Chase Accounts

June 24, 2003
Pictures from this day.

Chasing solo, the day began in Kearney, Nebraska. As I perused the current data and numerical forecasts, my mind looked back on the previous 10 days of my chase vacation. Aside fom an extremely weak tornado south of Cheyenne and the York, Nebraska record-hail producing supercell, my vacation had for the most part been a bust. The morning surface map showed a stationary front positioned from just east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Gothenberg, Nebraska and into Colorado. It appeared the front would remain stationary throughout the day with an outflow boundary creating a triple-point setup near O'Neill, Nebraska. The nose of a strong 300 mb jet streak was progged to punch in, and by 21z, much divergence would be located over northeast Nebraska and southeast South Dakota. It appeared that these factors combined with favorable deep-layer shear and forecast CAPE up to 6000 j/kg would promote supercell development near O'Neill. This being the last day of my vacation that looked favorable for tornadoes, I was nervous about what was to come and hoped that I made the right decisions. But the day did showed potential, a lot of potential. I just wasn't yet aware of how much potential the day had.

At 11 a.m., I left my Kearney and began my trek north to O'Neill, arriving just as a tornado watch was issued at 2:20 p.m. With the watch being issued earlier than expected, it was now imperative to make a data stop at the O'Neill public library. Viewing the latest data revealed that front had not remained stationary but had lifted about 50 miles further north then progged. However, I still had time, nothing had begun to pop yet. I watched the satellite images closely, focusing on two main areas, one to my north near Mitchell, South Dakota and another to my west near Broken Bow, Nebraska. After monitoring data for almost 1 1/2 hours, the first tower of the day developed southwest of Mitchell, and that was my cue to blast north toward the developing cell.

While making my approach, the cell continued building into a well-developed supercell with a backsheared anvil and overshooting top. It looked monsterous, like it could produce a tornado at any time, as I hurried to get into position. As I turned north out of Parkston on Hwy. 37 toward Mitchell, the cell had a large and sustained wall cloud. At 5:11, a large cone tornado developed about 10-15 miles to my northwest near Mt. Vernon (tornado #1). Continuing north to get closer, the tornado persisted, remaining a large cone for the next fifteen minutes, but I lost sight of it going through Mitchell. Once I emerged on the north side of the town, the tornado had dissipated. A new meso developed just my north, but the cell had now weakened considerably and was no longer a tornado producer. Despite being somewhat distant from the tornado and missing the dissipation stage, I felt that my chase vacation was redeemed. However, my of redemption was far from being over.

A tornado warning was soon issued for a new cell to my northwest. A large wall cloud was quite prominent with the LP supercell already as I worked my way toward the updraft base taking Hwy. 37 north then west on Hwy. 34. At about 6:15, a large funnel began slowly working it's way toward the ground; I stopped 2 miles west of Forestburg and began shooting tripoded video and still photos. Within a couple of minutes, the funnel reached more than halfway to the ground and probably became a tornado at this point (tornado #2). This cell and tornado displayed textbook appearance with a long beaver's tail leading into the updraft, a large rotating wall cloud, a well-defined RFD, and a large tornado planted dead center under the meso.

As the tornado strengthened and condensed fully to the ground, multi-vortex action was noted as the occasional writhing snake-like funnel rotated around the right side of the funnel. The tornado, a dark beast contrasted against a golden backdrop, strengthened further doing F3 damage as it moved northeast, reaching a width of about 1/4 mile and producing a large debris cloud. Finally at about 6:30, the large tornado became almost completely occluded. With poor contrast and rain now beginning to fall at my location, I bumped west on Hwy. 34 to four miles east of Woonsocket. The vortex was now roping out and was oriented at a 45-degree angle, with the funnel only halfway to the ground. Multiple vortices in the base of the funnel were still obvious, and at 6:35, the tornado touched down one last time before finally shrinking further and dissipating.

After discussing the tornado for a couple of minutes with a Huron couple and their two children, I backtracked east on Hwy. 34 and north on CR 24 to intercept the new meso. Closing within a mile of the meso, it developed into a large funnel at 6:55. Stopping one mile south of CR 24 and CR 16, the funnel grew quite large and dipped halfway to the ground while a smaller funnel spun just to its north. However, the smaller funnel soon dissipated, and the larger funnel followed its lead, dissipating a couple of minutes later. A new meso to the west of the dissipating funnel was now approaching my position and contained good upward motion. Instead of going east, I elected to observe the new meso. However, upon looking back to the east at 7:13, a white rope tornado made itself visible against a dark precip. core (tornado #3). The rope dissipated within a couple of minutes, and I made the decision to continue tracking the eastern cell.

While moving north on CR 33, yet another tornado developed to my west (tornado #5). The tornado began as a nice cone as a satellite moved rapidly around the meso's outer edge. The satellite tornado dissipated, but the main vortex continued strengthening as I turned east on CR 30. North on CR 39, then east on 215th and stopping one mile east of Esmond, the entire meso began lowering further toward the South Dakota landscape. And, with this, what was once only a small cone became a ferocious half-mile wide wedge at 7:34. With this, the unfortunate fate of the tiny town of Manchester had been sealed. As I reported to 911, the tornado exhibited violent motion, and at one point the tornado split with two large wedges rotating about each other before again combining their fury. The tornado made a direct path for Manchester, while I blasted east on 215th, then north on CR 14 toward the small town.

Now closing the distance on the tornado, the tape in the handheld camera with which I was filming began running low, and I frantically grabbed the tape from the dash cam and slapped it into the handheld. Now within a mile, the F4 monster entered Manchester and large chunks of debris were forcefully ejected as the town's residences were systematically destroyed. My stomach and my heart sank. Now within a 1/2 mile of the tornado, I pulled over and upon exiting my car, the tornado abruptly morphed from a wedge into a stovepipe at 7:45 and appeared to be entering the rope-out stage. Nature had not yet spent her wrath though.

The tornado continued churning just east of Manchester as a contorted stovepipe with sunlight piercing through the RFD and illuminating the top of the funnel. Then, as if the tornado had unfinished business remaining, it retrograded west toward what was left of Manchester as an agitated area of dirt and debris again rose from base of the vortex. With RFD now totally occluding the meso, the tornado finally became a contorted rope, and as quick as it had formed, it thinned into a small rope and vanished at 7:53, leaving only a hanging cloud of dust. To the east, another funnel reached toward the ground (tornado #5) just after the demise of the Manchester tornado. Forced to drive through the damage path in order continue tracking the cell east on Hwy. 14, the damage in Manchester was just horrid. Significant structural damage had occurred and the trees were decimated, appearing like large, upright toothpicks.

Blasting east, it appeared that another wedge was imminent as a large tornadic circulation persisted under the tapered and rapidly rotating meso to my north. However, the tornado fell apart before it could attain a violent status. Stopping about 2 1/2 miles west of De Smet, a stovepipe quickly formed to my north at 8:04 (tornado #6) and exhibited unusual behavior. Not only had the tornado formed under low-topped updraft that appeared no taller than 20,000 ft., but it remained relatively motionless, only zigzagging from west to east over the same area. The tornado went through stages of weakening and strengthening, occasionally revealing an inner core as the outer condensation sheath pulsed between opaque and translucent stages. The tornado's 10-minute life span finally ended with the outer sheath dissipating from the top and bottom and the inner core spinning itself out. An absolutely amazing process to observe.

North out of De Smet now on Hwy. 25, tornado #7 formed to my northwest as a small cone at 8:18. I only had a few opportunities to glimpse the tornado while driving north through several lines of trees. The tornado dissipated within a couple of minutes. Setting up four miles north of De Smet, a new meso spun rapidly to my northwest while the old meso was to my west. Just as the new meso began rapidly organizing, the meso to the west produced a funnel halfway to the ground. A funnel now crept down from the meso to the northwest, and dust began rotating rapidly underneath it. Meanwhile, the funnel from the old meso thinned and stretched toward the ground and became a rope tornado (tornadoes #8 & 9). Two tornadoes were on the ground at the same time at 8:25, a truly remarkable event. I was torn between which one to film, but the tornado to northwest eventually dissipated while the one to the west continued for a couple more minutes before thinning into filament-like strand and fading away.

Now, running with the low fuel light on and rapidly losing sunlight, I decided to make one more go of it before ending the day and returning to De Smet for fuel. I bumped a couple miles north, and the meso now appeared somewhat outflow-dominant. However, as if by pure will, the meso tightened and upward motion increased. A sinuous funnel slowly snaked its way down, briefly touching down at 8:30 before ascending back into the cloud from which it came (tornado #10). And with that, the chase was over, and the supercell appeared to be meeting its demise. Ten tornadoes in one day; never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined what occurred this day. It was truly a remarkable event. Although, the day's excitement was tempered by the fact so many people were affected by these storms, with Manchester being hit the hardest. Although every structure in Manchester sustained damage, there were fortunately no fatalities from any of the tornadoes that day. I can only hope that this can be attributed to the warning process and people heeding the warnings issued by the National Weather Service and the reports from spotters and chasers. Everybody involved in the warning process did a fantastic job this day, and no doubt this saved lives.

With the chase now over, it was time to run the gauntlet to Sioux Falls and get a room for the night. Dave Lewison, who did an excellent job of nowcasting during the entire day, was helping me avoid any supercells and tornadoes as I blasted south on I-29 ahead of an advancing line with embedded supercells. Approaching Sioux Falls, lightning began illuminating what appeared to be a striated updraft just to my west, and it would soon be moving overhead. At this point I began getting nervous. Dave informed me of a rapidly developing circulation to my west, and I immediately began looking for an area to turn around. I finally found a crossover near Crooks and began blasting back north to get out of the way of this possible tornado advancing toward me. Dave was obviously getting a bit worried as he kept me updated. Things were now getting hairy as the rain stopped and my headlights illuminated misty condensation being whisked about my car, much like what Scott Blair and I observed on 11/23/01. Hoping I'd miss whatever was going on under this updraft base, my hope came to an end as a weak circulation crossed directly in front of my car, and I plowed right into it near mile-marker 94. Small branches pelted my car and my antennas were knocked off my roof as I felt the vehicle lift slightly while being buffeted hard back and forth. And as quick as I had driven into it, I drove out of it. Obviously, I had just driven through a weak tornado as it crossed the freeway. Being unnerved at this point, I just continued north a few miles to an area that Dave designated as safe and waited the line out.

For the next 30 minutes, I just sat and regained my composure while discussing the event with Dave, who helped me remain somewhat calm through the whole ordeal. It was truly a terrifying experience, and not one that I care to relive. Just how disastrous this could've been became clear as I returned south and crossed the damage path of small limbs and branches near mile-marker 94. About a mile south of that, an 18-wheeler had been overturned. Needless to say, I was very fortunate.

Finally arriving in Sioux Falls, I met up with Scott Blair and Eric Nguyen, who had been on the storm near Centerville that also produced multiple tornadoes. We ended the day with eating dinner and discussing what very well may be a once-in-a-lifetime event for us. It's certainly a day I'll never forget.

Also, I'm obligated to extend much gratitude to Dave Lewison for providing excellent nowcasting with timely updates throughout the day. Be sure to check out this radar loop of the day (1mb) that Dave put together.

Other pages concerning the June 24, 2003 tornado outbreak:
Scott Blair
Karen Rhoden
Matthew Grzych
Project A.N.S.W.E.R.S.

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