The Salina Journal Henry Diehl sat in his truck Tuesday near the Solomon River bridge on U.S. Highway 81 near Minneapolis and watched as two tornadoes dropped from a storm he had been tracking.
Ottawa County wasn't even in a tornado warning. It wasn't long before the two small tornadoes returned to the clouds. "I held my position and called in the tornadoes and reported them," Diehl said. "I wanted to warn Minneapolis." While tornadoes tend to move, Diehl noticed this storm was either moving extremely slowly or not moving at all. It was then that the storm spawned a massive wedge tornado west of U.S. 81. Diehl held his ground as the storm approached. The tornado became wrapped in rain and he lost sight of it, but he could hear it. "I had never heard a tornado roar before," Diehl said. "I was able to do that with this storm. It was so loud that you could hear it with the window down or up. It sounded like a blend of a freight train and Niagara Falls. You knew the storm was there because you could hear it." Baling to chasing Diehl, a farmer by trade, said he was baling hay Tuesday afternoon at his farm in Ellsworth County when storm cells began to build up by his home. "I had heard Tuesday was going to be a significant day for storms, but the Storm Prediction Center's outlook was leaning more toward the east," Diehl said. "I decided to watch the storms. When I started baling, there were two towers (clouds) trying to grow into thunderstorms. When I finished baling, the cap of the storm broke out over my house. I didn't know if the storm would be severe or not but decided I needed to follow it." He followed the storm in his truck along Interstate Highway 70 and went north on U.S. 81 to stay ahead of it as it approached Minneapolis. "At first, the storm was very clear and easy to see," Diehl said. "The longer it went, the more rain wrapped it became." Diehl said the storm approached but never crossed Interstate Highway 135. "It was like there was a wall at I-135," Diehl said. "It came within a half-mile. The rain curtains around the tornado actually crossed the highway." Diehl moved north to get out of the heavy rain and began stopping other vehicles from driving into the storm. "I saw a semi coming toward the storm and jumped out of my truck, ran into the median and started waving and pointing at the tornado," he said. "The truck driver locked up his brakes and turned around in the median and went back the other way. I never saw him again." He saw another storm chaser get a person out from under an overpass and pick up another truck driver who had stopped near where the storm was expected to pass. Multinational chasing Diehl was just one of several chasers who got close to the storm. Chasers came from across the country and from Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark and elsewhere. Thomas Nielsen and Per Christiansen, with Storm Chaser Denmark, were close to the Bennington tornado. "It was a very impressive tornado," Christiansen said. Nielsen said Storm Chaser Denmark travels to the U.S. for three weeks each year to chase storms. "Our friends think we are somewhat cool for doing it," Christiansen said. "It is exciting and it is a good way to forget everyday life." Christiansen and Nielsen said they have been interested in weather their entire lives. They started coming to the U.S. in 2006 to chase tornadoes and brought a television crew with them this year. "We have seen about seven tornadoes this year, including the Moore, Okla.," Nielsen said. "We started in Dallas, Texas, May 11 and are leaving June 1." Australian chaser and storm spotter Daniel Shaw was close to the storm. He called in storm reports to the National Weather Service. "I don't just chase, I actively spot," Shaw said. "It takes a lot of concentration to spot, photograph and video. You have to be multiskilled." He has been chasing and spotting storms for eight years and participates in Sky Warn, a group of 290,000 severe weather spotters across the country who report conditions to the National Weather Service. He also posted photos to his website, severestorms.com.au, while in the field. "Yesterday (Tuesday) was a busy day, and I haven't had a proper dinner," Shaw said. "I guess that is the life of a storm chaser, though. When you have an outbreak like this, you don't get a lot of sleep, you don't get a lot of food, and the food you do get comes from a gas station -- and you consider that a luxury." Shaw and Storm Chaser Denmark spotted storms Wednesday afternoon in southwest Kansas and western Oklahoma. Tornado tours George Kourounis, a Canadian explorer and tour guide with Cloud 9 Tours, said storm chasing tours are popular. Cloud 9 Tours offers two-week tours out of Shawnee for about $3,000, which includes hotels and guides. "You just have to get to Oklahoma City and pay for your food," Kourounis said. There are a total of four guides with vehicles and 14 tourists from around the world. Kourounis' group was made up of people from Australia and the United Kingdom. "We are from all over," Kourounis said. Kerren Stokes, of Perth, Australia, said she took the tour after her partner, Lindsay Campbell, took one in 2010. "It is amazing seeing it," Stokes said. Stokes said the group saw two tornadoes within the first four hours of the tour, which started last week -- a record for Cloud 9 Tours. "The first one you see, it was very exciting," Campbell said. Kourounis said the group got very close to the Bennington tornado. "We were close enough to the (Bennington) tornado to hear it," Kourounis said. Dangerous work Diehl said he made a mistake while chasing the Tuesday tornado that could have been deadly. "I saw the storm was moving to the west and I decided to try to get to a better position," he said. "I discovered a damaged house south of K-18 and saw several parked cars there. I started to back up and the wind switched direction and started to blow my vehicle sideways. The only other time I have had that happen, a tornado was to my southeast." He estimated that the winds were blowing at more than 80 mph. "I finally got out of there," Diehl said. "That was a hairy moment." After the storm was over, he pulled out extreme storm chaser Reed Timmer and his crew. Their vehicle, the Dominator, had deployed scientific probes into the tornado but then got stuck in the mud near a road with downed power lines. "I opened a pasture gate, drove around and circumvented the power lines," Diehl said. "I gave him and his crew a ride to find their probes. Then, I got some chains and pulled the Dominator out of the mud. At first, I wasn't sure if I could get it because it is a pretty heavy vehicle." Shaw said storm chasing is dangerous. He said chasers must know what they are doing. "It wasn't crazy at all (for me out there)," Shaw said. "I knew what I was doing and where I was going. Everything you do out there is planned. If it's crazy, you die."