Saying farewell to a legendary storm chaser

I never met Andy Gabrielson in person. Oh, we swapped tweets now and then about footage he’d shot chasing severe weather, which was often riveting. I always figured one day our paths would cross, and I’d finally get the chance to ask him how and why he seemed to get so close to so many tornadoes.

Andy was a legend in the storm chasing community for that. Many praised him for it. Some criticized him for it, not just for the dangers it posed to him but for the possibility that it might encourage others to take such risks. His footage was featured often on national television, including The Today Show and The Weather Channel.

It was hard not to be mesmerized by the footage he shot, though. And I respected Andy because he understood a key part of what he was doing was reporting what he was seeing to weather officials and authorities – and helping victims if he could.

I feared that one day he would get too close to a tornado and become one of its victims. But it wasn’t a tornado that took Andy’s life earlier this week, at the all-too-young age of 24. It was a driver going the wrong way on I-44 near Tulsa, Okla., as Andy returned from storm chasing in Texas.

Andy will be laid to rest in his native Minnesota on Saturday. Acclaimed fiction author and storm chaser Jenna Blum has written her own tribute to Andy, and I wanted to share it:

A Tribute to Andy Gabrielson: What a Young Stormchaser’s Death Might Teach Us About Life

I regret to say that my first reaction upon being informed of my dad’s death was to wail, “No! Not him! Why him? Why not…” and I then named other candidates I apparently deemed more deserving.

I learned later this is a fairly common reaction to a beloved’s death—to want to put others in their place. In fact, it’s frequent enough to be universal.

Also universal is our outrage when somebody dies too young.

Senselessly.

Suddenly.

And randomly.

Stormchaser Andy Gabrielson’s death was one of these: the death we all fear. Abrupt. Shocking. Unbelievable. The brain embolism. The blood clot in the lung. The fall in the shower. The rare deadly germ picked up by casual handshake.

But wait, you could say: didn’t you say “stormchaser?” So this Andy Gabrielson person died stormchasing. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say.

Actually, no. Andy Gabrielson died as the result of a head-on collision, a driver driving the wrong way down Interstate 44 outside Tulsa, near Sapulpa, OK, in sunny conditions, in broad daylight.

Andy was two weeks away from his 25th birthday.

He has a three-year-old daughter.

I didn’t know Andy very well. Like many chasers, we had crossed paths and missed each other by inches countless times. We had exchanged text messages. And, like many other chasers, I was always behind Andy on any given tornado intercept. On August 7, 2010, when I was chasing in Wilkins County, MN, with Extreme Tornado Tours director Chad Cowan (then a guide and driver for Tempest Tours), we were a mile away from a spectacular-looking, extremely destructive EF4 elephant-trunk tornado, shooting its structure.

Andy was about 200 yards away, right next to the tornado’s debris ball. He was one of the first to call it in and to help the family whose farm was destroyed.

Later that month, when we were chasing the Hayfield, MN tornado on August 13, we got within about 200 feet of the tornado. I was driving. At one point we were literally across the road from the tornado, and on Chad Cowan’s video of this chase, you can hear me say, “I’m not getting any closer. I’m not pulling a Gabrielson on this thing.”

Every time I went chasing, any time I looked at a radar grab of a tornadic supercell and saw one Spotter Network dot in the bear cage, I’d yell “GABRIELSON!” Because it always was.

Andy was, at such a young age, already legendary in the chase community for always getting his shot, always getting up close. Wherever there was a severe storm, you could be pretty sure Andy was on it.

Some of us worried that the extremely-up-close-and-personal footage Andy provided to The Weather Channel and numerous other media outlets would encourage young chasers—or worse, civilians who had enthusiasm but no severe weather knowledge—to take similar risks. When Mike Bettes of The Weather Channel wondered this aloud, the issue caused an imbroglio in the chaser community. (The Weather Channel routinely bought and showed Andy’s footage.)

Yet Andy, ever strikingly articulate, consistently told his audience what responsible chasers do: Don’t try this at home. He also emphasized the public service chasers perform, frequently calling in storm reports before anyone else.

And really, it was not Andy’s job to make sure other chasers and civilians didn’t follow his lead. That responsibility belonged to those individuals—and the media outlets that bought and showed Andy’s adventurous footage in the first place.

Andy’s job was to do what by all reports he loved to do best: chase with unparalleled passion and skill.

And this, from everything I’ve seen and heard of him, from his live stream to other chasers’ admiring comments, is exactly what he did.

Until the driver going the wrong way down I-44 took his life.

What are we to learn from this kind of senseless death? The death of somebody not only young, not only passionate, but on his way to becoming a legend in his own time? The father of a little girl?

That’s not for me to say. That’s for greater minds to figure out.

But even I can say that maybe, if Andy’s death teaches us anything, it’s this:

Do what you love to do. Do it skillfully, respectfully, passionately and well.

Drive safely and defensively. Stormchasers cover thousands of miles of road a year. Last year I put 15000 miles on my Jeep. Any of us could probably tell you that the biggest risk in chasing is other drivers. One of the biggest risks of living in America today is other drivers. Texting and talking on cell phones has only made us worse. Please, drive safely. Pull over and report others who aren’t.

Finally, as Twister Sister Peggy Willenberg said on Facebook when she learned of Andy’s death, “Savor every moment of your life.”

Thank you. We won’t forget you, Andy Gabrielson.