Sean Casey of 'Storm Chasers' Captured a Twister (on Film, That Is)
This past Sunday, Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" closed out its third season with a bang -- and a little blood.
If you missed the action, you get what few storm chasers do -- a second chance -- when Discovery airs a seven-episode marathon of episodes on Saturday, Dec. 5, starting at noon (Eastern time) and ending with the season finale, "EF-3 Strikes, You're Out!"
In the episode, storm chaser Reed Timmer took a blast of broken window glass in the face when his armored vehicle, the Dominator SRV, wound up inside of a twister on the Wyoming priairie (click here for a glimpse of that). He escaped with some cuts but no permanent injury ... and with his enthusiasm not dimmed in the least.
Meanwhile, IMAX filmmaker Sean Casey (right) put it all on the line to get the tornado-core footage he's been chasing for years. As you can see in this clip, the turret of his 16,000-pound armored TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle), and the IMAX camera it protects, nearly got away from him.
In a scene reminiscent of the 1996 storm-chasing action classic "Twister," Casey pulled with all he had, howling into the maelstrom, to prevent himself and the massively expensive camera from being sucked up into the funnel.
June 5, 2009, is a day that Sean Casey will never forget.
"We had a pretty exciting spring, didn't we?" he says.
Asked what it was like to be clinging to his camera with all his might, Casey (a Southern California resident whose hobby, interestingly enough, is gardening), "We were extremely focused on getting that footage that we've been desperately trying to get for the last seven years. So you're really trying to maintain your focus on getting that job done and not trying to focus on the tornado and getting lost in the excitement of the moment.
"The minute you get lost in the sheer terror of a tornado coming at you, you're likely to make mistakes, like not turning the camera on."
And did he forget?
"I had a relieved look on my face (afterward)," Casey says, "and if I hadn't turned the camera on after intercepting that tornado, I probably would have had a different expression."
Being stuck inside of a tornado is a rough time to figure out that there's a design flaw in your vehicle that might cause that camera turret to tear loose.
"I never expected the turret to start moving like it was moving," Casey says. "It was hopping up and down at a high frequency, about two inches. It was hitting against the keepers at the bottom; that was what was keeping the turret from popping off. Then of course, there's that realization that the turret is too big, it's too exposed, and it's taking wing.
"At that point, it's all hands on deck. You've got to get under that thing and hold on for dear life, because if that camera goes, not only have we missed a shot, but we've lost a valuable piece of equipment. I'm sure if that thing had been taken for a ride, it would have been destroyed.
"It was weird. It was like, do you ever expect to be holding onto something for dear life in a tornado? It's like something you would expect to see in the movie 'Twister.' Those moments are insane. How could it happen in reality?
"And then you experience it. You put yourself in that situation where something totally fictional becomes reality, and you are holding onto something for dear life in a tornado. It was surreal."
Casey says he immediately added a one-inch bolt to the TIV and ran a strap from it through the turret to help anchor it, and he plans to add deflectors of some sort to reduce the wind the structure has to endure.
Of course, the TIV doesn't work alone searching for twisters. The accompanying vechicle called the TIV Doghouse (seen behind the TIV at left; double-click on the image for a closer look) features a driver and a meteorologist/navigator, which help the TIV team know where to go next. Casey also has a partnership of sorts with Vortex2, a scientific team led by research meteorologist Dr. Joshua Wurman.
At one point near the end of the season, Casey promised to stick close to Vortex2, but when better storms beckoned, off he went. In the end, it worked out, but while the two teams cooperate, it's obvious they have different motivations.
"We're not coming to the table as scientists," Casey says. "We're coming into their realm and working with them with the focus of getting IMAX footage and making an IMAX film that really portrays and mirrors the amazing spectacle that does exist out there.
"So you do have a clash of characters. And we're working with Vortex2. We have instruments on our vehicle, and we stick with them as long as we can. This last year, we might have separated ourselves a lot, but when it came down to it, the only tornado that they collected data on and intercepted, we were there, and we were a part of their mission."
The most important question is, how does the footage look?
"Oh," says Casey, "it's awesome. The tornado that we intercepted was a low-contrast tornado. It wasn't picking up dirt, just because it was going over prairie land. On TV, it doesn't really translate, but on the IMAX screen, you can actually see the individual pieces of grass times a million, just blasting by. You can see the condensation wave from the ground, rolling towards you.
"It's quite a good shot."
Casey plans to head out with Vortex2 for another season of storm chasing and filming in the spring of 2010, then aims to release his film, "Tornado Alley," in early 2011.
As for the TIV, it's had to suffer a indignity that would never happen in a tornado.
"It's actually parked behind my work," Casey says, "and that's in North Hollywood. It's already been tagged. Somebody found it and tagged it. Yeah. It's just gathering leaves right now."