Oklahoma Tornadoes: Inside the 'Bear Cage'

PHOTO: A funnel cloud forms near Canton, Okla., Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

Within minutes of joining the Storm Chasers, a group of scientists and filmmakers from the Discover Channel who hunt down tornadoes to capture stunning severe weather video, my producer Seni Tienabeso and I nearly ran into a massive multi-vortex tornado.

Hail plunked off the exoskeleton of the Chasers' "Dominator" (a converted Chevy suburban), prowling country roads like some prehistoric creature at 80 mph.

Our driver and Storm Chasing vet Kevin Barton lowered the Dominator to the ground, saying, "That way the wind doesn't pick us up and toss us."

He hooted that we'd entered something chasers call the "bear's cage" -- the area within the storm cell where a tornado could strike. And directly overhead this giant swirling cloud, a giant overhead whirlpool nearly perfectly formed.

It rippled the wheat fields in a nearly perfect circle.

Barton now shouted against the wind: "You guys are members of the zero meter club. ... That means you've now been zero meters from a tornado. My third intercept in three seasons…"

They seemed to anthropomorphize the storm, calling it "beautiful," as archeologists would a rare find.

"It's rare to see it this close," Barton said. "Not too many people see that. Absolutely gorgeous tornado, guys."

We drove on, finding another giant twister churning near Canton. The air smelled of freshly cut grass, the result of so much splintering and hacking of the forest. The debris field was immense, like a giant lawnmower had moved through a forest.

We moved on, and hours later we were back in Oklahoma City.

The Storm Chasers move so fast, we spent hours just trying to catch up with them. Reed Timmer and his crew literally stop for no man.

Finally, as they were forced to hook a U-turn, we simply drove our car in front of one of the Dominators, blocking it, nearly ramming it.

Clumsily, but quickly we swapped cars, jumping into the Dominator, for a ride of a lifetime.

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