Chasing Death for 15 Minutes of Fame

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tornado.JPGThere are professional storm-chaser videos, and then there are WHAT-are-you-thinking-you-lunatic stormchaser videos.

Not long after the most recent siege of devastating tornados ripped across the country, I saw the latter, amateurish type of video on a news site. The camera is focused on a deadly twister, and background noises include violent wind and the voices of a man and a terrified, whimpering woman begging him to leave. The conditions around the couple are clearly perilous. We hear the man rev his car’s engine and see him hightail it both in pursuit of and retreat from the storm as it churns across the landscape. And all the while they shoot bumpy video, the woman sobs and yells, “Babe, please go, please go!”

It’s painful to watch, and it made me angry to think someone would be  (or at least seem to be) selfish enough to risk a loved one’s life for such a silly thing. But the footage is, nonetheless, pretty mesmerizing. And there’s clearly a demand for this sort of thing. News sites will run amateur video as readily as professional work, and YouTube is filled with thousands of storm-related clips. So when I read Salon columnist Mary Elizabeth Williams’ article on the topic, I absolutely agreed when she commented:

The relentless pursuit of ever more GRAPHIC SHOCKING INCREDIBLE AMAZING!!!!!!!! imagery has long held fascination. There's undoubtedly something about intense images of brutal fury that's powerful and humbling. We share, because we want the world to see. And we watch, in stunned fascination, as devastation rips through the land, because we want to understand. But there is also something about the act of documenting an experience that can create the illusion of detachment from it.

It's easy—and horrifyingly dangerous—to forget that filming an event doesn't make one impervious to being affected by it. There's a world of difference between a seasoned storm chaser bringing news and necessary warning from the front lines and an amateur plunging into the storm, simply hoping to go viral.

Whether we’re sharing the power of nature or not, I wonder just how deeply the “going viral” mentality has affected people. Because the constant pursuit of “on-the-frontlines” footage isn’t seen with just videos of severe weather. People are willing to do some pretty crazy stuff to get some pretty crazy video, and the payoff, to me, seems pretty dubious. I wonder if maybe the world has taken the 15-minutes-of-fame concept a little too far—especially if people are willing to drive into a tornado for an adrenalin rush and bragging rights.

Who wrote this?

Meredith has had two careers: one as a writer/editor for both Focus on the Family and The Navigators, and one as an English teacher trekking far-flung corners of Europe, Africa and Asia. She now rejoins Focus, but with souvenirs—including new eyes with which to better view American culture.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lisbeth:

I seriously applaud the professionals (i.e. storm chasers, news anchors) who have to go out in the middle of natural disasters and chronicle the whole thing.  I was watching news footage of Hurricane Rita back in '05 as it was happening and the poor reporter from one of the Houston news stations was getting beaten up by the storm.  She had on what looked like multiple layers of rain coats with hoods and she still looked soaked to the bone. The wind was threatening to knock her down and the heavy raindrops kept coating the camera lens.  Not to mention the shrieking of the wind meant that she had to shout all her commentary. 

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  ScottyBlue:

In the damage and aftermath of a tornado, oftentimes the only things left standing in leveled houses are the ground-floor bathtubs and the toilets, both of which are rooted into the ground by plumbing/drains.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Eventually:

I haven't heard anything about bathtubs either, but if there is anything we have learned from the latest Indiana Jones movie, it would be that an empty fridge might be an even safer place to hide.

On a more serious note, I've also experienced a tornado sighting in my life. It touched down a ways from our place, and I could see it turn dark as soon as it hit the ground. Coincidently, that same day our family happened to be having a barbeque. So everybody was outside, watching the entertainment. Three more circles started forming above our heads, but all anyone did was look up in wonder. My reasoning for this strange behaviour is that where we lived, tornadoes just don't happen. At least, they're not supposed to happen. So this was all quite the novelty. 10 or 11 year old me was pretty excited as well, but I went inside and closed all the blinds, and turned on the radio. If this thing was going to land on top of us, at least I was going to be prepared. No, I wasn't scared, I was just as excited as the rest of us. This was likely because there was scarely a breeze. The wind wasn't tossing burgers and paper plates around, so I didn't feel like we were in any danger.

That day, I'm sure we had more traffic on that rural gravel road than we would normally have had in a month. Vehicle after vehicle sped by, straight towards the tornado. The adults took a break from talking about the tornado, and talked about how stupid that was. I agreed, but at the same time I was a little confused as to why nobody was doing anything. I probably assumed that Mum and Dad knew best, so I didn't ask too many questions.

As to why anyone wouldn't mind dying while doing such a thing, it probably has something to do with our perception of danger. On a screen, or from a distance, not many people feel the danger. The majority of people will base their actions of what they feel, not on what they know. So if they don't feel danger, then they don't do anything. Get a little closer, and the feeling of danger may rise a little, but that lust for fame may still overpower it. End up right next to the tornado, and it is likely that even that lust for fame will dissappear. Not many people will hold on to the camera when death is starting to get of grip of them. If they had to, they would let it go,and do whatever it takes to survive. It is human instinct. It's the same reason you can't kill yourself by holding your breath.

Granted, some people can take it pretty far, like the man mentioned in the article. But if the vehicle he was in was pulled up by the tornado, how long do you think it would take for him to forget about the camera?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Eowyn:

Well, where I live, the ground becomes so wet that we can't build basements, so my guess is that it's the next safest place. It has four walls and is pretty securely rooted to the ground. Of course, I would much prefer to have a basement, but oh well (:

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  NarniaFanGil:

I understand why a basement is a safe place to go, but I have only recently heard that a bathtub is also a safe place.  What is safe about a bathtub during a tornado?  I would appreciate any clarification.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  StacyA:

I was watching a TV documentary about tornado stories about a year ago, and there was a young man in, I think, Iowa who had filmed a tornado near his home, which of course made it onto all kinds of news outlets and probably YouTube. By the grace of God the tornado turned at absolutely the last minute and didn't suck him up but instead went behind his home. And he said that, while he was glad the tornado had spared him, if he had "perished" in the tornado, well, it would have been a good way to die and it would've been worth it.

Um ... no? I mean, seriously, kid, ask your mother what she thinks of that statement! If that had been my son I would've been all over him dragging him into the house. Where do we get the idea that dying for those 15 minutes of fame (which you won't be able to enjoy, anyway, because you're DEAD) is worth it? I don't think even Reed Timmer or Tim Samaris or any of the professional storm chasers have that kind of mentality.

Seriously, if there's a tornado heading for you, turn off the darned camera and head for the basement/bathtub/nearest safe place!!!