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WARREN FAIDLEY'S OBSESSION has put him in some nerve-jangling spots--such as barreling down a two-lane highway on the plains of Kansas in a rented Thunderbird, trying to outrun a tornado roaring up behind him.

The whirring funnel cloud sailed over the roof of Faidley's car, bringing with it a rush of wind that sucked stacks of papers out the driver's window, scattering them all over Kansas 281.

"It was like something out of The Wizard of Oz," says Faidley, who bills himself as the world's only photographer specializing in severe weather. "It was the most dangerous situation I've ever been in. Tornadoes were popping out all over the place. But this is my obsession, getting the ultimate tornado photograph--full-frame, tube on the ground."

Faidley's obsession will take him to Amarillo, Texas, for several months this tornado season. While there, he'll see the movie Twister, which opens nationwide May 10. It stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, and tells the story of two competing teams of storm-chasing scientists going after the big tornado.

It's a big-budget picture. Stephen Spielberg is executive producer, Michael Crichton wrote it, and Faidley was a pre-production consultant. The photograph used on the movie poster, depicting a dark, spooky tornado, was taken by Faidley in Texas two years ago, and producers are using some of his film footage in the movie.

"I've been invited to the premiers, including one in Atlanta where Spielberg and the cast are supposed to be," says Faidley, a Tucsonan and former staff photographer for the Tucson Citizen. "But there's no way I can break away to go."

He'll be too busy in Amarillo, trying to snag the dream tornado shot that has eluded him for nine years. He calls what he does "chasing." Each tornado season he drives an estimated 15,000 miles, from eastern New Mexico through northern Nebraska, Oklahoma and west Texas, seeking out the ominous clouds everybody else runs away from.

A typical day of chasing usually begins when Faidley and a crew of up to eight pile into two sport utility vehicles equipped with every techno-gizmo imaginable--scanners, radios, long-range mobile phones with powerful extenders, special antennas for picking up TV signals, small satellite dishes, a phone-size weather computer connected to a sensor that gives readings on factors such as temperature, dew point and wind, and a laptop that can interface with cellular phones.

The gear helps Faidley and the crew collect data from the Weather Channel and private services such as Accu-Weather, which is then down-loaded. "The information is critical in getting us where we need to be," says Faidley. "Once you get to the storm, it's a visual thing. But first you need to get there."

The two gadget-loaded vehicles draw a lot of attention. "Truckers can't figure out what the hell we're doing," says Faidley. "We sometimes tell them we're looking for a flying saucer crash site. It's totally bizarre looking."

When Faidley and his crew decide on the spot they want, preferably one with an escape road nearby, they drive there and wait. The ideal place is at the southwest edge of a storm. Funnel clouds normally form there and trail the storm as it turns northeast.

But Tornadoes are moody, capable of changing direction in an instant. The storm that chased Faidley down that Kansas highway turned around and headed straight for his car. His description of the U-turn he pulled sounds like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

During his frantic getaway, he passed scraps of farm equipment and pieces of houses the storm had dumped on the road. "I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," he says. "I wondered, 'My God, what if there's a body out here?' I thought I was in a war zone."

Which is where Faidley might have wound up if his boyhood dream of becoming a Navy pilot had come true. But when he was a sophomore in college, his eyesight declined--from 20-10 to 20-40--enough to keep him out of the cockpit. "I was so depressed that when the (U.S. Air Force) Thunderbirds came to town, I left," he says.

Photography came next. As a journalism major at the University of Arizona, he began freelancing for the wire services and local newspapers.

"It was the first weather stuff I'd shot, and that's when I learned nobody was shooting weather," says Faidley. "I had houses collapsing into rivers and I thought, 'This is fun.' "

In 1988, after finishing college and working for two years as a photographer for the Citizen, Faidley quit to go out on his own. Within a month, a freak October thunderstorm moved through Tucson, and he nabbed the picture of a lifetime.

Seeking cover from the rain, Faidley scurried beneath an overpass near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to set up his camera. He waddled along in the dark beneath a low overhang, aiming a flashlight and using his tripod to fight his way through cobwebs jumping with black widow spiders.

Praying he wouldn't be bitten, Faidley set up his camera, aiming it at a fuel depot 400 feet away. He framed the shot, set the F-stop, left the shutter open and backed up, waiting for the lightning to do the work.

Just then, a bolt hit a telephone pole 20 feet away. The strike was so powerful it knocked Faidley off his feet, and he nearly knocked his camera over, which would have ruined the picture. "It was like a bomb exploding next to me," he says. "The light blinded me. I smelled the Ozone and felt the shock wave from the electricity."

But his first concern was to leave the shutter open for another 10 to 15 seconds. That accomplished, he quickly opened it again when the depot's siren began to wail. He thought the place was going to blow, and he wanted to get it on film.

There was no explosion. But Faidley had good reason to suspect his timing on the lightning had been pinpoint--the strike was so bright that when he clamped his eyes shut, he could see the image of the bolt reflected on his retina.

The photograph, one of the closest ever taken of lightning, drew intense interest from scientists. Phil Krider, director of the University of Arizona's Institute of Atmospheric Physics, wrote a paper analyzing the shot, and NASA experts had it digitized.

"It was interesting because it showed the discharge at the point the lightning was striking," says Krider. "The probability of seeing the actual point where the lightning strikes is small. I've seen maybe a half dozen such photos in 20 years. This was the most unusual. We don't really understand the physics of how lightning strikes the ground. The photo provided some new information."

But more important for Faidley, Life magazine published the photo in February, 1989, and his career soared. He received hundreds of phone calls from editors requesting lightning pictures. "Suddenly I was Joe Lightning photographer," says Faidley, a smart promoter who did nothing to dispel the image.

Today, Faidley runs his own Tucson-based photo agency called Weatherstock and his pictures are marketed by eleven agents around the world, including a film agent in Los Angeles.

He's done five video documentaries on severe weather, and he recently signed a deal with Putnam Publishing in New York to write a children's book about his adventures as a storm chaser. The book is scheduled to come out next spring.

And on May 1, the Weather Channel will publish Faidley's adventure-autobiography, along with more than 100 pictures. The title is Storm Chaser. It's the cable channel's first attempt at book publishing.

Why this book? "Our customers are fascinated with extreme weather, especially tornadoes," says Weather Channel Vice President Wendy Stahl. "Through this book, Warren allows us to witness some of nature's greatest phenomena."

"Until the Life photo, I was an ex-newspaper photographer, eating Rice-a-Roni and bread for dinner," says Faidley. "It really gave me a boost."

One reason Faidley has the severe weather market to himself is that most photographers are unwilling to endure the stresses of driving 500 to 600 miles a day, eating bad food, sleeping in questionable motels, and spending thousands of dollars of their own money on the slim chance of bagging the big picture.

The price of success is bittersweet for Faidley. He says a handful of "once friendly" amateur and scientific chasers turned against him when he became successful. "I was unprepared for it -- it caught me totally off guard seeing them go over to the "dark side." A few chasers, including some I highly respected, were consumed with jealously and hatred. I guess they were chapped that I had found a way to make living out of chasing full time." Faidley had to take legal action against one who crossed the line. "It's one thing to vent frustrations at me personally, but when someone tries to damage my business interests or reputation with slanderous lies and rumors, that's out of bounds."

Then there's the danger. Faidley claims he's no adrenaline junkie, and that he has great respect for tornadoes. But he acknowledges the excitement of getting close to one of the most powerful forces in nature. "You have to make quick decisions that are life-and-death and the moment slows down," he says. "It's thrilling. But I'd rather be a half mile away from that thrill than under it."

He's thought about dying, too: "I love life and I'd hate for it to end. If I had become a pilot, there'd be danger, too. I think the secret of life is to have one ultimate goal that is always eluding you. And for me, it's the tornado shot."

Faidley's biggest fear as this tornado season approaches is that Twister will generate so much excitement that the highways will fill with "chase yahoos"--a term used by cops and others for people who try to get close to Tornadoes. They're already out there.

"I've been in Oklahoma after the TV stations have gone on the air live to say there's a tornado, and there have been so many people trying to videotape it that you couldn't pull over. They were drinking beer and honking horns. Other times you get guys hauling ass on the highway toward a tornado, sometimes with their wife and kids in the truck.

"It's like that movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I even know of guys who outfitted a fake vehicle, equipped it with a siren, red lights and a sticker on the door marked 'Research,' just so they could be in the thick of it. The movie Jaws was a sensation, too. But most people aren't going to go out and buy scuba gear and chase Sharks. All this takes is a car and a camera.

Even though Faidley has constitutional and commerce trade rights to pursue severe weather as a journalist, the "yahoo infested roads" are becoming a serious issue. He may have found a solution. "One of the guys who chases with us is a retired electrical engineer. He's working on a "computer ignition disrupter" device that you can point at a car and it will prevent it from starting for about 5-15 minutes. If we could use that devise on the cars lining the road, it would be a hoot."

"There's only been one official death from storm-chasing, and this guy either rolled his car or hit another car. But it's only a matter of time until one of these tornadoes comes along and takes everybody out." [TW]

 

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