April 19, 1996 Chase

CHASE SUMMARY, 4/19/96: Wild Friday

written by Gil
photos by Bri

(This is a very long chase summary!!!).

After a relaxing 6 hour sleep, quite a bit of it the night before sleeping 
in a car (for the first time!), I got into work at 3 AM. I knew the 
situation: A surface low had developed over Colorado last night, and was 
going to move across southern Kansas, Missouri, to south of Quincy by 0Z 
Saturday. But how much moisture would there be? Dynamics? Etc...

Well, as I started my 3:30 AM analysis, several things were apparent right 
off the bat. Things had changed since I saw the 12Z runs Thursday. The 
storm was forecast to get stronger, 60+ degree dewpoints were in southern IL 
and MO, and the pressure gradient would be tight. There was one thing to do:
Play the warm front, and play it near the surface low. Helicities over 600 
J/KG; LI's down to -12, dewpoints close to 70, temps around 80 and strong, 
strong boundary layer winds from the southeast at 40 knots plus. Oh, my! 
Target area: just northwest of Springfield. I had to hastily arrange 
partners quickly; a lot of people left for home; others were dining with 
Chuck Doswell who visited that morning (sorry Chuck!), and I managed to 
get Brian Fugiel and Mark Yoder, who had the rest of the day off.
I would be chief videographer and backup navigator riding shotgun; Mark 
would be driving, and Brian would be chief navigator and backup videographer
when we were in chase mode. I started driving first.

(Open your Illinois atlas...and it better be a good one! If you just 
have one with main highways, you'll still be able to follow. Roger Edwards, 
Rich Thompson...print this out and compare!)

We left DeKalb at 2 PM. We took I-88 west to I-39 south towards 
Bloomington (BMI). Our plan was to stop in BMI, get weather info and a 
quick lunch, and then go west and south. ACCAS (oops, sorry, I  mean 
Altocumulus Castellanus) streamed northward as we were south of Lasalle at 
about 2:45 PM. Things were looking good. We were in a news radio free zone 
at the moment, and thanks to the warm front heading for us, NOAA weather 
radio reception was messed up to from Peoria. We finally started hearing 
it on US 24, but there was nothing to report. Same  
forecast...thunderstorms, some may be severe.

Just before 4 PM, we got off the Interstate and hit Arbys for some roast 
beef sandwiches. We were going to eat quickly inside. Mark and I went in 
while Brian called the COD weather office for info. Everyone from NIU went 
out chasing..and so did most from COD. Matt Powers was once again at the 
helm of weather operations.

He relayed to Brian that very strong moisture convergence was now in west 
central IL, a bullseye west-northwest of Springfield near the MS river. 
They had just issued a tornado watch which covered western and central IL, 
as well as eastern MO, until 11PM. We decided to eat in the car so as not 
to lose time. We got out of there and headed south--I-39 ends and goes 
into I-55. We decided to take US 136 West until we hit Havana. Then we 
would decide where to go from there.

We switched drivers as we pulled off the side of the road near I-55 and 
136. Mark would take over, and I got out and narrated the scene. 
Incredible 30 knot southeast winds were blowing, with blowing dust 
stinging our eyes. Time is now about 4:30 PM. I start narrating as a 
strong thunderstorm is now developing off to our northwest. Listening to 
WMBD-AM (kick @$$ weather information!!!) from Peoria, they had local 
weather watchers on the air tell of pea-size hail. The cap has broken, and 
we see towers going up everywhere. We continue west.

At 4:44 PM, 3 miles west of San Jose, that storm to our northwest is looking 
mighty mean. Severe thunderstorm warnings have gone into effect for 
Fulton county...I get video of the nice structure and the developing 
backsheared anvil. But we blow it off, knowing it is heading into an 
unfavorable road network.

At 4:52 PM, eastern Fulton county goes under a tornado warning. We groan. 
It hurts to blow off a potentially tornadic storm.

At 5 PM, northern McLean county goes under a severe t-storm warning. We 
are 3 miles east of Havana.

5:04PM: We get into Havana and breeze across the Illinois river to 
intercept the storms now producing the severe thunderstorm warning in 
Schuyler and Fulton counties, where we are. But I am not liking this. I 
told Mark and Brian that we should turn around. Not many roads cross the 
Illinois river, and I had learned my lesson in chasing river valleys May 
13 last year. They agreed, and we breezed back into town. 

At 5:09PM, Knox county goes under a severe t-storm warning.

At 5:12 PM, we stopped at the Havana Hardees restaurant to discuss what we 
wanted to do and talked to COD to see what was going on.

A large thunderstorm was developing in Pike county, which was where Paul 
Sirvatka was. That storm had massively high moisture convergence, and was at 
tail-end charlie of the clusters of storms developing throughout Illinois 
and Missouri. Bingo! We went for it. We got off 136 and headed south on 
State Road (SR) 78. Winds are now 140 at 30 knots, as we watch the storm 
off to our southwest get closer. We encounter a little anvil rain as it 
moves overhead.

At 5:25 PM, the storm is now in view. We are just south of Bath. We notice 
the good structure, and the VERY strong flow into it...which keeps Mark 
keeping both hands on the wheel. Inflow is estimated at 40 knots plus, 
with inflow debris flying into the storm. It will go into an area with no 
roads after it passes Bath, so we ignore it. A tornado hits Bath from the 
storm a half hour later at 6:07PM, with 12 homes and 4 trailers hit. A 
truck was picked up and blown into the adjacent field we saw earlier.

At 5:40 PM, we are 3 miles north of Virginia. Looking north, the storm 
that hit bath is looking incredible. But so is the storm in Scott county, 
which we are approaching at 55 MPH. I take video of the structure...the 
sides of the storms look awesome and rock hard.

5:44PM. We're in Virginia. We know we have to stay ahead of this one. It's 
moving east at 45 MPH. Rather than head south, we turn left (east) on Sr 
125. The sky is pitch black to our south.

5:48PM: After a quick on-the-road call to COD, we learn the Scott county 
storm is definitely a biggie. Paul is on it, no tornado that he can see 
yet. Tornado warning in effect for that storm. 

5:49 PM--We're in Philidelphia.

6:00PM...we head into Pleasant Plains. We head south on county road 14W. 
We've outrun the storm! It's off to our southwest now, but the haze 
prevents us from seeing features. We erroneously say it's an HP, because 
we can't see features; we assume it's rain wrapped. In reality, the haze 
is blocking our view.

6:05 PM...we need to head east for a bit. We turn east on 1N. Don't ask me 
about the weird road names.

6:18PM. We are at the intersection of 14W and 1AS. Only light rain from 
the anvil so far. Winds howl from the southeast. We hear Springfield's 
6PM weather ob is 75/65, southeast winds at 35G45. Woweeeee....

6:20PM...We cross I-72 heading south on 8W. We are now east of New Berlin.

6:21PM...It's green up in the anvil up to our west. Now, however, we can 
see the meso coming into view. It's a classic supercell! Whew. 

6:22PM We turn west on 5.5S.

6:23 PM, turned south on 9S. We're southeast of New Berlin, about 2-3 
miles south of I-72.

We stop at 6:26 PM. The meso is just off to our west by about 2-3 miles. 
It's cruising east at 45. I tell the guys we gotta get outta here, and 
fast! No argument there! Mark does a three point turn, but as he's at 
point two, a very slender needle funnel descends from the meso! 
"Confirmed funnel cloud!" I yell, and everyone looks to the right. It last 
for 20 seconds, and we don't get it on video. Mark completes his turn 
around an WE'RE OUTTA THERE!

6:27 PM...we turn left on 9.225N then east on old US 36. As we do that, 
the clear slot wraps around the mesocyclone very rapidly. Brian takes the 
camera as the  meso is now almost due west of us, slightly north. I glance 
back and agree it looks good, but now I'm plotting out a route to take to 
get us out of harms way, should it move southeast. Brian again shouts, 
"Gil, look at this CLEAR SLOT!". I put down the map and turn around. He's 
enthralled about the truly awesome slot, but I notice the dust whirls now 
spinning below!!!

6:29 PM, "Debris!!!...Large!!!!...Tornado!!!" is all I can get out. A 
large, bowl shaped debris cloud is on the ground with no visible funnel. 
It looks like the start of the Laverne, OK tornado. we head northeast, 
following the  tornado, over the next 6 minutes. The condensation gets 2/3 
of the way to the ground as debris continues to fly around the ground. 
It's backlit, it's haze free-- it's gorgeous. 

At 6:35 PM, we follow the road which turns into SR 54. We stop to get out 
at SR 54 and I-72. The tornado is off to our northwest. It is VERY 
detached from the main storm...the precip appears to be several miles to 
the east of the tornado!!!! As it begins to rope out, an amazing sight is 
seen. I've always wondered about this rear flank downdraft theory. It 
isn't theory in my mind anymore. The clear slot becomes a clear HOLE just 
to the west of the meso. Then, on the west side of the meso, condenstation 
cascades downward on the west side. Backlit from the sun to the west, I am 
rendered speechless at the astonishing sight. It looks great on video.
(By the way, I say in the video I am at I-72 and old 36. That's incorrect).

Now, however, we need to get east and south. This thing appears to be 
moving southeast! We head east on 54 and turn south on SR 4 toward 74 at 
6:40 PM. As it ropes out, it lengthens, this time condensation makes it 
all the way to the ground. This part of the video is scary, as we pass by 
a shopping mall with the tornado, and familiar names such as Best Buy, 
Circuit City and other store signs blowing by. We pray it lifts. It's 
only a few miles due west. It's 6:41 PM as we approach I-74.

It quickly does at 6:41PM, thank goodness, and our attention refocuses on the 
new meso forming over Springfield to our northeast. At 6:43 PM, we hit 
I-74 and head east on I-72. With visibility nonexistant to our northeast 
(72 is in a valley there), we hope we don't drive into something. We don't 
take a chance. But as we go up a bridge, at 6:45PM, I see a slender tube 
come down from the new wall cloud. The radio tone alerts moments later 
with this new tornado. Thankfully, it lasts only 20 seconds in a 
residential area.

At 6:50 we head southeast on SR 29, as it is obvious we would drive into the 
meso if we stayed on 72. We think we see funnels overhead; it's just 
fabulous condensation from the low level inflow band from the southwest.

At 7:00 we pull over to watch. We're just north of Berry on SR 29. I can 
barely stand with the 30 to 40 knot sustained inflow, with gusts higher. 
There are two main feeder mid-level bands going into the storm; then 
suddenly, up above, the pileus cap and updraft show up nicely to our east 
and above. We get great pix and video. 

7:04...looks like a brief funnel forms, then goes away.  We hop back into 
our car and...

7:06...we're in Berry. We head east on 6S until it ends, Then we head 
north on block, and then head east on 3.5S, which becomes 2715N.

Over the next 30 minutes, it develops mesos. Supposedly, there was a brief 
touchdown in there, but we didn't see it. We are getting worried though. 
We have 1/4 tank of gas. Thank god we're in an Escort. Never thought I'd 
say that!

7:19PM...we're 1 mile east of Roby...

7:24PM...Bolivia. 1/8 of a tank to go. 15 miles from Decatur and gas.

7:35 PM...we hit SR 48 (Taylorville road) at Elwin.

7:45 PM..We hit the gas station and tank up. We see a 
rapidly rotating wall cloud a few miles to our north. Then a power flash 
below it, treees obscuring our view. Tornado? 
at 7:55, we are heading north on Business Route 51. Then cars slam on 
their brakes. We are stuck. What's going on? There's a parking lot 
adjacent to us. Suddenly, Mark yells, "Oh my God, oh my GOD!"...

We get out of the car. A strip mall is demolished. A nuns convent is badly 
damaged on the east side of the road. Power lines are arcing all over the 
place. Homes without roofs. Poles down. It's F3 damage at least, and I get 
a Plainfield, IL (1990) flashback. We leave the area to leave the rescuers 
and emergency crews do their work. We turn around, and head 20 feet south 
to a road that heads west, paralelling the damage. I turn on WSOY 1340 
(actually they were simulcasting on 102.9, and we were listening to that), 
as we saw the incredible damage off to our north. The announcers are 
begging everyone to stay in, except if they can help in some way. Mutual 
aid arrives from all over. It takes us a half hour to get through the 
city. The tornado has plowed right through the center fo town, west to 
east, through the downtown area as well. 100+ businesses are damaged or 
destoryed, many homes are as well. It was terrible.

We terminated the chase there. We had seen enough. On the radio, we 
listened to WSOY as they relayed the warnings...and then the damage from 
Urbana and the surrounding areas.

We finally met Paul Sirvatka at Bloomington and we compared video. He was 
4 miles south of where we were when the tornado came down...and missed it 
through the dust and haze. (Wow!). They saw the tail end of the funnel 
cloud as it lifted west of the shopping center in Springfield. We heard a 
crew from U-W Madison saw great stuff too. We knew Roger and Rich were on 
it...and I just saw their report. Great job guys! I also know Brian Jewett 
and his wife were on that storm as well...don't know what they saw. 

In summary, it was the best and worst chase in my life. The tornadoes were 
excellent, but they went through populated areas, and that was a real 
tragedy. 3 people were killed, hundreds injured, and that aspect is 
something I hope I never see again. But it was a perfect chase, with an 
awesome navigator, a cool driver, and hey--I'll take the credit for a 
great forecast. But there are more people us three wish to thank. ILX 
kicked total butt on the warnings. If you didn't hear them, you didn't 
bother to try. Springfield was warned early on, and so was Decatur. Plenty 
of time to take shelter. Great job guys and gals!!!

Matt Powers---thanks for the great weather updates. Right on!

Finally, one personal comment. You probably saw my video Saturday night on 
TWC. My boss has decided to let me sell my video if I so choose. I 
actually didn't get the video to them until 11 AM, after I had slept well! 
But, I did decide on the trip home that what I get will go entirely to 
paying for tapes for NWS offices in the area to get a copy of that 
video...as well as other NWS/NSSL/research folks who want them...as well as 
a portion of it will go to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, for the 
Decatur/Springfield storms.