Beaten down storm chasers earn redemption: a story of heroism in South Dakota

A tornado touches down near Pilger,  Nebraska June 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Dustin Wilcox/TwisterChasers)

A tornado touches down near Pilger, Nebraska June 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Dustin Wilcox/TwisterChasers)

It’s been a tough week for storm chasers.  On the one hand, mother nature has conjured up some truly spectacular storm scenes which chasers have documented and shared with the world.  On the other hand, some chasers have gone to questionable extremes to capture questionable visuals and the blowback has been severe.

Chaser Matt Farnik was rebuked by readers on his Facebook page after posting the photo he took of a dying 5-year old girl in Pilger, Nebraska  where twin tornadoes struck Monday (he has since removed the photo) and selling the photo to the press. Perhaps in an effort to repent, he posted  that he was sponsoring a fundraiser to pay for the girl’s funeral costs and her family’s needs.

Slate’s Eric Holthaus then penned the piece:”Why This Former Stormchaser Now Thinks Stalking Tornadoes Is Unethical” casting light on what he views as troubling trends in the industry, writing:

It’s not the appreciation of the natural world I have a problem with. It’s the ego-boosting flaunt of irresponsibility to try to make a buck. Chasers that can’t resist making money off their hobby should donate it all to the communities hit by the storms they’re profiting from.

But the actions of chaser Chad Cowan and fellow chasers who were on the scene after a devastating twister swept through Wessington Springs, South Dakota should reverse this perception of the morally corrupt storm stalker.  Here’s his story, in his words, about how he and other chasers rescued 6 people in home after it collapsed:

 I watched the town take a direct hit from about a half mile away and then immediately went to see if anyone needed help. The streets were completely empty except for one teenager running around between buildings, and despite all of the storm chasers in the area, the only other two that ended their chase, prioritizing others’ wellbeing, were Brandon Ivey and Marcus Gutierrez.I yelled at the teenager to check the houses on the right side and I’ll check the ones on the left. 

Of the first two houses I approached, one was wiped clean of the foundation with the debris in a concentrated pile in the neighbor’s yard, and the other had its roof and most walls collapsed. I noticed there was a minivan and a car under the debris of what had been the garage so I called out multiple times but got no reply. As I was about to move on to the next house, I heard a muffled woman’s voice yelling from near the front door. I had to climb over a bass boat to get to where I could hear her, and she was in the basement talking through a small window in the foundation that was covered in debris. I asked how many people were down there and if there were any injuries.. she said there were 6 of them, 4 adults and 2 little girls and everyone was okay but debris was blocking the stairway and they couldn’t get out. I promised her I would get them out and ran around looking for a way in the house but saw no way of getting to the stairway through the thick debris piles. Looking around and seeing all of the damaged houses and feeling helpless, I tweeted “People trapped please send help”. Then I saw a neighbor who had just emerged from his slightly damaged house, and called out and waved him over. He asked if I had tried the front door, and I told him it was locked to which he replied “not anymore” and kicked it in. There was a refrigerator that had somehow ended up on the other side so the door wouldn’t open more than 6 inches. The back door was unidentifiable among the wreckage so the garage was the only possible entrance and exit.

We pushed large debris off the top of the minivan and jumped from a pile of rubble onto the roof of the van, then onto the car, which was next to the door. Marcus and Brandon arrived at the house and I told Marcus, an EMT, what was going on and he hopped up on the car with us. My first words to Brandon, who I hadn’t seen in over three years were “Brandon break down that garage door” to create a path out. By then the two guys in the basement had managed to clear some rubble out of the stairway and were able to get everyone up to the door. The first person through was the young lady holding her infant daughter and I’ll certainly never forget that look on her face when she saw the four guys who were about to get her and her family to safety. There were large fragments of plywood and roofing between us and them, so we had to carefully pass the little girls between us and down where they were carried out through the opening in the garage door that Brandon had peeled back. The parents told us that they had put the girls (both around 2 or 3 years old) in the gun safe in the basement during the tornado as their miniature safe room and then covered themselves with pillows as their house started breaking apart above them. 

The young couple and the husband’s parents made it out onto the driveway and immediately started searching for their twenty year old neighbor who lives by herself in the house that had been destroyed. We looked for her in the pile of rubble that was her two story house 30 minutes ago, and in the piles of old concrete foundation that had collapsed into the basement. She wasn’t answering her cell phone and her friend said that she thought she was at home when it hit. We looked for her car in the field behind the house and knew that finding it would likely mean she was seriously injured somewhere in the debris pile. I can’t recall a time that I have been that worried about someone who I had never met. One of the neighbors was finally able to get a hold of Betsy and found out she had gone over to a friends’ house before the tornado and was safe. By then the streets were flooded with people and a firefighter I spoke to said every house had been cleared, everyone accounted for and there were no serious injuries. That’s when I heard someone yell “tornado!” and looked up and saw this on the distant horizon.

(Chad Cowan)

The scene in Wessington Springs, South Dakota after a tornado on  June 18, 2014 .(Chad Cowan)

Through this case, Cowan demonstrated that storm chasers are sometimes among the first on the scene after a violent storm, act selflessly, and can serve a public good.

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