Oklahoma meteorology students killed in crash returning from storm chase

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As tornadoes tore through Kansas and Nebraska on Friday night, storm chasers rushed to watch the show. Among them were three meteorology students from the University of Oklahoma (OU) who watched the captivating sky as it changed from peaceful blue to dark and threatening.

Tragedy struck upon their return home.

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

As they returned home from their chase, the trio were overtaken by an intensifying line of thunderstorms along a cold front moving across the southern plains. In likely torrential rain, the vehicle hydroplaned, eventually losing control and coming to a stop in another lane. A tractor-trailer hit the vehicle shortly after, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

The crash is the latest reminder that chasing storms is a dangerous business, driving perhaps as perilous as tornadoes. Storm chasers have long recognized the danger of travel, but are willing to accept the risk to pursue their passion.

The meteorological community came together to mourn the loss of the three students and honor their legacy.

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Driving: an underestimated risk

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

But several other recent hunter accidents have involved driving.

Storm chaser Andy Gabrielson was killed in 2012 when a drunk driver rammed his vehicle returning 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 chasing 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,” wrote Reed Timmer, a world-renowned tornado chaser, in a Twitter post. “I feel bad for these children. They were such good and talented people.

According to the US Department of Transportation, approximately 21% of vehicle accidents are related to the weather. “On average, nearly 5,000 people are killed and more than 418,000 people are injured each year in weather-related crashes,” he wrote.

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Seventy percent of weather-related crashes occurred on wet pavement, as did 76 percent of weather-related road fatalities.

For hunters, stormy weather comes with the territory.

The violent storms that erupt across the Plains each spring are a big draw for aspiring OU meteorologists – as the outdoors becomes their laboratory. The university is home to one of the nation’s largest meteorology programs, known for its research into severe weather.

The OU Meteorology Department “does not condone or encourage storm chasing by students” except on field assignments. “Anyone who chooses to chase storms does so at their own risk and should not imply that their activities are related to the University,” his website says.

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

Brooks came to Oklahoma from Evansville, Ind. Besides loving time, he was a avid gamer and aviation enthusiast. A forecaster before becoming a storm chaser, Brooks worked regular shifts with the Oklahoma Weather Laboratorya student-run weather service.

Nair was from Denton, Texas. Her smile was frequently seen while delivering the forecast on OU Nightly, a daily news program produced by the school. Nair was recently elected an Officer of the OU Local Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

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

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

Brooks, Nair and Short were part of the tight group Met Crew Chase team, a group of student hunters. A friend pointed out how a chance encounter with Timmer — an OU graduate — helped bring them closer.

While sledding after a big snowstorm early last year, Timmer convinced them to form the band. Timmer still has their sticker on his pursuit vehicle. It was offered to him by the trio in the spring of 2021.

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

The heartbreaking news of their early passing rocked OU and the weather community.

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

The Normandy office of the National Weather Service — located in OR — dedicated a weather balloon launch to the three and many others have followed suit, including those of fast citySOUTH DAKOTA, New Orleans, Atlanta and Town of MoreheadCN

“I can’t stop thinking what a great gesture it was to send the names of these three young men soaring into the atmosphere they admired.” tweeted Robin Tanamachiprofessor of atmospheric science at Purdue University.

The hashtag #RIPOU3 on Twitter filled with student memories. Condolences came from all over the meteorological world, ranging from universities to government and large organizations such as AccuWeather and the AMS.

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