Since one of his storm chasing peers died on Tuesday, Charles Peek has been inundated with Facebook messages.
Peek, who used to hunt tornadoes across the Great Plains with Kelley Williamson, said one of the messages he received was from a woman whose son was a big fan of Williamson and his storm-chasing partner, Randall “Randy” Delane Yarnall.
“She just said [her son] admired them, and they’ll never know the lives they touched,” Peek told NBC News. “Kelley was probably one of the most popular chasers to the public.”
Williamson, 57, and Yarnall, 55, who worked as contractors for The Weather Channel, were following a storm when they were involved in a head-on collision just west of Spur, Texas, on Tuesday afternoon. Both men and the driver of the second vehicle, storm chaser Corbin Lee Jaeger, 25, were killed instantly.
Members of the storm chaser community across America’s Plains — and those who followed them, eagerly awaiting each livestream the men filmed — have been rocked by the loss of Williamson and Yarnall.
“[The community] is deeply saddened,” Peek said. “I was at the scene with several chasers who were there. It was very emotional. And the thing with Kelley and Randy is — they had a huge fan base and worked to publicly stream [storms].”
Fellow storm chaser and photographer Billy Wade, 25 of Washburn, Missouri, said he knew all three men involved in the crash, but said Williamson and Yarnall were some of his best friends. He had just asked Williamson to be a groomsman at his wedding.
“Kelley was fearless,” Wade told NBC News. “He was kind-hearted. He loved people and having to lay him to rest is going to be one of the hardest thing I ever have to do.”
On Facebook, Williamson’s page has become a public memorial, with former colleagues and fans posting memories and condolences.
“My dearest Kelley Williamson & Randy Yarnall, you will be dearly missed by many,” Renessa R. Reed posted.
“I had an amazing dream about chasing some storms last night, woke up this morning and was extremely saddened,” Samantha Angel Ulleberg wrote. “Usually around this time of year I would be scoping through your post, jealous of all the beautiful storms you capture. I will be praying for all the families that were involved. I just really can't believe that you're gone.”
Wade and Peek said Williamson connected with viewers because of how accessible he made the content.
“His fan base came because he speaks in terms that people can understand,” Wade said. “When he was out there he was always streaming. He had between five or seven types of Wi-Fi and internet. He would stream wherever he went.”
Williamson had been chasing storms for about four or five years, Peek said. He said Williamson’s long-term girlfriend was caught in a tornado and injured years ago. After that, he became infatuated by weather phenomena, following storms from his home in Cassville, Missouri, down as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
Wade said Yarnall, also from Cassville, was an old friend of Williamson’s, and when he started contracting for the Weather Channel, he asked Yarnall to be his driver.
However, Williamson was driving at the time of the crash. It is believed Williamson ran a stop sign, but the crash is still under investigation, according to Sergeant John Gonzalez of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Kelley and Randy were beloved members of the weather community,” The Weather Channel said in a statement. “We are saddened by this loss and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved.”
Wade says now when he goes out to chase storms, he’s doing it for Williamson and Yarnall.
“I’m going to go chasing in remembrance of them now and for the rest of the year,” he said. “They’re going to be right beside us and be our guardian angels.”