April 15th, 1998: Havana, Illinois Squall Line


Date: April 15th, 1998

Location: Havana, Illinois

Event: Marginal Severe Weather Risk & Squall Line

Summary: 

The chase that started it all. My father, grandfather, and I set off from the south side of Chicago early that morning. We didn’t know much about weather and storm chasing, but saw that The Weather Channel had outlined Central Illinois under a risk of severe weather. After slowly making our way into Central Illinois, we positioned ourselves in front of a rapidly evolving squall line. This squall line produced wind damage and a few tornadoes much further south in the St. Louis area. To the north, we intercepted the line near Havana, Illinois and were treated with torrential rain, occasional lightning, and non-severe winds. We followed the line back to the I-55 corridor before going home. It wasn’t much, but my very first storm chase was complete!

Full Account:

Severe weather terrified me. For years I would cower at the very thought of severe weather impacting the local area. I had to get over it somehow, but at the time I didn’t think it was possible. My grandparents and parents tried their best to get me over that fear, but nothing would work. A few years prior the movie “Twister” was supposed to be coming out. My family knew my interest in severe weather, but would never allow me to see the movie. As I progressively got older my fear became less and less, but they would not jeopardize their hard work by letting me see a movie that could potentially cause a setback. It was the summer of 1997 and storms continued to roll through the area and I would continue to get scared. Day time storms didn’t scare me so much as night time ones did. I don’t like getting jolted awake in the middle of the night. Some of my most terrifying memories would be having a bad dream about storms and waking up terrified to the loud clap of thunder and blinding flash of lightning. I would run and scream hysterically into my parent’s room. This wasn’t a normal life for a ten year old. My parents did everything they could and noticed my distinct interest with the weather. There was fear, don’t get me wrong, but through that fear they saw a small flickering flame of pure interest.

Rewind to May 18th, 1997. The Chicago area was pummeled with severe weather. I had been on edge all day because I could just “feel” it in the air. That day as the storms neared, my dad convinced me to ride with him and my brother up to a local park to watch the storm come in. I reluctantly agreed. As the storm approached around 7 P.M. the sky grew very dark. The tornado sirens were set off as a gust front loomed on the horizon. All of a sudden several power flashes were evident along the horizon. I had a wide range of emotions. I wanted to scream, cry, and run. I was panicked, but something drew me to it. It was terrifying, but I couldn’t say a word. I sat there probably pale as a ghost, but my eyes were fixated on this incoming storm. I think I may have uttered I wanted to go home a couple of times, but for the most part I sat there hungry for details and to understand what was happening. I think my dad saw this in me. 

Throughout the summer of 1997, storms would come and go and my fear and anxiety would remain, but my desire to learn was highly apparent. My grandfather and father would do their best to try to explain what was happening when storms would come and go. I watched The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and other shows about tornadoes and people who chased them. One of my favorite VHS tapes was “Twister: Fury on the Plains.” This documentary was filled with tornado footage from pioneers such as Tim Marshall, Gene Rhoden, Jim Leonard, and others. I thought going out there to see tornadoes was cool, but my family brought up the very simple point. How can I possibly think about chasing tornadoes when I am so terrified of non-severe thunderstorms? That was a good point. It prompted a deal my dad made with me in late 1997. He told me that if I went the rest of the summer without being afraid he would take me out and try to find a tornado.

That leads us back to April 15th, 1998. I had accomplished the challenge and felt like I was ready to go out and see a storm. It’s ironic, because my mom used to tell me I always felt safest in a car when storms came. The only way they could calm me down was to put me in the car and drive me around in it. It seems funny to me now that everything sort of led me into storm chasing.

As April 15th approached I began noticing The Weather Channel displaying graphics on the television of potential severe weather for the area. Being an annoying 10 year old I badgered my dad to take me out chasing and the stars aligned and he agreed to it. I knew absolutely NOTHING about forecasting storms. I didn’t know about the Storm Prediction Center, the National Weather Service, or the internet. All I knew was what TWC was showing and that it was really red over Central Illinois in their forecast. My dad asked my grandfather if he wanted to go with and he jumped at the opportunity. My grandpa was the type of man to give anything for his child and grandchildren. He knew how scared I was of storms and he wanted to be there to watch me get over the fear. It was figuratively becoming a man much like a Bar Mitzvah is in the Jewish religion. I was eager to leave that morning. I didn’t know where we would go or how long it would take to get there, but I was ready!

Several hours later we were positioned across Central Illinois ahead of a darkening sky. The feelings of fear started coming back, but they were replaced by the feelings of anticipation. As the dark leading edge of the storm passed overhead, these very dramatic looking clouds appeared on the backside. They looked like knuckles in the sky! I didn’t know what these clouds were called at the time, but I was amazed by them. My grandpa and dad tried to lure me out of the car unsuccessfully. After 20 minutes of asking me to get out of the car and take a picture in front of the storm, I agreed. I made it about 10 feet away from the car before a giant bolt of lightning struck the field next to us. Almost as fast as the bolt of lightning hit the ground, I was back in the car. This was not before nearly decapitating myself on the top of the car getting back in. THAT was scary. My overall experience with storms was exhilarating, but nothing prepares you for a bolt of lightning that close. The storm hit with heavy rain, a few strong wind gusts, and some more lightning. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in love with the weather.

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About Danny Neal

Danny is a storm chaser from the southside of Chicago and has been chasing since 1998. He has over 100 tornadoes documented as well as numerous other extreme weather events. He routinely teaches and trains others about severe and unusual weather and is considered a great resource for Northern Illinois. As a partner with NOAA, he spends most of his time assisting the National Weather Service Chicago during severe weather operations