 REPORTS: CO, TX, WY

Mar 2, 2004
Northern Colorado
It may have happened... May 29, 2004 may have finally been dethroned as my best tornado chase day ever. This jumped Dodge City '16 and Pilger...


Where to start... at the beginning...

Woke up with every intention to join the masses up in Chugwater, WY. I left my house around 11am, took the route up through Windsor and cut over to I-25, but only drove to the north side of Fort Collins, stopping at the CO-14 exit. I was text-chatting with a fellow chaser/friend about the day, and I was concerned about the cloud cover in Wyoming and drooling over 70s freakin' dewpoints in eastern Colorado, and not just at the border, like deep into eastern CO (Sterling was 80/70 at this time).

I've been burned many times by "not staying with my original target", so I told myself I'd drive over to US-85 (Ault) and think about what I was doing. The high-rez CAMs were focused on two areas; Chugwater storm (which was advertised for a couple days), and a cluster of storms along I-76. Clearly, the visual winner of the CAMs was Chugwater, but my inner voice said "don't bail on 70s dews in Colorado).

I got to Ault, and decided to go all-in on the I-76 play... I turned south on US-85 to Greeley, then caught US-34 east to Wiggins where I chatted briefly with Justin and Simon at the Sinclair there in town. Storms had already gone up near Sterling, and a landspout was reported via Twitter. Meanwhile, storms were initiating south of Akron. With nothing going on west, and lessons learned from "waiting too long while tornadoes were going on" in Texas last week, I said, hell with it, we'll jump on the early stuff.

So east on I-76 I went to Brush; this was where the decision was made. I pondered on the 10-miles stretch between Fort Morgan and Brush; do you stay on I-76 and make a play for the Sterling cell which had already produced, or do you go east on US-34 out of Brush to the newly developing Akron cells. With nothing south of those, and my gut saying Akron, I shot east to Akron, then south on CO-63.

Two storms were going, both sharing a warning til the north storm separated; each eventually getting severe-warned, but for fairly small hail. I got a handful of miles south to County Road 33, a longer east option to get closer to the storms. The southern one had a very nice lowering and some solid rotation. I took County Road 33 about 4 miles east when hail much bigger than the warning indicated started coming down on me and my less-than-a-week old windshield. I hit County Road HH and dove south, getting through the wrapping hail unscathed.


This was when the storm REALLY started to wrap up. As the business end SLOWLY drifted west (yes, WEST), the rotation tightened up dramatically, even dropping a convincing funnel. I got back up to County Road 33 and pointed west with the circulation immediately to my south. But after a few minutes, it dissipated, and I was thinking to myself, "here we go again with another so close but no tornado".


Getting back to CO-63, I was now playing the back and forth game. The northern cell, albeit pretty bured in precip, had acquired some solid rotation and picked up a tornado warning. About this time, I was hearing more reports out of the Sterling cell of tornadoes, so I was leaning toward a north play because if my storm wasn't going to do it, I had a straight shot north to the tornado-producing cell.

Well, I barely made it to the south side of Akron when I noticed on radar the impressive couplet developing on the cell about 10 miles to my south. I was also starting to again take on much larger hail than I really cared to get involved with. So flipping around and south I went. Buried in the core, I got multiple instances of either large hail (> golfball) or tons of small hail. I stopped briefly as visibility was stupid low and took a quick shot of the small hail barrage.


With precip lightening up enough to once again see, I continued south. As I cleared away the miles, I started to get a better view of the southern edge of the clouds. A couple more minutes and I saw the first tornado of the day, a skinny little guy that I watched go from the east side of the highway across to the west side, probably within a half a mile or so of me, harmlessly passing over powerlines as it moved into the field east of CO-63.


"Awesome", I thought to myself as this churned off into the field, eventually dissipating to my immediate south. That'll earn me a steak... after a brief stop to get some shots of the rotation, which was slightly weakening at this point, I continued south to get out of the rain and arrived at County Road 30 where CO-63 doglegs to the southwest. I pointed west, things were quiet, so I began to pull the tornado footage for my network when all of a sudden...


Suddenly the weakening rotation not only un-weakened, but formed a funnel/tornado within seconds about two powerpoles down the road to my west, and fortunately it was moving north, but I still backed out to the highway, turned myself north so I could shoot out the window with no issues, and with a front row seat, witnessed Colorado magic at its best.


Yes, I know what it looks like...

A BEAUTIFUL tornado was ripping through the field, easily within 1/2 mile. As it was doing its thing, multiple satellites, at one point two with the main tornado, were churning around the main tornado. The bigger satellite raced around the south and east side of the tornado, possible getting absorbed into the parent tornado as it hit CO-63 about 1/2 mile to my north, taking out the power lines and knocking the poles onto the road, making it impassable. While this was going on, I was shooting video in one hand and photos in the other. I wish I had a camera pointing at me during this point, I must've looked ridiculous. I was watching the whole thing with my bare eyes, so both the photos and video were a little cock-eyed at times, but the results were a dream come true.


Once the twins kinda fizzled, I pushed north a bit, discovering the poles, and while I was able to get around one with little issue, wires and more poles down made it impossible to go forward. It was here I watched a merry-go-round of vorticies churn away for nearly ten minutes with as many as 5-10 distinct vorticies spinning out of the edge of the larger circulation.

(I can't post the video directly from Facebook - if you wanna see it, go here Dash video timelapse after the twins as the meso was slowly pushing north. I was on CO-63, blocked by down powerlines; this 10-second clip covers... | By Meteorologist Tony Laubach | Facebook)

Taking a quick glimpse at the map, I saw a north/south road about a mile to my west that could get me around the power poles. I went back to County Road 30, drove a mile west, then turned north on County Road BB. I had THREE miles I had to go to get to the road that would get me back to pavement (County Road 33), but heavy rain from this storm played hell with this road. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I own an all-wheel drive Subaru, because without it, I was doomed to be stuck. But despite very limited traction, multiple fishtails, and a reoccuring RFD that did its best to slide me off the road, I managed to maintain enough speed and momentum to slowly stay with the carousel of twisters that was going to town a mile to my north.


After what felt like forever, I finally made it to County Road 33, turned back east, and with one more mile of slip and slide, I made it to pavement, turned north, got lined up with the carousel to my west, and found a perfect vantage point to watch as the tornado drifted slowly to the north and west. I put this part of the tornado live on the AccuWeather Network as it was literally tornadoing its brains out. As many as 3-4 vorticies down at the same time, all rotating around a parent circulation. This emulated some of the more incredible tornado shows I've seen in the past, albeit not nearly as contrast-friendly as the initial meeting of this tornadic storm, but still plenty enough to just be in awe.


As the tornado drifted further to the west, the rain eventually wiped it from view. Radar indicated it went on for some time after that, but I was never able to get back south again. US-34 east of Akron was closed due to a bridge out, CO-63 south of Akron had been closed down while crews tended to the power poles (those stuck in the backup probably took on some 2" hail), and of course all the dirt roads were probably in similar shape to what I had not long ago barely survived.

With that, I kinda gave into the fact my chase of this storm was probably done. I drove through the precip west on US-34 back to Brush, and did a brief jog to the south on CO-71 when more storms fired and became severe south of me. With hail estimates starting to creep up to "would ruin your week-old windshield" size, I decided I had probably seen the best of what this storm was going to offer. I returned to Brush to wrap up my network coverage, and then proceeded west, flirting with a few severe storms enroute, but eventually pulled back into my garage just before 10PM.

For the books, I called it six tornadoes; although there is debate as to what was a satellite verses what was part of a multivortex. A generous count would easily exceed a dozen. It's only numbers, and the twins I posted at the start of this incredibly long babble, are really the prize of this day. Add almost-baseball-sized hail and you're sitting on an amazing chase.

For me, this was my holy grail. To capture an incredible tornado up close like this, and then do it with TWINS, was a dream come true. I had literally just two weeks earlier, invested in an upgraded camera, the Nikon D780, and that's what snapped those photos. And all this, again, within half a mile at most from me. I had a clear shot, no significant precip, and aside from Simon and Juston and I think one other chaser, there was not a soul around. This was my shot of a lifetime, and on a chase that rivals Conway Springs '04, Dodge City '16, and even Pilger. Like I said above, this is easily my second best tornado chase ever, and because I was able to capture such quality images out of it, and be so (SAFELY) close and experience it, it may be the new number 1. And I did it here...

I'm suppose to be out for the next few days; I have no idea how to even begin to get excited about them. All I want to do is watch my videos and look at my pictures and just relive those few moments over and over again. Incredible, photogenic tornadoes over open country... it's gonna take a few days for all this to settle in... but what a day...
Great work capturing that Tony, and fantastically detailed report about your decision making. I think there is a good lesson in there too for how much some of us sometimes over bias towards a model solution.

I very briefly had the thought to stay south due to surface observations including the incredible dews and better temps, but felt I was already late heading north. I wish I had spent more time on that thought and stopped to evaluate like you did. My mid morning call was, I felt I would be fighting an MCS or clusters and large hail (typically avoid large hail due to chase vehicle options) down south. So like the rest of the circus, I ended up near Wheatland based upon the CAM wishcasting expecting a discrete monster. In reality we all ended up watching a garbage cluster in dismay. I got back south to see some consolation lightning.

I don't know how many times I have to learn the lesson that surface observations and meso analysis are priority, but apparently it is a lot of times. Benkelman tornadoes comes to mind as a day when I made the right decision based on what was actually happening and put the models away on time.

Impressed with the implementation of your chase and the footage. I doubt I would have had the skill to pull it off like that even if I had elected to stay south. Most beautiful tornadoes I've seen anyone capture in a couple years.
I started the day in Altus, OK, as usual. I headed out around 3:30pm with an initial target of Shamrock, TX. I got to Shamrock a little after 5pm and headed west on I-40. At this point, a couple of supercells had already initiated near Pampa, TX. I briefly stopped in Groom, TX to top off on gas, and then headed south on FM 294. Once I reached US-287 I headed east towards Clarendon.

I reached Clarendon and headed south on TX-70 with the intent of getting a view on the storm that was bearing down from the north. I never saw anything photo worthy though. I reached a fork where TX-256 breaks off from TX-70 and briefly followed TX-256 south. I couldn't get a good view due to trees/terrain and so turned back to the fork where I joined the hoard looking back to the north.

A second cell had begun forming just to our SW. The original cell I had been on had begun showing signs of weakening rotation on radar, where as the new cell was strengthening. I decided to go south on TX-70 towards Turkey to get ahead of the storm. The storm rapidly grew and intensified and I quickly found myself inside of a fledgling hail core. I didn't see any hailstones bigger than maybe half dollars at this stage. Once I got to Turkey, I turned west onto TX-86 to allow the business end of the storm to move to the SE. Once that occurred, I got back onto TX-70 going south towards Matador. My plan was to allow the storm to cross TX-70 as it tracked SE, and I would sneak behind it, get down to US-82 in Dickens, and then go east to get a solid view from the south of the meso.

Unfortunately, the storm appeared to take a right turn and began tracking more south than SE, basically straight down TX-70. The storm had gone HP at this point, and I couldn't see what was going on under the meso. According to radar, the meso was sort of meandering back and forth across TX-70 as it cycled, etc. I drove most of the way to Matador almost like I was playing tag with the storm. I would drive south until the wind and precipitation started to ramp up to a significant level, and then I would stop for a few minutes to let it get farther ahead of me. Rinse and repeat. I considered going back north to Turkey, then west, then south again to go around, but there was a wall of wind, rain, and hail that I wanted no part of between me and Turkey. So I kept slowly pushing south.

Due to my little game of tag, I couldn't have been more than 5 minutes behind the tornado. I saw the first damage about a mile north of Matador on TX-70. It looked like the tornado had started on the east side of the highway, and then crossed the road. The damage was mostly roofing material and tree damage through here, though the tree damage did look pretty significant at times. I got into Matador and briefly stopped at the intersection of TX-70 and US-62. I glanced at the radar and the aforementioned wall of wind, rain, and hail was getting closer. I was basically pinched between the business end of a tornado producing supercell to my south, and cells to the north that were producing giant hail and significant wind gusts. I decided to activate my escape plan, which in this case was to basically get west. So I turned west onto US-62, and stumbled right into some of the worst of the damage in Matador. These are all frame grabs from my GoPro. I also have a video linked showing from when I first encountered damage north of town to when I stopped and cut the camera:






I decided to call the chase. I was over it. The only injured person I saw was already being assisted, and other, more experienced chasers were starting to show up. So I got out of their way and got back onto TX-70 south, where it appears the tornado crossed the road back to the east side of the highway. I stopped to check on a couple of vehicles that were damaged along the sides of the road, but I didn't see anybody around. Law enforcement was showing up by then, and with how many other chasers were already on the scene, I didn't want to get in the way. So I proceeded south to US-82, turned west and drove to Crosbyton to get out of the path of the storms still coming down from the north. I got gas and allowed the storms to clear US-82, before finally heading home. I got back to Altus just before 1am. In total I went a little over 500 miles for this chase.

Final Thoughts:
Whew. This was the toughest chase of my relatively uneventful career. At least emotionally. Not to sound dramatic, but I'm still processing a lot of what I saw in Matador. I always figured that if I chased long enough, I would find myself in a situation like this. There are two things that I wasn't expecting though. 1. How different seeing tornado damage of this magnitude is in person versus photos and videos. This one seems obvious, but after spending at least 15 years of my life consuming as much tornado and severe weather content as I could, I guess I thought I knew what to expect? and 2. I definitely didn't think I would witness this before ever seeing my first supercellular tornado. I never caught a glimpse of the tornado in this case, and after poring over my GoPro footage, I didn't catch it there either.

Looking back after about 24 hours, I have a lot of feelings. I'm disappointed that I didn't see the tornado. I'm grateful that I learned enough from folks here, and elsewhere, to ensure that I didn't drive blindly into a rain-wrapped tornado. I'm proud that I was able to keep my cool, maintain my situational awareness, and make the safest decisions I could given the circumstances. I'm sad for the victims, their families and that whole community. And I regret not staying and trying to do more while I was there. This one will stick with me for a long time.
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From the June 21 Akron, Colorado Tornadic Supercell; my timeline of the chase.


The National Weather Service in Boulder plans to release more information on this event (both the Washington and Logan County tornadoes) sometime this week, which I'm guessing will include ratings (expected to be very low given the very rural areas these hit).

From initial view of first tornado (4:18PM MDT) to final view of the multivortex (5:13PM MDT) was 55 minutes. It's likely tornadic activity continued well after this, I was unable to regain viewing position due to multiple hazards and roadblocks.

All this transpired within FOUR (4) north/south miles with total driving during that time approximately TEN (10) miles in that blue outline below. Yes folks, that's how SLOW this thing was moving to the north/northwest. This would've been about 7-10 miles south of Akron along CO-63.

Total count remains in question (the tornado carousel part currently under scrutiny as this was not a multi-vortex, more like individual circulations around the outside of the larger meso). Unlike a traditional multi-vortex tornado where you have multiple circulations within a parent tornadic circulation that's in contact with the ground, these were clearly individual circulations within the outer part of the meso and not associated with a single parent tornadic circulation, leading to the idea that these were all separate, brief tornadoes. If that's truly the case, this storm likely produced upwards of 20+ tornadoes. I'm certainly open to discussion on this, please offer your thoughts. I believe there ultimately was a transition from the meso-circulations to the multivortex, likely between the period before I turned around on CO-63 and while northbound on CR-BB.


1. Multiple powerpoles and lines down on CO-63 north of CR-30; Zoomed in video shows these poles were impacted (one actually thrown) onto the highway as the twins were congealing. These ultimately stopped me from proceeding north on CO-63 and resulted in the CR-BB detour to get up and around them.

2. A small camper was upside down in the yard of a residence on the west side of CR-BB south of CR-30; the residence itself as well as surrounding buildings looked untouched with no other damage noted. I wonder if that wasn't RFD that flipped the camper; I can attest to the winds being strong enough to do so. I was fighting that RFD on extremely muddy/slick roads, so I did not stop to shoot, although I do have it in dash cam footage as I was driving by.

3. No impacts to persons that I saw, including on CO-63 around the down poles. The road was virtually empty during the twins, so no one was caught within the wires and poles that I saw.


1. Initial Tornado
2. Main White Tornado
3. Main Satellite
4. Subsequent Satellite
5. Entire Meso Carousel (this part remains in question, likely to change)
6. Multivortex (this clearly -to me- was one tornadic circulation)
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Left Norman and headed west in the afternoon, going through Seiling and Canadian before finally getting on storm of the day in Texas in Clarendon. Followed the storm south and took a long trip out to Northfield on FM656 to FM94 south which put me in a decent position to witness the Matador tornado.

Saw a couple more tornadoes south of town plus the damage from the tornado. More here: Storm Chase Log: Matador Texas Tornado - Ben Holcomb