The Thalia and Seymour Texas Tornadoes
of 10 April 1979


The Red River Valley Tornado Outbreak

All images and text © copyright Gene Moore unless otherwise indicated.

The spring of 1979 was a very active tornado period for the plains states. The tornadoes pictured here were part of the Red River Valley Outbreak, the biggest event of that year. We left NSSL in Norman, Oklahoma at 10:30 AM to our target of Vernon, TX. A wind maximum gusting to 65 knots moved over Guadalupe Peak recording station in far southwest Texas; this triggered our departure. There we hoped the dryline and warm front would intersect with a strong jet stream. As we drove south on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike to Lawton we were in low clouds with light fog and drizzle. My chase partner for the day was Eddie Sims who had chased for years with Jim Leonard. He was great at identifying cloud structures.

Our path across the Red River was always through Lawton; then we usually took a short cut on OK 36 and OK 5 through open wheat country to Fredrick and Vernon. For the first time in years we altered that route. Instead of going through Vernon we dropped further south through Seymour, then north on Texas 267. We knew the storms were coming, but didn't want to meet fast moving cells head-on in the low visibilities north of the warm front. As it turned out we would have driven into Vernon just before a major tragedy unfolded with injuries and death. Would we have seen the tornado and diverted? I can't say for sure, chasing was different back then. We didn't get phone guidance and it was before on-board equipment. We were on our own. By the end of the day we had seen four tornadoes, Thalia, Vernon (although not well), Lake Kemp, and Seymour. Thanks to Bob Davies-Jones from NSSL we saw another tornado as the storm moved into Wichita Falls. It was a large, but distant funnel that may have been the beginning of the horrific tornado that moved through that city. We couldn't make it into Wichita Falls because we almost ran out of gas. The electrical power to local stations was down from the storm which prevented the gas pumps from operating and us from getting more gas. If I had the opportunity to chase this one over I certainly would do it differently, but considering we were on visual back then we didn't do too bad. This was the most spectacular event I had ever witnessed to date. Only three times in my chase career have I seen vertical storm tower velocities this strong. The other times were outbreaks on June 8, 1974 and recently May 3rd 1999.

  Thalia tornado near route 70

Driving north on Texas 267 we witnessed the Thalia tornado. Further to the northeast we could see a very large tornado with reddish suction spots rotating about the circulation. We think this was the early stages of the Vernon tornado. As we drove northeast on US 70, debris was still falling to the ground. A mattress fell beside the vehicle and I looked out to see a woman standing in what appeared to be a junk yard. It was the remains of her home. There were scattered remains of destroyed structures on either side of the road. The damage was quite hit and miss. After dodging power lines, broken poles, and busted trees we dropped south on US 183/283 on the east side of Vernon. The trees on the southwest edge of the city were denuded of limbs and bark. Had we gotten stuck in the damage of the town the chase would have been over. To avoid getting trapped, it's been my policy to avoid blasted cities when ever possible.

We continued south passing a damage path across the highway from the Harrold tornado. That supercell was in progress just to our northeast, although there was no direct route to catch the fast moving storm. It was spectacular to watch! All the storms this day exhibited violent cloud motions. The clouds in the flanking lines exploded up the back of the storm through the back-sheared anvil to the overshooting top. The clouds would roll over like they were collapsing into a deep hold. I had never witnessed anything of this magnitude. We proceeded southwest toward Seymour witnessing a small tornado near Lake Kemp that was accompanied by golf ball size hail. This storm appeared insignificant compared to what we had seen so we drifted southwest in search of something better. A storm appeared on the horizon that had developed far to our south near Abilene. It looked killer from the beginning. By this time teams from NSSL and the University of Oklahoma had arrived.

Tornado southwest   tornado not fully planted at this time

The late afternoon lighting was much different on this storm giving a yellowish cast as we looked southwest. The tornado was coming down, but getting photography was difficult. We were rushed to get into position. During this time I navigated and Eddie drove. He shot these images one handed while driving down a dirt road. I'm surprised he got the tornado in the frame.

   

We were under an extensive rain free updraft area on the southeast side of the storm. Precipitation was to our west through southwest and wrapped around the tornado. We were worried that the rain would get worse before we set up the cameras which was not desirable considering we were on a dirt road. At this time the tornado was just getting planted well to our southwest. A darker version of this image shows the rain curtain extending around the vortex.


 
Almost in position NE of the tornado   tornado at maturity

Usually hail is a problem in this position, but we encountered none on this storm. Stones as large as two inches were reported further to our northeast. We continued to drive east on a dirt road from Mabelle, Texas which is basically an intersection with a couple of old buildings. At the time I had a 16 mm film camera and I set up shop on a fence post and started shooting.

   

This image was taken as the tornado widened and approached our position. The powerful vortex, although rated only F-2, had winds of over 200 m.p.h. as derived from photogrammetric analysis. It was on the ground for 11 miles.


 

  trunk of tornado becomes larger

Rain was beginning to rotate totally around the funnel at this time and the tornado was producing an audible roar so loud it was hard to communicate. While photographing this shot I began to feel vibration in the camera. I had a good full frame shot of the suction spots rotating about the base of the funnel. I didn't want to move. Eddie was trying to tell me something; finally with some tugging, he got my attention. The tornado was at the top of the hill less than a mile away. It was roaring down the hill fairly fast and my chase partner was concerned that we couldn't get out of the path.

   

We decided to make a break for it to the east which was not a smart move. This route took us in front of the advancing vortex and provided a pretty exciting ride. At the time we passed in front of the funnel the mud road had become slick enough that the car was not going very fast anymore. During this time I was trying to shoot pictures through the window. The tornado slung mud across the inside of the windshield which made it difficult to drive. Eddie complained, but kept fighting the wheel. As the tornado neared the road it began to shrink in size and slowed a little, aiding our hasty retreat. We sat up to photograph to the east of the tornado and shot back west and north as it passed.

 
funnel narrows but still very strong

The funnel was quite close at this time and large black crows were caught up in the outer circulation. They were flying by faster than I thought any bird could go; I wonder what they thought...... After this scene the tornado became wrapped in the rain and difficult to photograph.

 

Some great papers have been written about this event and a few are on the Internet. For a map of the outbreak see this source from the University of Chicago. The complete write up of the day is included in this article from the National Weather Service office in Norman, Oklahoma. It contains radar, satellite, damage maps and other valuable information. Another great source is by Don Burgess at NSSL and my also be found on line.


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