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Storm chaser killed, four people injured in Minnesota crash

Four meteorologists chasing storms were involved in the accident

Weather radar around the time of the accident near Worthington, Minn. (NWS)
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The Minnesota State Patrol reported that a woman was killed in a multivehicle accident on Interstate 90 during bad weather Wednesday evening. The crash occurred in Lorain Township, near Worthington, in the southwest portion of Minnesota. Three others in the vehicle were injured, as was one in another car.

Four of the accident victims were storm chasers who stopped to avoid downed power lines before they were struck by a tractor-trailer. The incident is the latest example of the perils of storm chasing; not from tornadoes themselves but in the travel involved in their pursuit, which often requires navigating extremely hazardous conditions.

The fatal accident comes less than two weeks after three meteorology students from the University of Oklahoma were killed in a crash that also involved a tractor-trailer on a highway in bad weather. They were returning home from storm chasing.

Martha Llanos Rodriguez, 30, a meteorologist from Mexico City, was killed. She was a passenger in the vehicle.

Another passenger, Bradford Barrett, 42, suffered life-threatening injuries. Barrett, a physical scientist with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, was previously a professor in the Oceanography Department of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He is known to frequent the Plains to chase storms and had been stationed in Chile recently for his job.

Diego Alvaro Campos, 37, the driver of the car, and Aldo Alberto Viscarra-Avilez, 33, another passenger, suffered injuries that were not life-threatening. Both are meteorologists from Chile.

The four met each other through professional networking and conferences.

The truck driver, Jaskaran Singh, 26, was not hurt. Tyler Scott Gilbery, the driver of a third vehicle involved, suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.

More women are becoming storm chasers, defying convention and breaking barriers

A report about the crash surfaced around 5:54 p.m. Central time Wednesday. Weather radar at the time showed torrential rain and thunderstorms in the area. A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect just north of Interstate 90, as widespread intense storms swept across the region.

Downed power poles and lines crossed the highway at the scene. The poles reportedly snapped in strong thunderstorm winds, gusting over 60 mph.

A Chevrolet hatchback carrying the storm chasers appeared to be stopped to avoid coming in contact with the power lines when Singh’s truck struck the vehicle.

Earlier in the day, Rodriguez was tweeting about joining the group’s adventures, as it was her first day out. She was a forecaster for Mexico City, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, and helped create an early warning system there.

She shared the tweet below showing the group moving through storms and heavy rain about 20 minutes before the accident.

Social media posts from the men on the trip indicated that they were storm chasing for several days before Rodriguez arrived Wednesday. The men picked her up in the morning in Nebraska before heading northeastward. A level 3 of 5 storm risk covered the area, where the National Weather Service received reports of tornadoes and severe winds by late evening.

“We were doing some storm chasing,” Campos told the Star Tribune on Thursday morning. “The storm was really bad, and we were trying to get out of there.”

Although storm chaser deaths are infrequent, this is the second tragedy involving chasers in as many weeks. On April 29, University of Oklahoma meteorology students Drake Brooks, Nicholas Nair and Gavin Short were killed while returning home from chasing. Their accident also occurred in torrential rain.

Driving itself is considered the chief risk of storm chasing. Vehicle accidents are arguably much more likely than being hit by a tornado.

According to a study of data by the U.S. Transportation Department, 70 percent of weather-related crashes were on wet pavement, as were 76 percent of weather-related traffic fatalities. “On average, over 5,000 people are killed and over 418,000 people are injured in weather-related crashes each year,” it wrote.

Deaths of Oklahoma students underscore storm chasing risk: Driving

A community still in shock from the late April storm chaser deaths is reeling again with the news of another accident.

“Gobsmacked and horrified at the news that one of my frequent grad school chase partners and fellow meteorology professors @bsbarret was badly injured in a crash last night in MN,” tweeted Robin Tanamachi, a professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University. “I am thinking deeply of him and the other victims of this accident today.”

Many others in the scientific and broader weather world responded in disbelief as well.

Severe weather is anticipated again Thursday in the region, with a level 4 of 5 risk of dangerous storms.

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