'Really jaw dropping': Storm chaser gets up close look at EF-4 tornado in Iowa

Storm chaser Vince Waelti was tracking a tornado that was rolling through Sigourney, Iowa on March 31 when it crossed right in front of his car.

SIGOURNEY, Iowa -- A veteran storm chaser got a very up-close look at an EF-4 tornado as it swirled across the road in front of him during the tornado outbreak that swept across the Midwest last week.

Vince Waelti was tracking a tornado that was rolling through Sigourney, Iowa on March 31 when it crossed right in front of his car.

"It was actually quite beautiful at first, (it) was out over an open field," Waelti told FOX Weather. "But, you know, the adrenaline really ramped up and the urgency of the scene really ramped up when it actually looks like it hit a barn or a small farm."


Soon, shards of debris from the destroyed structure began swirling around the massive vortex.

"When that debris gets picked up and starts orbiting that thing, that's when it goes from, you know, awestruck and the sense of this thing's beautiful to this thing is going to become a problem, and it's a safety issue."

Waelti said at first they maneuvered to a spot where it appeared the tornado would parallel the road. Still, Waelti was able to maintain a safe distance of about a quarter mile from the funnel.

"You've got to watch for these tornadoes like this that start moving a little bit to the left when they start to strengthen," he said. "Which just kind of did initially, (I) thought it was going to parallel the road and it ended up coming right across the road. But that's why we stay situationally aware and obviously don't drive into them on purpose."

Watch for flying refrigerators 

He says in addition to making sure you get the shot you have to watch for other cars and if there are others unaware of what they're driving in to, alerting them of the danger.

"When we were actually approaching the storm, there were several other cars on the road driving right into this thing," he said. "And when we passed them and the tornado came over the hill, which was obscuring it at the time, you could see everybody in the rearview mirror either do a quick U-turn or they slammed on the brakes pretty hard. And I would say rightfully so."


He warns even if you think you're a safe distance from the main funnel, you're still in danger of being struck by wind-whipped debris.

"That debris can come flying at you from a quarter mile away. In fact, where we were here in the video, there was some debris fallout occurring and that's what prompted us to put on the brakes there, because you can get some pretty, pretty heavy objects," he said. "And even if they're not, you know, when they're rotating and traveling at over 100 miles an hour, that'll go right through the side of a car… We see the scary pictures even just from a few weeks ago in northwest Mississippi there with the 2 by 4's and a refrigerator is just slammed through cars."

This Iowa tornado would go on to injure three people as it swirled along with wind speeds estimated at 170 mph. 

When storm chasers turn into first responders

Waelti didn’t come upon any victims in this tornado, but he has helped countless other tornado victims in the past.

"I was a career EMT before I started becoming a storm chaser," he said. "I used to work with several ambulance services."  Now, Waelti carries a truck full of medical supplies donated from viewers and fans of his internet stream.

He was one of the first people to reach the aftermath of the deadly tornado that swept through Rolling Fork and Silver City, Mississippi last week.

"I was there within 5 seconds of the tornado hitting (Silver City) and it was horrible," he said. "Luckily, we actually had other storm chasers on the scene who became first responders. We had fatalities and injuries ranging from a scratch and a bruise to absolutely life-threatening."

He described that tornado, eventually rated as an EF-3, as probably the most serious event that he had been a part of while storm chasing.


"Because it took almost an hour to an hour and a half before we started getting an actual ambulance response there because everybody was tied up in Rolling Fork," he said. "So it's important that storm chasers are out here. And when they are out here, they're ready to help because sometimes they truly are the first on the scene."