Minnesota storm chaser killed in Oklahoma

  • Article by: JOY POWELL and CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 5, 2012 - 9:44 PM

A Luverne, Minn., man with a knack for locating and video-streaming tornadoes, was killed by an allegedly drunken driver.

Andy Gabrielson

Photo: SevereStudios Inc., SevereStudios Inc.

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Andy Gabrielson had loved chasing storms since he was a boy. Once he got his driver's license, his parents would bid him safe travels as he headed out thousands of miles from their southwestern Minnesota farm in pursuit of tornadoes.

He'd come so close that his pickup truck windows had been blown out and glass embedded in his flesh.

Still, he'd put out warnings for the public before big twisters hit down South last year -- and then he'd capture the devastation on award-winning video that made the national news.

Gabrielson, 24, of Luverne, was heading home from storm-chasing in Texas on Saturday afternoon when he was killed in a four-vehicle freeway pileup in Oklahoma.

An allegedly drunken driver in a pickup truck heading the wrong way smashed head-on into Gabrielson's pickup and caused the pileup on Interstate Hwy. 44 near Sapulpa, Okla., about 15 miles southwest of Tulsa, the Oklahoma State Patrol said.

Andy was the only child of Joanne and Greg Gabrielson. His dad said Sunday that he and his wife had worried about Andy chasing tornadoes when he was a teen, but they soon could see that he knew what he was doing. Rather, it was always an accident Greg Gabrielson feared, because Andy drove so many miles on back roads.

"I never dreamt it would've been like this, somebody drunk, going the wrong way on the interstate," the father said. "It's mind-boggling."

Andy Gabrielson and the allegedly drunken driver, Gregory P. Gilcrease, 55, of Sapulpa, died at the scene. The driver of a third pickup truck, a 37-year-old man from Oolagah, Okla., was treated for arm and leg injuries. A 50-year-old woman from Edmond, Okla., driving a sedan was hospitalized with head and internal injuries.

All four drivers were wearing seat belts, and none had passengers, troopers said.

On Saturday, roads were dry as Gabrielson headed out to see storm-chasing buddies before returning to his parents' home. His girlfriend and their daughter, Reegan Gabrielson, 3, lived near them.

The weather, at least, posed no challenge to his trip. His father last talked to him on the phone at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The accident happened about 3:45 p.m.

A passion for weather

Kory Hartman, a forecaster at KSFY-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D., and owner of SevereStudios, knew Gabrielson well. Gabrielson was "doing what he loved" -- chasing storms in Oklahoma and north Texas on Thursday and Friday, Hartman said.

In Dallas, Gabrielson had been interviewed Friday by WFAA-TV. "I saw my first tornado when I was seven," he said. "Ever since, I've been interested in weather."

Gabrielson had a knack for finding tornadoes -- and for positioning himself to get great shots. He accurately predicted the deadly tornadoes that swept through Alabama last year, his father said. Others agree that Gabrielson was exceptional in his field.

"He wasn't a meteorologist, but he just seemed to know where the storms were going to be," Hartman said.

Gabrielson's fascination with the weather started long ago on the Rock County farm where he grew up, with his dad ruminating about the rain or sunshine needed for the crops. By age 3, he was pushing a chair up to watch weather on DTN, an agricultural news service. By 6, he could draw all 50 states.

A young Andy spotted the white tail of his first tornado at age 7 while riding in a pickup truck with his dad, "and he was hooked," Greg Gabrielson recalled.

Andy became the youngest kid to visit the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., that year. And when he got his tonsils out, he persuaded other kids in the hospital to switch the channel from cartoons to the weather.

At 17, he got his driver's license. He had a website, and he hooked up a camera in his pickup truck and headed to Everly, Iowa, after thunderheads, streaming live.

In 2007, he founded FindTheTornado.com. He wrote on that website that he had logged more than 180,000 miles in 24 states chasing tornadoes, personally witnessing at least 150 twisters.

In 2008, he moved to Oklahoma with a friend for a time to be closer to tornadoes, and within two days of arriving, he was tracking a big tornado, an F4.

He warned the people in the Hammon, Okla., area and then filmed the twister as it destroyed homes. He was on CNN the next day, showing his video and being interviewed by Anderson Cooper.

Andy Gabrielson also was one of several chasers who appeared on the show "Tornado Hunt," and he frequently supplied the station with footage. He appeared on "Nightline," and last year won a regional Emmy Award.

His father said Andy lived as much in the past 10 years as some people live in a lifetime. "I'm proud as can be of the kid," he said, choking up.

The parents were deeply touched, and proud, he said, on Saturday evening when they saw a unique tribute glowing on their computer screen. Nearly 60 spotters and chasers took up positions throughout Kansas with their tracking vehicles. Using GPS locators, they spelled out the initials of a storm-chaser extraordinaire: "A G."

A Facebook tribute page also has been set up for Gabrielson. Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Grace Lutheran Church on Hwy. 75 in Luverne, with funeral services at 10 a.m. Saturday at the church.

jpowell@startribune.com • 651-925-5038 chavens@startribune.com • 612-673-4148

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