Reed Timmer on getting 'thisclose' to a monster tornado

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Winds as strong as 70 mph can knock you off your feet. Up to 90 mph could rip the shingles off your roof. But what about 130 mph? As the residents and storm chasers in Wray, Colorado, found out on May 7, 2016, a tornado packing wind speeds that high has unforgettable power.

There were semi-trucks tossed around like ragdolls, trees snapped like toothpicks and visibility-choking dust that left drivers sightless. In its aftermath, the town of Wray spent days picking up the pieces, weeks restoring the damage and years reminiscing on the twister's strength.

But while it was all happening, it took just five minutes for Reed Timmer to capture magic. In fact, on that fateful day, Timmer got thisclose -- so close we can't even afford to put a space between those two words -- to one of the biggest and most photogenic tornadoes in recent memory.

Reed Timmer is a household name in the weather media community, given that he has captured thousands of breathtaking videos and lived through countless hours of Mother Nature's harshest offerings.

But his incredible footage from Wray on that May day in 2016 is in a league of its own.

"It was very unique chase and definitely ranks as one of my top chases of all time," he said in a recent exclusive interview with AccuWeather.

Timmer's close encounter with the tornado that tore through Wray, Colorado, on May 7, 2016, is one of the most famous tornado videos on the internet and arguably some of his best work. On the AccuWeather YouTube channel alone, the video has racked up more than 37 million views and over 26,000 comments, by far the most of any clip.

Timmer, 41, is an award-winning extreme meteorologist who has spent decades chasing tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and any other dramatic forms of severe weather that he can drive a beat-up vehicle directly into. On that day in Wray five years ago, all of that experience proved crucial.

The massive tornado crossed Highway 385 as Reed Timmer intercepted the storm.

Racing along Highway 385, Timmer was behind the wheel of a rental car as Dr. Maria Molina, a former AccuWeather meteorologist, provided crucial navigation.

"We executed what's called a hook slice maneuver," Timmer said, explaining that as the storm moved north, they "punched through the hook echo, wrapping around the south side of that tornado and approached it from the backside."

The storm presented the perfect opportunity for the hook slice because of how the roadway directly paralleled the system, Timmer said. Plus, he said it's his favorite way to intercept a tornado because of the strong visual angle that he can capture as it passes.

"You can just park the vehicle or run out of gas and allow the tornado to move off into the distance," he said.

However, like with all storm chases, every high-stakes success could have easily been a missed opportunity without the necessary expertise, proven experience and just the right amount of luck.

On top of all those, in Wray, Timmer's luck also required an extra "couple whiffs of gas."

Before Timmer arrived at the enormous base, he captured the funnel cloud touching the ground in his footage.

"I know that those gas gauges a lot of times will read totally empty, and you still got a couple whiffs of gas in there," Timmer said, proving that a storm chaser's understanding of a vehicle can be just as important as meteorological expertise.

What would eventually become one of the most popular storm-chasing videos on the internet was nearly missed entirely.

Timmer and Molina were tracking the storm as it approached Wray, but their vehicle was quickly running out of gas. With less than half a gallon left in the tank, Timmer said, ideally, they were planning to stop in Wray for a fill-up.

The weather that day had different ideas.

"We were kind of discussing it, 'Should we get gas? Shouldn't we get gas?' And then it ramped up so quickly," he recalled.

Before the pair could make a decision, spiral bands from the cell began feeding into a cinnamon bun cloud shape while the base of the supercell began developing ground circulation. At its base, Timmer filmed from the rear flank downdraft, or RFD, and captured the thrilling and very photogenic storm.

"You could see the cinnamon bun just propagate up along the RFD arc," Timmer said, miming the tornado's clear rotation with his hands. "And then once it got underneath that low-level mesocyclone, it coupled and touched down to the ground."

On top of their fuel worries, Timmer said navigating based on visualizations proved tricky due to the dusty RFD that they had to punch through.

As Timmer neared the roaring base of the twister, he can be heard asking Molina what she thinks. Amid the ear-piercing roar of the storm, her response is muted, but the answer is implied by the car's acceleration, which Timmer accompanies with a few lines of adrenaline-filled, unintelligible excitement.

Seconds later, as his camera is tilting up to show the funnel from cloud to ground, viewers can hear him yell to Molina that they're about to run out of gas -- the hum of the tornado a constant in the background. But as they've now reached their goldmine, the sound of worry was replaced with relief.

As Timmer and Molina raced along Highway 385 to capture the tornado, a dusty front presented by the tornado complicated navigation.

Had the car run out of gas, Timmer said they probably would've flagged down another driver to hitch a ride or even started chasing on foot. Such is the life amid the chase for breathtaking storm footage.

"I've missed a lot of amazing tornadoes over the years from just making a bad decision here and there or even making all the right decisions and still just getting unlucky at the end," Timmer said. "But that's just how storm chasing goes. You got to keep putting yourself in a position like that, and then eventually you'll end up up close to a tornado like the one in Wray."

The magic Timmer captured wasn't just made possible by the luck of a fuel gauge or the expert knowledge of how severe weather behaves. As storm chasers like Tony Laubach call it, sometimes what's needed is a little High Plains magic.

"Eastern Colorado isn't known for having a ton of moisture, and with High Plains magic, the magic ingredient is getting unusually high dew points or unusually high moisture content in the air that far west," Laubach said, noting that the setup itself isn't necessarily unusual but certainly differs from other areas in the country.

Laubach, now an AccuWeather National Reporter, was also in Colorado for the week of severe weather but had a different perspective than Timmer. While Timmer was right up next to the massive twister, Laubach kept his distance and captured the massive twister from a distance.

Like Timmer, Laubach carries decades of stormchasing experience, having documented 339 tornadoes from areas all around the country.

In 2016, he traveled from southern Illinois to Colorado because he knew the storms in Colorado typically packed strong winds and are high based, meaning the base of the cloud is farther away from the ground. Tornadoes produced by a high base storm are usually more visible and detectable.

Farther away than Timmer, Laubach captured footage showcasing the tornado's vast size and photogenic colorization.

Compared to lower-elevation areas such as the central Plains, the areas of eastern Colorado, where Laubach lived for 15 years previously, typically get a lot less moisture.

"But this day had a very high moisture content," he said. "So a lot of key ingredients that I would say are reminiscent of central Plains, more lower elevation-type Plains storms, and those came together in eastern Colorado, which was kind of rare for that particular area of the country."

According to Timmer, the special structure of the storm gave him the perfect opportunity not only to perform his preferred intercept maneuver but also to learn a lot about the physics of the system itself.

Referring to the Howard Bluestein supercell diagram, first sketched by famed research meteorologist Dr. Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma, Timmer said the Wray twister was almost a perfect match to the diagram.

"The storm was unique in that respect. It was just an incredible supercell -- it had textbook structure," he said. "Because it was so low precipitation in nature, you could see the inter-skeleton of that supercell and see the inner workings happening, which are often concealed by condensation or cloud matter. So you really want to take advantage of those rare opportunities when that happens."

For as photogenic and visually breathtaking as tornadoes can be, the real-world consequences they bring scar towns and residents with wounds that last far longer than a five-minute video.

In Wray, four different tornadoes were confirmed on that day by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Five people were injured by what was confirmed to be an EF2 tornado.

Multiple buildings were also damaged in the northern part of the town, including four of which sustained significant damage.

Before the awe-inspiring Wray tornado, Laubach captured footage of this dust cloud circulating in the town.

From Wray, the storms continued to march southeastward, churning up tornadoes and other forms of severe weather throughout the Plains. Laubach remembers it as one of the busiest months of his life.

"Well 2016, in my mind, was the last big season, specifically for storm chasers in terms of not only tornado count, but good, photogenic, highly visible tornadoes," he said. "We have not had a season like that in quite some time. It was all kind of compressed, we had that early punch in May, then we had a little of some downtime, then as we got towards late May, we had a series of big tornado days."

While the hustle and bustle of that month may be in the rearview mirror, the appreciation for Timmer's incredible footage and the memory of that unique May 7 tornado will continue to linger both in memories and on YouTube.

Unlike most videos that reach their 5-year-old birthday, the Wray tornado close encounter clip still receives new views and daily comments, from fans of Timmer to admirers of nature.

Plus, plenty of others, such as YouTube user Derek Lorent, who can appreciate Timmer's incredible footage whilst knowing they may never put themselves that close.

"Thank you for risking your life," Lorent's comment reads, "so that I am entertained while I eat some Cheetos in bed." Hundreds of other commenters voiced their agreement.

Keep checking back on AccuWeather.com and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier, Spectrum, FuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios.

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