Tornado outbreak of June 24, 2003
The morning of June 24, 2003 was muggy. I noticed the thick air immediately when I walked out my front door for work that morning. I had been watching SPC forecasts for this day all week, and had noticed extreme instability, good shear, and very strong helicity for the day. The SPC issued a moderate risk for our area with a strong potential for tornadoes. I did not, however, fully understand what was going to happen that day: a chase that would rank as one of the best encounters of the decade.
Around 3pm I noticed that large storms were firing off of the dry line in central South Dakota. I continued to watch activity at work as time permitted, and made a decision to chase around 4pm. Once the decision was made, I ran home and grabbed my video camera. I also talked to a friend of mine and he committed to chasing immediately.
At the time I lived in Madison, SD, and made the decision to go straight west on Highway 34. I figured based on radar before I left that we would run right into “tail end charlie” if we stayed on highway 34. We did.
Just east of Woonsocket, we ran straight into a well developed cone tornado. I could tell that this tornado was mature and would rope out quickly. We high tailed it west and the tornado roped out as we approached. Even though the tornado roped out soon after we arrived, I could see by the overall storm structure and rotation that the best wasn’t even close to being finished. As soon as the tornado roped out I could see RFD begin cutting into the core and rotation tightening.
At this point my friend started to panic. I’m not sure if it was the fact that we ran into a significant tornado, or if he didn’t want to tick off his mom. Whatever the reason, he demanded to be taken home. I wasn’t about to do this, I knew that the storm I was on was just getting started, and missing the best day of the season wasn’t an option for me. He kept hammering on me to take him home (you can hear him lament “my mom is going to kill me” in the video). So, in order to have peace to focus on the storm, I offered to drop him off at a farm house. He gladly accepted, and just as we agreed on this arrangement I drove up to a farmer watching the storm. I dropped my friend off, and at last I was able to focus on the wall cloud that was rapidly developing.
Just as quickly as this wall cloud started, it quickly lost rotation and focus. I noticed to my east a rapidly developing center of circulation. I jumped in my car and burned east for about 5 miles. As I approached, two circulations under the wall cloud reached toward the ground. While the condensation never fully reached the ground, I noticed spinups on both funnels. They were later confirmed to be tornadoes.
This rotation quickly dissipated, and the area of rotation I was chasing fizzled. To my north, things began redeveloping immediately. This time a massive, and extremely low wall cloud formed. I could tell by the massively focused energy that the entire storm was pulling air into this area. Soon after I parked to watch, wide circulation reached the ground, and I concluded that tornado genesis occurred. Multi-vortices began circulating on the ground, and soon after a wide vortex became visible. In another 10 minutes the wide vortex had tightened into a massive wedge.
As the wedge moved the the northeast, I jumped in my car to get closer. As I moved closer to the massive tornado, I watched in horror as the tornado headed directly toward a small town. I couldn’t figure out what town it was actually moving towards (this chase was the last one that I would forget a map!), but I later learned this was the town of Manchester, SD. I watched as the tornado wiped out many homes, with the debris cloud expanding each time a house was decimated. It was just surreal. There were many emergency vehicles screaming into the town, so I made a decision not to cause problems by driving into the decimated town. The tornado was rated an F4, and ended up being one of the strongest tornadoes of the season.
After the tornado moved through Manchester, it moved out into open fields and turned white with water vapor. The funnel changed from a wedge to a thin cone, and began to rope out. The vortex actually went west for about 100 yards as the storm moved out in front of it. I had never witnessed a westward moving tornado before, and it was very unnerving to think about people exiting their destroyed homes, only to watch the tornado backtrack towards them. I later found out that no one was hurt in this tornado, which is a miracle in my opinion.
After the tornado roped out, I figured the storm would be finished producing. It wasn’t. Another wall cloud formed about 10 minutes after the original tornado dissipated, and a small rope tornado formed below it. This tornado lasted about 15 minutes and caused F1 damage.
I witnessed numerous funnels and possible tornadoes for the next 20 minutes or so, all of which formed under the main rotation. At this time emergency vehicles began tearing past toward Manchester to attend to injuries and entrapment. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that someone was dead, a feeling that turned out to be unfounded (thankfully!).
After driving north, I witnessed a funnel and a small rope tornado off of the back end of the storm. This unique tornado was nearly horizontal at the top, and widened at the bottom. This is the most unique tornado I have witnessed to date. At one point the twister was invisible at the top, while a condensation funnel existed closer to the ground.
The last tornado of the day was a small cone shaped tornado with a gap between condensation and the ground. The funnel only caused F0 damage and moved over fields only.
As the sky darkened I realized that I had chased one of the most amazing storm systems I would my entire life. The event was later dubbed “Tornado Tuesday”, and continues to be a legendary day in the storm chasing community. Reed Timmer witnessed the tornado taking out the town of Manchester at close range. While this was a dangerous and foolish intercept, Reed did capture some unique footage of a house being destroyed by F4 winds. This footage has been studied extensively. Tim Samaras deployed a meteorological probe that captured the largest pressure drop every recorded, at over 100 millibars. I captured some amazing video myself, and have finally chosen to publish the footage I captured publicly.
I’ll never forget this amazing experience. I was reminded of the immense power of God’s creation, and how powerless humans are to stop it. Tornadoes are a dangerous, destructive phenomena that deserve our respect.