“As a kid I was deathly afraid of storms,” said Mickey Smith.
Now when he’s on vacation, he spends his time chasing tornadoes.
“It was just one of those things that you’re going to face your fear one way or the other,” Smith said. “So I decided to face it.”
Smith is a firefighter and paramedic with the Liberty Township Fire Department and a self-proclaimed member of the “zero meter club,” meaning he’s someone who has come as close as humanly possible to a tornado and gotten back out without being hurt.
When Smith decided to face his fear of storms, he said he just jumped right in by doing a quick search on the internet.
“The very first one I found was Extreme Tornado Tours,” he said. “I placed a phone call and had a trip booked inside a week.”
Smith said it was an 11-day chase through several Great Plains states that put him in the middle of the largest outbreak of tornadoes in 100 years. He said there were 35 tornadoes reported over a four-day period.
“I was awestruck and scared out of my mind all at the same time,” he said about seeing his first tornado. “Of the 35, we saw 14 of them.”
The outbreak Smith found himself in was the June 16, 2014 devastation of Pilger, Nebraska, when twin tornadoes hit the small town that had a population of 340.
“The day Pilger, Nebraska happened we were coming down the road and we had a radar-indicated tornado on our left hand side,” Smith said. “We pull into this clearing and it was dead on us. I look to my left and it’s right there, it’s coming right at us. The first thing we do is hop out and get our pictures and everything, because that is what people do. Get some video and stuff like that.”
After spotting the tornado, what came next really surprised him.
“I turned around as the tree tops were spinning off,” he said. “When it set down after it matured, it became the twins, the sister was coming right down on us.”
The group was caught between twin tornadoes.
“We were in a bad spot,” Smith said. “No two ways about it, we were in a bad spot. One was coming across while the other was coming up from behind.”
As if things couldn’t get worse for the group, the lead van became stuck and disabled, Smith said. He said the van had to be emptied and everyone had to pile into the remaining van.
“We had to unload everything from the front van and stick it in the back van and high tail it out of there,” Smith said. “The van survived unscathed.”
Smith said they were so close to the tornadoes that their ears popped.
“When your ears pop,” he said. “You know you’re in a bad position.”
Smith said the group was based in Denver and drove wherever the storms were.
“We started by going up to South Dakota and Wyoming and then we came back down and around and focused in Nebraska,” he said. “We did over 6,000 miles. It was off the hook.”
Smith said the people directing the chase knew where the storms were going to be and it was just a matter of getting to them.
He said by using a combination of data from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, some meteorological study and the experience of the guys in charge, “you can pretty much pinpoint it down within 50 miles.”
“Some of the guys are really experienced,” he said. “They can be dead on. It’s impressive how it all works out.”
D. Anthony Botkin may be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @dabotkin.