Professors chase tornados, sustain injuries

Elizabeth Floyd, Staff Writer

In February 2018, Scott Kaufman, chair of the history department, and Hubert Setzler, associate professor of management, put down a deposit for a storm chasing trip. More than a year later during May of this year, Kaufman and Setzler were involved in an accident when the storm chaser bus flipped, leaving both injured in different degrees of severity.

Kaufman’s decision process for participating in this activity was different than that of his colleague.

“I had grown up in Kansas and never seen one once, so it was a bit of a bucket list item,” Kaufman said. “My sister asked me what I had wanted to do for my birthday, so I mentioned this, and she was open to doing it as well.”

Kaufman said his sister chose a storm chaser agency that had a good track record with experts involved. He also said the safety guidelines stated they would never intentionally get within more than four miles of a storm.

“I decided it was worth it,” Kaufman said. “It went really well at first, and we had seen some good tornados. I was really enjoying the trip.”

Kaufman said that on May 28 they were chasing a large storm cell and needed to head east to get away from it, but were unable to because of the roads, and decided to go south instead. He said at this point he became concerned for their safety.

“About a minute into driving away I hear Rodger, our guide, say ‘debris’ and the next second I feel this hard bang on the side of the van and we turn 180 and start rolling,” Kaufman said. “I didn’t really have time to think about it before it happened.”

After the van stopped rolling, Kaufman said people from the other vans ran over to help them all get out of the van. He said almost everyone was able to get out of the van on their own.

“I was able to walk out under my own power,” Kaufman said. “At first I thought I had whiplash but as time went on with the paramedics my neck started to feel tight and they put me in a neck brace. Twelve of the 16 passengers were taken to the hospital; some with head trauma, a broken clavicle, and fractured patella. What I didn’t know until we got to the hospital was that I had the most serious injury of all. I had a broken neck with one of my vertebra being broken in two and the other was out of place.”

Kaufman said as it was all happening he thought this incident was going to be his last.

Setzler said his involvement on the trip was a result of meeting Kaufman while copying papers, and Kaufman mentioned his plans to go storm chasing for his birthday with his sister and asked if he also wanted to participate.

“He asked me if I wanted to go and I understand that sometimes those are just niceties to say,” Setzler said. “I am the type to always do things, so I wanted to go on this trip but I didn’t want to intrude on his time with his sister. As soon as Scott told me that his sister, who is a good friend of mine as well, said she was happy to have me come along, it wasn’t long after that I was putting my deposit down on the trip.”

Setzler said he is the type to just go out and do something new and exciting.

“Obviously, I knew there was an element of danger involved but I wasn’t hesitant to go on this trip,” Setzler said. “The moment Scott asked me I said that it sounded like fun and that’s how I decided to go.”

Setzler said he didn’t feel fear with the first storm, but was very excited and in awe of the mass and beauty of the storm cells in the landscape.

“I wasn’t scared when we would stop somewhere to take pictures because the storms were mostly about four miles away so to me it was like, ‘Whatever, I wasn’t worried,’” Setzler said. “I was just enjoying it all.”

Setzler said he saw the tornado just before it impacted their vans, but he wasn’t worried.

“Because my dad was in the military, I understood the importance of having an infiltration and exfiltration route, especially in this situation,” Setzler said. “We could hear all the people driving the vans talking about needing a road to get distance from the main storm but they couldn’t find a road in the right direction.”

Setzler said there were four vans involved in the trip but only two of them were hit by the tornado, which was a smaller tornado that had touched down near the vans and quickly overtook the two containing Setzler and Kaufman.

“I knew we were going to get hit when the van in front of us said ‘debris field,’ which means the tornado had touched down,” Setzler said. “I wasn’t scared; my mindset was more of a ‘here we go.’ After the first few rolls, I was like ‘Okay, I’m sure we will all be fine, but after we kept rolling and the air bags deflated I was like ‘We can stop any time now.’”

After the accident, all of the passengers were able to exit the van, but it was only later that Kaufman realized the severity of his injuries. Setzler only sustained minor cuts and bruises.

After the trip, Setzler said he feels closer to Kaufman as a friend and colleague not only because of the accident, but because of the long spans of time they spent together chasing tornados.

Everyone who was hit by the tornado has made a near full recovery. Setzler said he would do it again in a heartbeat, but Kaufman said he will never do this again.