Their stormy adventure beats movies for action
GEUDA SPRINGS, Kan. -- Some people run from their childhood demons. Nancy Bose chases hers.
That means chasing tornadoes across four states for 10 days with a bunch of men she's never seen before.
Chasing tornadoes for fun is why Bose finds herself parked on a dark country road in south-central Kansas on a Sunday night in late May. She's caught in the middle of a chain of thunderstorms while several tornadoes spin somewhere not far to the north and east. She couldn't be happier.
Bose's long-ago exorcised childhood demon was a tornado that terrorized her when she was 5 and living on a farm in Michigan.
The twister sent her family scrambling to the storm cellar, just as the little girl and her family do in the opening scene of ''Twister'' -- which, by the way, caused Bose to nearly fall out of her seat with deja vu when she saw it.
Until she was in the sixth grade, whenever the most innocent thunderstorm brewed, Bose would beg her father to take their family -- and their pets and barnyard animals -- into the storm cellar. Slowly, however, her father -- Milber Givan, who lived in Mt. Lebanon during the late 1970s -- used scientific facts to turn her fear of storms into an avid interest in ''big weather.''
Bose is a car saleswoman for Chrysler, a mother of three and the wife of a very understanding corrections officer named Randy. She's a lively, smart, normal 46-year-old up-state New Yorker. It's just that two years ago she was afflicted with an unstoppable determination to take part in a tornado-chasing expedition.
Seeing the movie ''Twister'' showed her that chasing tornadoes was a legitimate scientific activity -- and it made her desperately want to have the experience before she got too old.
After seeing ''Twister,'' Bose went to the Internet, posting a long, humorous, impassioned plea offering to serve for 10 days in any capacity as a volunteer on a tornado chase team.
It was answered by John Bender, 52, a self-taught bad-weather expert from northern Illinois who has been teaching volunteers to become community storm spotters for almost 30 years.
After months of e-mailing and planning, and after several chasers backed out at the last minute, Bender and Bose had set up a Missouri-Kansas-Oklahoma trip for late May, the height of tornado season. Two others, recent college grad Brian McNoldy and 39-year-old Subway franchiser Dave Ott, joined the team, along with a thrill-seeking TV news cameraman from New Zealand, Geoff Mackley.
Bose's preparations for the trip included designing T-shirts for the team that feature an illustration of a cow-tossing tornado and a phrase that nicely sums up the storm chasers attitude about weather: ''Nice Days Suck.''
At 9 p.m. on May 24, nothing is nice about what's going on in south-central Kansas. A long line of nasty thunderstorms is continuing to pound the flat, wide open spaces, where a few hulking grain silos and town water towers are the only landmarks above a sea of grain.
Since 7:10 five tornadoes have cut through the area. They include the rain-shrouded one that they were watching from the intersection north of Geuda Springs at 8:01, which passed about six miles away. At 8:45, another tornado was 10 miles to their east.
After fleeing the intersection, the chase team's vehicles, Bender's Ford Escort and a rented Winnebago, pull off a few miles south of Geuda Springs. The chasers are getting their bearings, listening to tornado warnings and waiting out the worst of the storm before going back to their hotel just across the state line in Ponca City, Okla.
Everyone in the team is enjoying the wild weather. Like Bose, Brian McNoldy, the bright 22-year-old Lycoming College graduate from Reading, Pa., is a life-long ''big weather'' fiend. As a kid, his mother used to have to chase him away from the window during thunderstorms. A physics and astronomy major at Lycoming, he's headed for a masters in atmospherics and plans to be a storm researcher some day.
Dave Ott, the linebacker-stocky 39-year-old owner of two Subway stores in Dickinson, N.D., is similarly fascinated. Growing up on a big farm in a state that sees maybe only 20 tornadoes a year, as a teen he watched a powerful twister go over his house and touch down 10 miles away, wiping out a neighbor's place.
A pilot who often takes his two teen-agers on local storm-chasing trips by car, he'd much rather be on the road in the middle of the action than sitting in a motel room staring at Doppler radar images and lift indexes on computer screens.
As for 35-year-old Geoff Mackley, the danger-chasing freelance TV news cameraman from Auckland, New Zealand, he treats ''big weather'' as just another opportunity to capture exciting video footage. A mountain climber/long-distance runner who eats yogurt and raisins all day, the only thing he's afraid of is the ingredients in American junk food and salsa.
Mackley's idea of a great time is to hike up a mountainside to the lip of an active volcano with his $25,000 video camera or fly into a tiny Pacific atoll a day before it's hit by a cyclone. His next mad adventure is flying on an experimental two-seat ultralight airplane from Auckland to London, England.
By 10 p.m. the chasers are safely back at their motel, which is being pummeled by high wind and heavy rain. New and nasty storm cells are still cruising toward Ponca City. A tornado slides by to the south, putting on an amazing lightning show that the chasers watch from under the eaves of the motel until 2 a.m.
The next morning, the chasers are up at 7:30 and reliving the thrill of the intersection. McNoldy says he saw a funnel cloud inside the rain wall twice, when it was backlighted by lightning; a frame of Bose's video confirms the funnel's presence.
Despite being nothing like anything in ''Twister,'' it had been a night that left no one disappointed.
''When I'm 90 years old I'll remember that intersection,'' Bose says, speaking for everyone.
McNoldy, who had seen his first tornado, is also psyched. For him, it was a night that will make the whole trip worthwhile, no matter what else happens.
''We were right in the middle of the action,'' he says, ''and the fact we chose that place 24 hours in advance was very impressive.'' Even more impressive, he says, ''We got out of that mess with the whole team and the vehicles intact. It was not a safe situation we were in.
''There were about five places that a tornado could have dropped out of the sky -- then we would have been in big trouble.''
In terms of tornado-spotting, the intersection at Geuda Springs turns out to be the highlight of the trip.
Amazingly, considering the awesome display of power nature put on, the National Weather Service office in Wichita says two weeks later that the five confirmed tornadoes on May 24 all were weak, short-lived and fairly typical for late spring in Kansas.
The tornadoes were officially classified as Force 0 on the Fujita Scale, which measures intensity by assessing the damage done to buildings, trees and cars. An F0, or gale tornado, has winds of only 40 to 72 mph, which may explain why the chasers can find virtually no evidence of damage the next day when they drive north from the intersection near Geuda Springs.
The next few days are uneventful. Following the cold front as it sags south, the chasers spend Monday night in Ada, Okla., and Tuesday night in Mount Pleasant, Texas. In both towns, they guess right and place themselves in the path of severe weather. But storms born in the afternoons in west Texas just miss them in the night or early mornings, and none contains tornadoes.
On Wednesday, the chasers trek north again to Norman, Okla., home of the Severe Storm Prediction Lab. It's a revered spot toured by about 100 storm chasers a month. Bose, Bender and McNoldy tour the premises even more religiously than when they visited Wakita, Okla., where much of ''Twister'' was filmed, the previous Saturday.
By Thursday, with the bad-weather zone way up north in Nebraska, the chasers visit Lamont, Okla., to see for themselves what kind of damage a Force 3 tornado can do.
Luckily, the F3 -- by far the biggest of a line of 15 mostly weak tornadoes that hit northwest of the town Sunday night -- just missed the town. A half-mile wide, staying on the ground for six miles and producing 153- to 206-mph winds, it injured no one.
But it easily moved cars 250 feet, toppled dozens of cemetery headstones and destroyed and scattered the contents of several brick houses and barns. A double-wide trailer was picked up, smashed into thousands of small pieces and scattered across a field of flattened wheat, leaving only a bare spot on the lawn, a bouquet of electrical wires coming out of the ground and a wood front deck with flower pots still on the railings.
The chasers take plenty of photos, but they approach the destruction like scientists, not gawkers. They agree that it was educational to have seen it. ''It made it feel like it actually happened. I didn't just read about it in the paper,'' McNoldy says. ''You could actually see the people's stuff scattered around.''
The next morning, Friday, the chasers are back in the hunt, packing up and leaving their Emporia, Kan., motel rooms at 5:30 a.m. They are hoping to get in front of a storm front racing across northern Kansas toward Kansas City, Mo. They drive for hours, crossing into Missouri, until they realize it's fruitless and give up.
By mid-afternoon, they cruise into St. Louis, where they have to return the Winnebago and catch their flights home the next day. In a motel room, the chasers agree that their trip was a great success in every way and begin laying plans for next year.
Bose says wild horses won't keep her away, though she's first going to buy a better video camera and her own laptop. Bender is willing. McNoldy is committed. So is cameraman Mackley, if he doesn't fall into the mouth of Mount Vesuvius first.
The chasers pull out a copy of their favorite movie. Bose has seen it 13 times. McNoldy 40 to 50 times. But they want Mackley, who has been shooting video for a six-minute piece on the trip for New Zealand's TV Channel 3, to see ''Twister'' for the first time.
Mackley watches but is not too impressed. ''No movie can ever compete with the real thing,'' he says with his usual cheerfulness. ''Nature puts on the best show, by far. That's why I never watch volcano movies or twister movies. They're never as good as the real thing. If you want to see a tornado, you watch a documentary, with real ones, or you go out and find your own.''