Oklahoma meteorology students killed in crash returning from storm chase

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As tornadoes swept through Kansas and Nebraska on Friday night, storm chasers fanned out to watch the spectacle. Among them were three University of Oklahoma (OU) meteorology students who watched the captivating sky turn from a peaceful blue to a dark and menacing light.

On their return home, tragedy struck.

Drake Brooks, 22, Nicholas Nair, 20, and Gavin Short, 19, were killed in a car crash on Interstate 35 near the Oklahoma-Kansas border, OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences Approved.

As the trio drove home from their chase, they were overtaken by an intensifying series of thunderstorms along a cold front that was lowering across the southern plains. In what was likely to be torrential rain, the vehicle aquaplaned and eventually lost control and came to a stop in a different lane. According to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a semi-trailer truck collided with the vehicle shortly thereafter.

The accident is the latest reminder that storm chasing is a dangerous endeavor, driving perhaps as dangerous as the hurricanes. Storm chasers have long recognized the dangers of travel, but are willing to take the risk to pursue their passion.

The weather community has united to mourn the loss of the three students and honor their legacy.

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Driving a car: an underestimated risk

Few pursuers have died due to tornadoes over the years. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young were killed in May 2013 at the base of the world’s most widely observed tornado in El Reno, Okla.

But several other recent chase accidents have involved driving.

Storm chaser Andy Gabrielson was killed in 2012 when a drunk driver hit his vehicle while returning home from a chase, according to Earth Sky. Weather Channel storm chasers Kelley Williamson and Randall Yarnall died in 2017 when they ran a stop sign while chasing a storm, killing Corbin Lee Jaeger.

“Driving is the most dangerous part of any mobile job and especially storm chasing because the conditions are so bad,” wrote Reed Timmer, a world-famous tornado hunter, in a Twitter message. “My heart aches for these children. They were such good, talented people.”

According to the US Department of Transportation, about 21 percent of vehicle accidents are weather-related. “On average, nearly 5,000 people are killed and over 418,000 injured in weather-related accidents each year,” she wrote.

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Seventy percent of weather-related accidents occurred on wet roads, as did 76 percent of weather-related fatalities.

For pursuers, stormy weather is part of the territory.

The fierce storms that erupt on the Plains each spring are a huge draw for budding meteorologists at OU—as nature becomes their laboratory. The university hosts one of the largest meteorology programs in the country, known for its severe weather research.

OU’s Meteorology Department “does not condone or encourage storm chasing by students” except on field missions. “Anyone who chases storms does so at their own risk and should not imply that their activities are affiliated with the university,” the website reads.

In interviews, five friends of Brooks, Nair and Short described their passion for atmosphere and their commitment to communicating weather information to keep people safe. The friends spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they didn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly at a moment of tragedy.

Brooks came to Oklahoma from Evansville, Indiana. Not only did he love the weather, but he was a avid gamer and flight enthusiast. Before becoming a storm chaser, Brooks was a meteorologist and worked regularly for the Oklahoma Weather Lab, a student-run weather service.

Nair was from Denton, Tex. His smile was often seen as he made the prediction on OU Nightly, a daily news show produced by the school. Nair was recently elected officer of the local section of the OU of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

Short joined the OU from Grayslake, Illinois. He was a member of the Eagle Scout and the National Honor Society, participated in the OU’s weather lab and was also recently elected officer of the OU’s AMS chapter. He was always ready with a hilarious pop culture reference. His specialty was winter weather forecasting.

The three were particularly known for always being there to help their peers. In the words of a grieving friend, “her presence lit up the building.”

Brooks, Nair and Short were part of the tight rope Hit Crew Chase Team, a group of student hunters. A friend pointed out how a chance encounter with Timmer — an OU grad — helped bring them together.

When they were snowed in while sledding after a big storm early last year, Timmer convinced them to start the group. Timmer still has her sticker on his pursuit vehicle. It was given to him by the trio in spring 2021.

“These students are close to my heart and are a shining light in the weather community. Words cannot describe the sadness” Timmer tweeted.

The heartbreaking news of her untimely death has rocked OU and the weather community.

“Drake, Nic and Gavin were united in a common passion,” said the President of OU. Joseph Harroz, wrote in an email to the local church on Sunday morning. “As we mourn this immeasurable and profound loss, we also remember the root of her calling, which was to help others.”

The Norman Office of the National Weather Service – based in OU – dedicated to a weather balloon launch to the three and numerous others followed suit, including those in fast citySD, New Orleans, Atlanta and Morehead CityNC

“I keep thinking about what a beautiful gesture it was: sending the names of these three young men into the atmosphere they admired.” tweeted Robin TanamachiProfessor of Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University.

The hash tag #RIPOU3 on Twitter has been filled with memories of the students. Messages of condolence have come from across the weather world, from the scientific community to government to major organizations such as the United States AccuWeather and the AMS.

About Mike Crayton

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