Storm chaser captures tragic impacts of deadly Texas tornado

Photo of EF3 tornado as it hits Canton, Texas on April 29, 2017. (Photo: Benjamin Jurkovich)

As former Lake Stevens resident Benjamin Jurkovich was deciding where to storm chase last weekend in the Midwest, he played a hunch and decided to head into eastern Texas.

He ended up being front and center to a mile-wide tornado that claimed the lives of five people and caused tremendous damage in Canton, Texas.

As he neared the town, already two relatively weak (by Texas) tornadoes had touched down in the vicinity, but then the major tornado would strike a short time later.

"I began heading southwest out of Canton to intercept," Jurkovich said. "The area I’d been tracking earlier was just to my northwest. A new area had formed to the southwest though, and was heading directly towards me and Canton, Texas."

He said he drove north to get out of that cell's way and then assessed the situation. It was a good decision.

"The tornado was just to my southwest by perhaps 10 minutes. I needed to act fast," he said. He took a few minutes to get into a position to safely intercept and watch the storm emerge from the west and cross to his north.

"I noticed that the storm was still heading directly at my position, so I shifted further south.:

And a massive tornado that took up a huge chunk of the horizon appeared.

"(It was a) wedge tornado, packing violent winds accompanied by the classic roar that many of us only have heard stories about. I watched as it scoured the earth for a few minutes, and crossed Highway 64 to my north around 6:25-6:30PM, directly over where I just was," he said.

Once the tornado was clear, he headed back to the damage path to see if he could help.

"As I pulled up, the air smells of freshly tilled earth and blended greenery. The grass on either side of the road looked scoured and the road was caked with mud and debris. Telephone pulls were snapped at their base for a vast expanse," he said.

He had to drive around power lines strung across the road.

"I could go no further in my vehicle because there were power lines wrapped in barbed wired twisted across the road. It was then that I took a couple deep breaths to calm down, the smell seemed so intense. I readied myself to get out and face whatever I might find."

He first found a damaged home.

"I ran to check on the residents and they were fine," he said. "Since I didn’t notice any other structures impacted nearby I was getting ready to film some of the damage to the house, power poles, and trees before I carried on. The trees were stripped of their bark, which is an indication of absurdly strong wind."

The he noticed a white car that had been tossed hundreds of feet off the road into a field.

"Crushed like a pop can," he said. "My heart sunk, and I ran in the direction of the vehicle, pointing and yelling to other storm chasers about the car. When I reached the car, it was trashed, and no one was inside. I felt a sense of relief."

But has he began to film the damage, something else caught his eye -- another mangled car sitting off in the distance about 100 yards away. He and others raced to that car.

"Unfortunately, there was a man in the vehicle. He was alive, at the time. However, just one look, and I didn’t think he was going to make it," he said. Firefighters and rescue crews had just arrived on that scene with equipment to free the man from the wreckage.

"At that point, since I felt I had done all I could do, documented a little more," he said. "I felt overwhelmed with grief, and helplessness. Later, I found out the man in the car did not survive."

A National Weather Service storm team later said there were two destructive tornadoes there at nearly the same time -- one that went into western Canton was given a rating of EF4 with an estimated peak wind speed of 180 mph. The tornado was about a mile wide and was on the ground for 22 miles. A tornado that went into Eastern Canton was given an EF3 rating with peak winds of 145 mph and a path length of 40 miles.

"I dread these days"

"As a storm chaser, I dread these days -- the days where the phenomena you worked so hard to witness impacts communities," Jurkovich said. "It's not the same as seeing it on the news or hearing about it on the radio. It becomes personal, and overwhelmingly real. (Saturday), that dread was realized and it feels even worse than I imagined. Nothing can prepare you for the smells, screams, the flood of emotion and shock, mixed with adrenaline and disbelieve. I wish I could have done more, but there is something about big disasters that help us realize our helplessness. It was an amazing storm, a rare storm. It was amazing to be there and see it, but I will never forget the ones it impacted. The community from what I hear is really pulling together."

Four people ended up dead in the storm and dozens more were injured.

Jurkovich wanted me to share ways people can help those affected by the storm:

"Although volunteers are not yet needed at this time, there are several ways people can help," he said.

• Christus Trinity Mother Frances HealthPark - Lindale set up a donation site to receive materials for those affected by the storm, including water, tarps and plastic bins.
• The Van Zandt County Fire Marshal/Emergency Management said on its Facebook page water donations were being accepted at the Champion EMS station, 101 Industrial Blvd., in Canton (behind the Canton Fire Department on Texas Highway 19).
• Donations can be made to the American Red Cross Serving East Texas Disaster relief at 1-800-RED-CROSS

The chase setup

For those of you who are into the background of what goes on during storm chases, Jurkovich shared on his Facebook page the meteorological set up that led to the massive tornado and how he ended up there to witness it:

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