Death of a Storm Chaser

This week has been ironic in that I haven’t written much because I’ve had too much to say.  Of the things on my mind, rather than comment about the elections or the Fed’s Magical Money Making Machine (or MMMM™), I thought I would mention something more personal.

Logo for Storm Chasers (via Wikipedia)
Logo for Storm Chasers (Wikipedia)

There are few television programs that my family and I enjoy on a regular basis, but one of them is Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel.  The business of tracking tornadoes has always been interesting to me and to my wife, as well, and for the last few years we have enjoyed following the exploits of Sean Casey and his tank-like Tornado Intercept Vehicle and Reed Timmer and his exuberant and sometimes careless zeal.  While the tornado chases are exciting, like any decent “reality television” (those three words define a very large programming universe) the personal dynamics are a real part of the show.  Concerning Casey, an element of personal drama comes into play when considering that he has spent around half-a-million dollars on his equipment and countless months away from his wife chasing his dream as much as he chases storms: the desire to create an IMAX movie that features footage inside the heart of a twister.  In Timmer’s case, watching the development of a young man with talent and potential but also with a need to learn the lessons that make men into leaders has also made for great television.

For Sean Casey we knew that one of his challenges (at least, in the way the show is edited, and there is always that element to be considered) was recognizing the need to let go a bit and to trust the team he had put together.  He used the talents of 30-year-old meteorologist Matt Hughes to help get him as close as possible to tornadoes, but he constantly second guessed Matt.  Part of that was due to his understanding of what an IMAX film would require as opposed to simply an “intercept” but, as he said in interviews, a large part was the fact that this was his investment, his “family’s future,” as he said.  And consequently, he found it hard to let go of some of the decision-making, causing him to miss many great opportunities while simultaneously frustrating his support team, including Matt.  Young Mr. Hughes commented often about how he could get Sean to the tornado and get the shots he wanted if he would just let him.

Well, as this week’s episode showed, the moment came, and Sean gave Matt full control of where to go, what to chase, when to stop.  And, sure enough, on that particular chase, Matt Hughes succeeds in spades, planting Sean and his giant armored vehicle smack dab into the center of a tornado.  Watching the mixture of terror and exhilaration on the faces of the Matt and the team inside the vehicle as they sat looking out the windows surrounded by winds near 200mph was thrilling, and a reward for the viewer as much as for the storm chasers.  Well, perhaps not “as much,” but it was satisfying.  In one moment, you got to watch as several men experienced a dream come true.  You felt a great deal of gratification concerning Sean, who not only got a great IMAX shot but who (hopefully) learned that by trusting the team that he had, himself, assembled, he would have a better chance of succeeding.  And concerning Matt, you had the opportunity to watch a young man who had made bold claims really come through when it counted and be rewarded — not just in the satisfaction that comes from success and being tested and coming through but also in getting to experience a unique event and experience the majesty and power of the Creation in a way that few people have ever known.  What a perfect day for young Matt Hughes.

But as much as you enjoy that moment, it comes twinged with sadness as the viewer is aware that Matt Hughes died days later.

The very weekend after that climactic chase and unprecedented success, Mr. Hughes’ family said that he attempted suicide.  The results were damaging enough that he died of the results a week later, leaving behind a wife and two sons.

My wife and I made the mistake of watching the program from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. and then trying to go to sleep afterwards.  But I couldn’t.  I would lay there with ear pressed between my head and my pillow, notice my pulse, and think to myself, “What a horrible resting heart rate.  I bet my arteries are clogged.  I’ve got to get my blood pressure checked.  Etc.”  Then I would flop and turn fitfully — nothing seemed comfortable, but I knew that the discomfort was all in my head.  The juxtaposition of that climactic moment of worldly success and the knowledge of such an end so close together was too disconcerting, too demanding that I process and deal with it in some way.

Actually, the fact that the death was due to suicide was tactfully not mentioned on the show, though it has since been written about by one of his friends and colleagues and has been admitted by his family.  So that night, it was pure issues of mortality that mentally arm-wrestled with me for hours.  Since learning more details, the contrast grew into sharper focus and added details to my meditation.

The events, themselves, happened this summer during storm chasing season, but with the airing of the episode this week I would imagine that the family is reliving many of those events in their minds.  Consequently, as small as the readership of this blog is, there are still some thoughts I just can’t bring myself to say right now in a public forum, in deference to them and to what questions they may be asking themselves.  I think of that wife and two boys, as well as the other family members left behind who loved him, and my heart just breaks.

But, of more importance to us, what questions should we be asking ourselves when faced with such examples?  There is a reason that the seventh law of success is one of the seven, for instance — the one that affects all the others.  Am I keeping that one in mind?  Is there anyone I know who seems to have things all together on the outside but who may be in desperate need on the inside?  Do I really live with the the recognition that today may be my last — not in a debilitating way, but in terms of the priorities I set?  The knowledge that you probably won’t die today, but, at the same time, you just might should have an impact on our lives.  Does it?  As busy as I can be, does my life reflect an understanding of those things that are of fundamental importance in the eyes of God, as in Micah 6:8?  Do I recognize that taking care of my health isn’t a matter of being selfish — not even just a matter of respecting the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) — but is directly tied to the second great commandment, to love my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39), given that my five closest neighbors, my wife and children, depend on me?

Sorry to write today on what may generally be considered a morbid topic, but there is a reason that Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:2, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart.”  There’s nothing wrong with a great time now and then, as Solomon admits in chapter 5 and verses 18-20.  But sometimes we need to spend some time at the house of mourning, meditating on reminders of mortality, to ensure that our lives are ultimately focused on those things of eternal value.

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(For those interested, the Discovery Channel Storm Chasers website currently has a dedication to Matt Hughes up, and video clips are available there of his last chase.)

9 thoughts on “Death of a Storm Chaser

  1. BrianL

    Thank you for your ponderings on this subject. Indeed a very useful explanation of exercise and priorities, along with all other priorities of course. The exercise seemed to come out of the blue, I assume it is another of your ponderings as of late? When first reading I was excited to tell you about the ‘testing’ of this vehicle on Myth Busters. That of course subsided with the rest of the article, but knowing you I think you would appreciate seeing/knowing of this testing.

  2. kathy strine

    I can’t watch such shows of night if I plan to get any sleep either. Yes, it makes you realize your time may be shorter than you think….and given circumstances beyond your control …it could be tomorrow!
    .I have been in 2 tornatoes and one I actually saw coming …and thankfully bounced over our home leaving a trail of 2 x 8’s sticking up all around our home..ones we couldn’t pull out even. . Thankful for God’s protection.

  3. Linda

    I just read through the en route post. Too much to reapond to without digesting it first. I missed that program. I have always loved storms, they are so powerful and the energy in the air is just plain stimulating.
    Most say that “if you had every been in one”, I would still love them, even tho there are terrible things that happen because of storms. I loved storms before God opened my eyes to HIS truth and I love the even more now, a portion so small of His power, the force of the wind, rain, and lightening. Just Grand. God the Creator, there is no way we can measure the power of our God and seeing the tiniest flower, or a drop of rain under a microscope or like the other day just after a little storm with slight rain still coming down, a rainbow in all it’s glory. All of these are wonderful, but the storm, with the wind and the thunder and the lightening and to watch as I once did three merge together {they tore up all but one little house in a place where I lived} it was fantastic, and the air even thos I was some give miles away as the crow flies, was surged full of that wonderful feeling that a storm brings. SO, say I am crazy if you like, I pray for those injured and the ones left behind from the others, but I do love the Creators wonderful show of a small amount of HIS power. Thanks Wally I will go and see if I can get this particular program and then read your post again.

  4. Linda

    I finally got to see it. Had to try three times and then I saw it.
    I saw the dedication to him twice.
    It is pitiful that it took the turn that it did.
    He will stand before His maker and only the two of them will know the truth.
    He will have his opportunity.

  5. Decs

    The Seven Laws of Success
    Hello Mr. Smith,

    I found your post enlightening tonight, I was little frustrated recently in the direction my life was taking so I decided to review the Seven Laws of Success Booklet by Mr. Armstrong. As I read I made slight adjustments that I think make them more clear. Can you give me some feedback? =)

    1. Set Clear Goals.
    Write out Physical (Includes Career), Mental (Includes Educational), Social (Includes Family and Friends), and Spiritual Goals.

    2. Educate Yourself.
    Thoroughly Learn and Research each Goal.

    3. Be Radiantly Healthy.
    This helps make achieving each goal easier.

    4. Drive Yourself.
    Success begins at the end of your comfort zone.

    5. Resourcefulness!
    Have Contingency Plans for things you think may go wrong.

    6. Perseverance!
    When things look bleak stay the course and endure the trial.

    7. Place Every Goal before God and Ask for His Help Continually.
    Meditate on to Revise and Sharpen each Goal as God guides you.

  6. Howdy, Decs, and it looks like you’re really meditated on how to apply those seven laws in your life. Good for you! We shouldn’t just listen to or read messages about such things, take a few notes, and then forget about them, but rather strive to put them into practice.

    I think your notes look great. And #7 actually becomes #1 (#0?) in that we need His help to make worthwhile goals to begin with.

    Have a great Sabbath, and thanks for your comment!

  7. Steve

    I hate death. Maybe I’ve seen too much of it. I used to be harsh and critical of other people, but I became a lot kinder over the years. Everybody also has a piece of gold inside themselves. That’s what I keep thinking about. It’s a waste to see it gone.

    We have to make those around us understand how important they are. Because they really are.

  8. Beth

    Hi Mr. Smith, I appreciated your thoughtful post. I do wonder if the young man’s great success was one of those natural “highs” that many can have when they finally attain a goal that they have been working toward for a long time. I have notice that often when such a goal is reached, it’s as if there is nothing left (no other superior pinnacle to reach for) so that a person ends up with a huge “let-down” feeling which can follow on the heels of such a great success. I am sure there were other factors but I do wonder how much this contributed to the young man’s “push” to end his life. And I then wonder, “how” can we or “what” can we do to prevent or battle such a let down response after we have achieved any great success in this life, small or great?

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