The wall of charcoal gray clouds drifted across the sky, the rain picked up and the storm chasers gunned it.
Kelley Williamson and Randy Yarnall were looking for rotation, any signs of the birth of a tornado. Hurtling down a two-lane highway deep in the Texas Panhandle, they sat behind the dashboard of a Chevy Suburban tricked out with radar and computers and cameras on the afternoon of March 28, 2017. The thrill seekers were contracted with the Weather Channel, the stars of their own show, “Storm Wranglers.” As they drove, storm-fanatic viewers tuned into their live stream on the Weather Channel’s Facebook page.
“The storm isn’t very far in front of us right now,” Williamson said into the camera, as they zoomed past a spinning windmill in rural northwest Texas. “Actually, that’s what the dark is you’re seeing right there.”
Corbin Lee Jaeger, miles away, must have been seeing the same dark skies. Like Williamson and Yarnall, storms magnetized Jaeger, a 25-year-old certified storm spotter.
But that afternoon, the attraction would turn fatal.
The live-stream ended right when it happened — when Williamson, 57, and Yarnall, 55, blew through a stop sign, police said, and smashed into Jaeger as he attempted to cross a remote Texas intersection.
All three men died instantly.
Now, Jaeger’s mother, Karen Di Piazza, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Weather Channel over her son’s death, seeking $125 million from the network and the estates of Williamson and Yarnall, among others. In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Lubbock, Tex., Di Piazza accuses the Weather Channel of employing two amateur storm chasers and then ignoring warnings from others about their alleged reckless driving, ultimately resulting in her son’s death.
“The Weather Channel had the opportunity to pull these two individuals off the road or hire a competent, law abiding driver,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, The Weather Channel made Williamson and Yarnall television stars, breaking laws, driving on private property, driving off road, in ditches, through hail storms, driving the wrong way on freeway ramps, on the wrong side of the roadway, through red lights and stop signs, all to increase the sense of danger to their television audience and sell advertising and have a hit show. The result was the death of a young man, Corbin Lee Jaeger.”
The Weather Channel declined to comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement to The Washington Post: “We are saddened by the loss of Corbin Jaeger, Kelley Williamson, and Randy Yarnall. They were beloved members of the weather community and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved.” Attorneys are not yet listed for the estates of Williamson and Yarnall, whose representatives could not be reached.
The fatal collision raised concerns over the dangers of storm chasing while devastating the storm-chaser community, as all three men were remembered for their unrivaled passion for treacherous weather.
Jaeger, a Colorado native who had moved to Arizona with his family, was a certified storm spotter for the National Weather Service and also captured storm footage for a small crew called MadWx Chasing. “He had such a deep passion for weather since he was a young child,” Di Piazza told Denver 7 after his death. “He decided that he wanted to get more into chasing and learning more about weather because his goal was to save lives.”
Meanwhile, Williamson and Yarnall garnered fans around the country. They grew up together in Missouri, and by their own admission, had no formal training and had not studied meteorology. Both were farmers, raising chickens and cattle. Williamson, an eternal adrenaline junkie, was a former bullfighter. He started chasing storms instead after a tornado flipped his wife’s van into the air several years earlier, a friend told CNN. Before long, he became an exhilarating personality within the storm-chasing community; his YouTube channel boasted nearly 7,000 followers. When the Weather Channel came calling to offer him his own show, he enlisted Yarnall to be his driver, he said.
But according to the lawsuit, the pair had a reputation for being daredevils with lead feet.
The lawsuit cites lengthy text messages between a storm chaser and a female producer at the Weather Channel. The producer said she planned to forward the storm chaser’s concerns about Williamson and Yarnall’s risk-taking to her boss, saying she shared them.
“I’m not sure if you happened to catch any of Kelley’s movement, but he put himself in a VERY bad spot, live on air, so god forbid if anything happened we would have to see it live on air,” the lawsuit claims the producer wrote, adding, “NOT GOOD."
“Oh yeah, I saw it,” the storm chaser, who was unrelated to the show, responded. “I’m going to be honest with you — it’s only gonna get worse. . . . Doing 90+mph to get to the position he was is just asking for bad stuff [to happen] . . . We are just hoping he doesn’t get hurt or hurt anyone else.”
The day after the fatal collision, the storm chaser wrote to the producer again — this time in shock.
He said he could not stop thinking about “everything I told him about driving safe and not being so distracted . . . and then telling you that I was worried that he was gonna kill someone or himself . . . And then it happens. So I am obviously in a way dark place right now. I know many of us are. I guess that’s [what’s] killin me. I tried to tell him over and over.”
The day he died, Jaeger planned to let the radar guide his afternoon, with no particular destination in mind.
Parked in the gravel just off a highway in Paducah, Tex., he posted a photo of his Jeep from MadWx Chasing’s Facebook account to update his followers, saying he was “doing a reassessment of today’s chase plans.”
“Big hail in the plans for today, hopefully a tornado as well,” he wrote.
A Texas Department of Public Safety officer told CNN at the time that a twister had been sighted in Dickens County around the same time as the collision, and that he believed all three men were after the same one. The lawsuit says it appears Jaeger was driving away from the storm, while Williamson and Yarnall were charging right toward it, allegedly at 70 mph.
In the final moments of the video, Williamson and Yarnall approach the intersection at a high speed, breezing past a warning for a stop sign as rain pelts the windshield. They get closer to the intersection, but they don’t slow down. Instead, the engine roars louder.
And just then, before a black Jeep enters the frame, the live stream buffers, freezes and stops.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of damages Karen Di Piazza is seeking in the lawsuit. It has been updated.
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