For many, being in the path of a twister is the definition of "wrong place, wrong time." But for storm chasers Sean Casey and Josh Wurman, that nightmare is a dream come true.
"Tornadoes are unexplored territory," said Wurman. "They're scary and horrifying, particularly if they are going through a populated area. They are also starkly beautiful."
In the growing community of tornado chasers, Wurman and Casey are the king and prince, the odd couple of an oddball profession whose turbulent mix of personalities rival the very twisters they're chasing.
"It took him two years to learn my name," said Casey. "For the first two years I chased [tornadoes with him], I was IMAX Guy."
Casey and Wurman couldn't be more different. Casey is a quick-witted, gung-ho filmmaker who chews tobacco and drinks Red Bull like it's water. Wurman is a rational, conservative meteorologist with a Ph.D. from M.I.T.
"Sean is the Oscar, and I'm the Felix of our professional marriage," said Casey.
Searching for the 'Holy Grail'
For years, filmmaker Casey has been chasing a seemingly impossible dream. To complete his latest project, an IMAX documentary on tornadoes, he needs one final elusive shot.
"I want to get a shot of a tornado coming directly at you and impacting," said Casey. "That is the holy grail."
To capture that image and finish his film, Casey needs to be in the belly of the beast. So he's turned to scientist Wurman, who for the past 14 springs has traded in his lab coat for boots and shorts, in search of his own holy grail.
"What I'm trying to do is understand why violent tornadoes form," said Wurman. "Why are some tornadoes, this small percentage, these beasts that can rake through a town flattening homes down to their foundation."
To collect weather data in the heart of the storm, Wurman needs Casey's fearlessness.
"In a way, we are Josh's chimpanzees," said Casey. "[NASA] didn't want to send astronauts into space first, so they sent a chimpanzee."
This is the tenth spring Casey and Wurman have left their very understanding families at home to go hunting for twisters together. For the past three seasons, the Discovery Channel has tagged along, documenting every breathless moment — the near misses, direct hits, and life-and-death decisions — for the show "Storm Chasers."
Storming Through Town
Take heed and cover if their odd-looking caravan rolls into your town.
Casey rides in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, or TIV. It's a cross between a tank and something out of Buck Rogers.
Built with his bare hands, Casey designed it to be a two-ton tornado shelter on wheels. It's completely armored with bullet proof glass, and it's equipped with special claws that anchor the vehicle to the ground when the high winds start blowing.
A data-gathering weather pod is mounted to the TIV's roof. And there's also a revolving turret for the IMAX camera from which Casey hopes to capture that coveted image.
"This is pretty much a 16,000 pound moveable tripod," said Casey.
Wurman rides in the DOW, short for "Doppler On Wheels." It's basically a mobile radar dish that stays a safe distance from the storm, tracking the weather and providing essential data.
If Casey's TIV is the chimpanzee capsule, Wurman's DOW is Mission Control.
"From here, I can coordinate our radar, tell the antenna where to spin, and look at the data, see the tornado on the screen, see where it is, which way it's going, critically how strong the winds are," said Wurman.
Caught in the Twister
Storm chasing is not always exciting. Most of the time, their team — which includes drivers, navigators, and meteorologists — is sitting around at truck stops waiting for storms to develop or driving for hours to intercept them.
Rarely does a twister chase them, but that's exactly what happened May 10 when the team pulled into the small Arkansas town of Stuttgart.
"When we go through a town, a lot of the equipment gets blinded because we can't scan through buildings," said Wurman. "Unfortunately on May 10, the tornado formed right behind us, right when we were blinded."
Wurman quickly radioed the other vehicles warning them of the fast-approaching twister, which was barreling toward them at 55 mph. Unprepared, the team decided to flee.
"We're racing east to get away from this black mass that I'm seeing as I'm looking out the turret," said Casey. "And I'm just telling the driver to go faster, go faster."
Slowed by the driving rain and howling winds, Casey realized he couldn't outrun the speedy tornado.
"So I'm yelling stop, deploy, drop the claws, and just as the claws go down, you hear that wind catching up," said Casey. "And I'm looking at that tornado moving to the south of us, and it's formed into these two black vortices wrapped around each other doing this dance. God, it was like the movie 'Twister.'"
The tornado had passed directly overhead, but because it was evening, it was too dark to film, a problem Casey has encountered with several other twisters.
"If the Stuttgart tornado had happened two hours earlier, I would have gotten my shot, my shot of all shots," said Casey.
But his disappointment was tempered by the destruction in Stuttgart. Neighborhoods were badly-damaged, lives turned upside down. In these moments, the thrill of the chase is replaced by sober reflection.
Last spring, the team got a firsthand look at the devastation in Greensburg, Kansas, after the massive tornado they were chasing left the town in ruins and killed several people.
"I don't even have a desire to film these types of tornadoes," said Casey after viewing the destruction.
For Wurman, seeing a storm's deadly aftermath crystallizes his mission.
"If we could predict violent tornadoes better, we could probably reduce the fatalities to almost zero," said Wurman. "If we could understand which thunderstorms can produce violent tornadoes well ahead of time, half and hour to an hour ahead of time, we could give warnings with much more lead time."
So on with the chase.