Oklahoma meteorology students killed in crash returning from storm chasing

WEATHER NEWS: Oklahoma meteorology students killed in crash returning from storm chasing

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As tornadoes tore through Kansas and Nebraska on Friday evening, storm chasers swarmed to observe the spectacle. Among them were three meteorology students from the University of Oklahoma (OU) who watched the captivating sky as it turned from a peaceful blue to dark and threatening.

Tragedy struck on their return home.

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

While driving home from their chase, the trio was overtaken by an intensifying line of thunderstorms along a cold front sinking across the Southern Plains. In what was probably torrential rain, the vehicle hydroplaned, eventually losing control and stopping in another lane. A semitruck hit the vehicle shortly after, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

The accident is the most recent reminder that storm chasing is a dangerous endeavor, the driving perhaps as perilous as the twisters. Storm chasers have long recognized the hazard of traveling, but are willing to accept the risk to pursue their passion.

The weather community has united in grieving the loss of the three students and honoring their legacy.

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Driving: an underrated risk

Over the years, only a few chasers have died because of tornadoes. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young were killed in May 2013 at the foot of the world’s widest-observed tornado in El Reno, Okla.

But several other recent chaser 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 pursuing a storm and killed Corbin Lee Jaeger.

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

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

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Seventy percent of weather-related crashes were on wet pavement, as were 76 percent of weather-related traffic fatalities.

For chasers, stormy weather comes with the territory.

The violent storms that erupt every spring in the Plains are a big draw for aspiring meteorologists at OU — as the outdoors becomes their laboratory. The university is home to one of the largest meteorology programs in the country, known for its severe weather research.

The OU meteorology department “does not condone or encourage storm chasing by students,” except as part of field missions. “Anyone who chooses to chase storms does so at their own risk and should not imply that their activities are connected with the University,” its website says.

In interviews, five friends of Brooks, Nair and Short described their passion for the atmosphere and dedication to communicating weather information to help keep people safe. The friends spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they did not feel comfortable talking publicly during a moment of tragedy.

Brooks came to Oklahoma from Evansville, Ind. In addition to loving the weather, he was an avid gamer and aviation enthusiast. A forecaster before he was a storm chaser, Brooks covered regular shifts with the Oklahoma Weather Lab, a student-run weather service.

Nair hailed from Denton, Tex. His smile was frequently seen while he was delivering the forecast on OU Nightly, a daily news program produced by the school. Nair was recently elected to be an officer for the OU’s local chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

Short came to OU from Grayslake, Ill. An Eagle Scout and National Honor Society member, he participated in the OU Weather Lab, and was also recently elected as an officer of the OU AMS chapter. He was always ready with a hilarious pop culture reference. His specialty was winter weather forecasting.

The three were particularly well-known for always being there to help their peers. In the words of one grief-stricken friend, “their presence lit up the building.”

Brooks, Nair and Short were part of the tightknit Met Crew Chase team, a group of student chasers. One friend pointed to how a chance encounter with Timmer — an OU graduate — helped bring them together.

While sledding after a big storm snowed them in early last year, Timmer convinced them to form the group. Timmer still has their sticker on his chase vehicle. It was given to him by the trio in spring 2021.

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

The gut-wrenching news of their early passing has rocked OU and the weather community.

“Drake, Nic, and Gavin were united in a shared passion,” OU’s president Joseph Harroz wrote in an email to the local community Sunday morning. “As we grieve this immeasurable and profound loss, we also remember the root of their chosen calling, which was to help others.”

The Norman office of the National Weather Service — located at OU — dedicated a weather balloon launch to the three and numerous others followed suit including those in Rapid City, S.D., New Orleans, Atlanta and Morehead City, N.C.

“I keep thinking about what a lovely gesture it was: Sending these three young men’s names soaring into the atmosphere that they admired,” tweeted Robin Tanamachi, a professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University.

The hashtag #RIPOU3 on Twitter has filled with remembrance of the students. Condolences have come from across the weather world, ranging from academia to government and major organizations such as AccuWeather and AMS.

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