Last Monday a tornado ripped across southwestern Ontario, smashing two-ton trucks, crushing houses and blowing down barns. Then the storm turned on the town of St. Catharines and ripped down the drive-in movie screen where the week's feature was the hit thriller Twister. No one was injured, but a lesson was learned: There is no special-effects expert like Mother Nature.

A real tornado is a furious thing whose entertainment value drops dramatically the closer it comes. Over the past decade, twisters have killed an average of 44 Americans a year, mostly during high tornado season, which runs from April through June. Still, for every person caught in the so-called suck zone of these storms, there are several who chase after them. PEOPLE caught up with a few of these pursuers, as well as a family whose homes were destroyed.

When blue skies are bad weather

Heading north out of Omaha at 1:30 p.m. on May 17, a Rand McNally atlas open on his lap, Howard Bluestein makes two points for the correspondent who will pilot a maroon Dodge Stratus as he and Bluestein hunt for tornadoes. The first point is etymological, says Bluestein, professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, occasional Weather Channel expert and a stormchaser with some 100 tornadoes on his résumé. "I've never heard a scientist or a stormchaser refer to them as twisters," says Bluestein, who was asked to be a consultant on the movie but was too busy following funnel clouds. "They are tornadoes."

Second, Bluestein, 47, advises the driver, "You need to be calm. We may be hit with golf ball-size hail and pounding rain." Having consulted his computer that morning for the latest storm blueprint from the Storm Prediction Center in Kansas City, Mo., Bluestein lays down the route for driver Jeff Schnaufer: "We're going to have to head northeast, toward the border of Iowa and Minnesota."

Bluestein indulges in some autobiography. "When I was very young," says the Boston native, whose wife of six years, Kathleen Welch, teaches English at the University of Oklahoma, "there was a tornado in Worcester, Mass. I remember my mother telling me to come into the house. She told me tornadoes take little kids and snatch them away. I didn't quite believe it." Bluestein, who graduated from MIT in 1976, saw his first tornado on May 20, 1977, near Tipton, Okla. "I want to be able to understand why tornadoes form," he says, explaining his work. "Once we learn that, I'd like to be able to improve warnings."

Bluestein hopes to be 200 miles away, in northwest Iowa, by 5:30 p.m. Late afternoon is the optimal time for thunderstorms, explains Bluestein. "And we want to be ahead of them so we can chase the most likely candidates for tornadoes." Their formation starts with a meeting of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and a cool air from the north. Then a horizontal cylinder of air rises under a dome of storm cloud. This mesocyclone becomes the tornado incubator.

Not until 2:55 p.m., outside Sloan, Iowa, does a blemish appear in the sky. "I'm happy to see a cloud," says Bluestein. A steep bank forms, then dissipates, as the car proceeds north. At 5 p.m., outside Jasper, Minn., Bluestein spots a dark base of cloud moving like a battleship across the western sky. "That's where the action is," says Bluestein. "If there is any."

There is. A radio report confirms that those clouds are mustering storm activity. A tornado appears near Watertown, S.Dak. Soon a half-dozen funnels (none of which will result in fatalities) reportedly have touched down. But that's 100 miles north of Bluestein and Schnaufer. The scientist's shoulders sag in frustration. The driver, without consulting Bluestein, accelerates to 110 mph, flying down arrow-straight country roads.

By 6:30 the team is in Bellingham, Minn., in front of the storm at last. Racing clouds, no more than 1,000 feet off the ground, unfold over them. This is the gust front, the far perimeter of the storm, where the warm and cold air collide. It's a black maw—known as "the whale's mouth," notes Bluestein, as rain and 70-mph winds nearly push the Stratus off the road.

This is monstrous weather, but still miles from the mesocyclone. "The storm is moving too fast," says a disappointed Bluestein. He finally concedes defeat at 7:40, having chased tornadoes 367 miles across four states. Asked if he'd like to cap the day by catching a screening of Twister, Bluestein answers flatly, "I'll pass."

Storm-tossed relationship

In Twister, Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt park their pickup what seems no more than 50 feet from an approaching black vortex and proceed to unload their scientific gear. Bad move, say husband-and-wife meteorologists Richard and Daphne Thompson. The closest this Kansas City, Mo., couple has come—and it is close—is 250 yards. It was May 1991, and the Thompsons were driving through the Oklahoma panhandle. "The car was hit by 50-to 70-mph gusts," says Daphne, 23. "Tumble-weeds were blowing so hard one left a dent in the car." The couple's first reaction was to pull over and watch. Says Rich, 29: "Driving too fast and getting struck by lightning are the two things that are going to kill you. Tornadoes themselves are way down the list."

To date, the Thompsons have tracked more than 200 storms and made 10 videos (for their home enjoyment) with titles like Chase to Live, Live to Chase. "We are," says Daphne, "what people call weather weenies." A Good Morning America science correspondent dubbed them Mr. and Mrs. Tornado when the Thompsons appeared on the ABC show on May 8. "I'm getting a lot of crap about that," grumbles Rich, a forecaster for the National Weather Service's storm prediction center. "I think it's kinda funny," says his spouse, an Internet Web master for the NWS.

The Thompsons, who both grew up in Texas and graduated from the University of Oklahoma, insist they are not the models for Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister, though a more tornado-touched couple would be hard to find. They met while chasing a twister in Republican City, Neb., in 1990. "It was the first tornado for either of us," says Daphne. Even their wedding in July 1994 was a weather forecaster's dream. "Probably 90 percent of the people in the church were meteorologists—including my bridesmaids," says Daphne. Outside "it was pouring cats and dogs. Then, just as the priest was giving the blessing, a huge bolt of lightning hit. It was great."

The Thompsons do admit to quarreling about the One That Got Away. "You didn't tell me to take that road," Daphne recalls complaining. Still, they plan to continue spending their vacations, weekends and holidays in search of ill winds. "It's a bad day," says Rich, "when you need the sunscreen."

A nightmare to remember

Some people have gotten a lot closer to tornadoes than even the most daring scientist. Not that they planned it that way. Around 11 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, Ed Johns, 55, noticed an eerie silence settling over his two-story English Tudor house on the outskirts of Van Buren, Ark. Then the sky got green, and the air began to vibrate with the freight-train sound that precedes so many tornadoes. Johns grabbed his wife, Sylvia, 54, and took shelter with her in their first-floor bathroom. "We were praying out loud, Ed and me," she recalls. All around them they could hear windows shattering and doors being ripped off their hinges.

Minutes earlier, a funnel cloud had touched down at Fort Smith, Ark., just across the Arkansas River from Van Buren. Generating gusts of up to 150 mph, the vortex cut a 6½-mile swath, destroying 157 homes and killing two small children. Then the twister struck Van Buren, where it wiped out 435 homes—including the Johnses'—and severely damaged 196 others. It was not the most lethal tornado of all time—that would be the storm that rampaged through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 13, 1925, killing 689.

For the Johnses, the siege lasted two minutes. Then they heard a phone ringing in what had once been the family room. It was their son Dale, 35, who lived down the road in a two-story brick house with his wife, Jane, 34, and their three children. All had escaped injury by huddling in the first-floor bathroom closet. "He said they were all okay," says Ed, "but"—his voice breaks—"no home."

The next terrible concern was the safety of Dale's brother Denny, 32, his partner in designing '30s-style roadsters for classic-car buffs, and Denny's wife, Dawn, 31, and their two children, all of whom lived in a brick two-story a quarter-mile from Dale. His parents rushed over on foot. "We could see that Denny's house was flat," says his mother. "The second story was down on the ground. My heart just dropped when I saw it."

As they drew nearer, "we started calling Denny's name," says Ed. "Finally I heard him say, 'Dad!' They were all under the staircase—healthy but scared to death." Miraculously, no one in Van Buren was killed that night.

All three houses were declared totaled by their insurers. Denny and Dawn's, the hardest hit, will have to be built from scratch, starting with a new foundation. Meanwhile, the families are renting apartments in Van Buren.

Not far away from the homes that once were the Johnses', Euneva Poynor, 72, is similarly stoic. The Van Buren twister was her fourth—and, for her, the worst. It destroyed the only house she and her husband, Roy, 73, a retired Methodist minister, ever owned. The couple, like the Johnses, plan to rebuild. "Other places have earthquakes—we have tornadoes," says Euneva. "This is home."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON and TOM GLIATTO
KATE KLISE and JEFF SCHNAUFER on the road

  • Contributors:
  • Kate Klise,
  • Jeff Schnaufer.