The Jeff Wear Tragedy

Jeff Wear was driving his sedan at what the police called “unsafe speeds” (Longview News-Journal) on a wet stretch of I-20 near Kilgore, Texas, on Monday. He hydroplaned off the westbound lanes, across the median and into the path of an eastbound truck. He died instantly, upon impact. Jeff was not storm chasing, but instead returning from the prior day’s intercept of Hurricane Dennis. This incident hit home particularly acutely since RJ Evans and I likewise intercepted Dennis, and passed across the same stretch of interstate just a few hours before while it still was dry. In the wrong place and at the wrong time, as Jeff was, it could have been any of us.

The world of storm observing mourns his loss. Though I never met Jeff, I offer fullest sympathies to those who did, to his friends in and out of storm observing, and to his family. A 27-year old died far too young, and we all will bear the pain of his passing in some form, storm observing being the communicative community of shared experiences that it is.

A lot of us who have intercepted storms for a long time preach road safety not so much because we’ve perfectly behaved angels (far from it), but because:

    1. Somehow we’re lucky enough to have gotten away with some things that could have caused grave harm,
    2. We’ve learned the lessons and
    3. We wish not to selfishly keep the lessons quiet, but instead, to caution others (often with blunt and forceful language, as may be necessary to make the point) not to repeat those mistakes and circumstances.

Jeff paid the ultimate price for something we all have done if we’ve driven on wet roads frequently for more than a few years — hydroplane. I certainly have, in a full 360 degree spinout; and it’s an awful experience. For it to happen on a remote road free of other cars, trees, poles or anything else with which to collide, escaping unhurt and with minimal damage to the vehicle, was sheer good fortune. Such luck wasn’t with Jeff on Monday, and now he no longer is with us to share his photos, experiences and enthusiasm for the stormy skies above. It could have been me, or you.

It must be noted that Jeff wasn’t actually engaged in storm chasing at the time. He simply was returning from a trip which involved that. What happened to Jeff Wear absolutely, positively was not a “storm chasing death.” Let no one call it so. His tragedy was no more a “storm chasing death” than a science fiction enthusiast’s fatal crash on the way home from some TV show convention is a “Star Trek death.” It was a terrible, awful crash, pure and simple.

What this event will do, I hope, is make everyone else in this community reconsider their speed on the wet roadways we so often traverse. If this is the result, some storm chaser will live in the future when otherwise he or she might not have. It’s an unprovable, immeasurable, utterly unknowable one, of course, but saving a life in that way may well be Jeff’s greatest legacy.

We never know the day or the hour when our time on this earth ends. Appreciate all you see out there and up there, every day.


4 Responses to “The Jeff Wear Tragedy”

  1. Amos Magliocco on July 14th, 2005 1:21 pm

    Well-said. It’s hard to find the balance between how terrible this was and what it means to the rest of us, but I think pointing out that we’ve all done things for which we might have paid the same ultimate price is the most striking observation. Perhaps many of us will have things in a little more perspective next season.

  2. Jay Barnes on July 29th, 2005 2:38 am

    I was one of Jeff Wear’s storm chasing partners, and I think for the record this needs to be mentioned… Jeff was a VERY safe driver and in the many thousands of miles he and I shared together we stayed at or very close to the speed limit. He was a very careful and mindful driver, and did his best making sure his vehicle was in top notch shape for a chase. Jeff and I shared our last chase together in early June, and the day I had to return home I dropped him off in Norman. As I was getting ready to leave he even pointed out that his car had just gotten 4 brand new tires. He was WELL aware of the dangers of driving in the wet with bad tires and as I said drove the speed limit. I spent a few hours talking with Jeff’s parents and both of us agree that most likely what happened to Jeff was highly contributed to fatigue and lack of sleep. That affects our reaction time and ability to respond to situations, such as someone suddenly slamming on their brakes. Also in speaking personally with the investigating officer, Jeff’s parents told me the officer said Jeff was NOT driving an unsafe speed, and this leads me to put more weight in the “driver fatigue” category. I was a police officer myself and investigated many accidents…and from what was described to me what very well may have happened was something surprised Jeff or caught him off guard like someone suddenly stopping on the Interstate and he may have braked suddenly and lost control. Hydroplaining can happen even if you are driving a safe speed and it can happen very fast and without warning. I guess my point here is that it’s easy to think someone might have been driving too fast if they hydroplane, but in reality it can happen nearly anytime water is present on the roadway, and with little warning. Jeff was a good friend and an excellent chaser, and hurricane chasing was a new experience for him. He was prepared for the storm but I am not so sure he was prepared for the distances he needed to drive to chase them. He chased Ivan last year, and told me he really got very little sleep in the three days or so he was gone to chase it. I know he did try to sleep a few times coming back from Dennis, but in the end fatigue may have been what ultimately caused the accident. I apologize for the incredibly long post, but I felt it was important to share this information. Stay well rested and aware, it may save your life.
    -Jay Barnes

  3. Marilyn Wear on August 3rd, 2005 11:55 am

    Thank you for posting this story. It is accurate but a little misleading about the term “unsafe speed”. I am Jeff’s mother and we were told by the investigating officers that he was not speeding (going over the speed limit) but the only way they could explain the accident on their report is that the speed was unsafe for the conditions, which suddenly went from dry to slippery deluge with poor visability. It would not be like Jeff to drive recklessly under those conditions, so we are still trying to find out why his car slid off the road, across the meridian into oncoming traffic.Most likely he was traveling at or below speed limit and was unable to slow down in time when the sudden deluge happened. The driver of the other car said that he did not see Jeff’s car until it was right in front of him – too late to apply brakes or avoid hitting him. He did not see what caused him to slide into the meridian. What we need is a witness who was traveling in the same direction as Jeff who could determine if he was trying to avoid running into a sudden slowdown of traffic, or it could even be possible that a large truck drifted into his lane, forcing him off the road. I know that someone from his lane of traffic must have seen what happened – if only we could get them to come forward. Meanwhile, we can never be sure what really happened. Hopefully by keeping this story out there, someone who saw the accident will eventually come forward and solve this mystery. -Marilyn Wear

  4. tornado on August 5th, 2005 10:35 pm

    Thanks all for the comments. Marilyn, please accept my condolences. I cannot and never want to understand what it means to outlive one of my kids, but from that post alone I can tell you’re dealing with it from some amazing strength in the face of such grief. You’re right to find out exactly what happened and how — not just from the news article to which I linked but in actuality. If you do find out, and if it’s OK, I’ll be glad to post your findings on this website for all the concerned storm observing folks to know.

    I also hope you’ve gained some measure of comfort from the sympathies of the many folks who did know Jeff and who have written their thoughts.

    Jay, notice that I specifically stated, “at what police called ‘unsafe speeds,'” based on that article. If the Longview reporter was wrong about that police report, I would be glad to set the record straight right here and smack down any journalistic deceptions that may have been spread by that story. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a reporter dished out erroneous information.

    As for me, I certainly did not and will not personally question Jeff’s driving practices, simply because I am not qualified to do so, having no firsthand knowledge of them. I’m glad Jay does. And I do hope to be able to post any more of Marilyn’s findings here as well, to shed more light on the terrible event along I-20 that day.

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