“The ingredients are coming together for a pretty volatile day,” storm chasing legend Tim Samaras told MSNBC during a phone interview on Friday, May 31, 2013. He warned that a supercell storm, the kind that creates dangerous hail and deadly tornadoes, could be headed for the Oklahoma City area.
Those words would prove prophetic. A scientist who spent 35 years trying to understand destructive storm systems, and starred in Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, Samaras lost his life to that storm.
He wasn’t alone. The EF3 tornado that tore apart large swaths of El Reno, Oklahoma, also took the life of Carl Young, his partner on their hit show, and the life of his 24-year-old son Paul.
The Tim Samaras story is captured by fellow storm chaser Brantley Hargrove in a new book called The Man Who Caught the Storm. The quintessentially American story tracks the life of a man who didn’t just chase storms—he chased his passion. Like so many Americans, he chased his dream.
When Samaras began hunting tornadoes, he was member of a small and mostly anonymous band of scientists and misfits. He grew up in suburban Denver, and watched storm clouds pass overhead on their way to becoming tornadoes on the Great Plains. His interest in tornadoes began when he was a boy, when his mom made him watch The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado appeared, he recalled, "I was hooked!"
Samaras learned what he knew about his life’s passion the way many American innovators and inventors do—he taught himself. He started at an early age, taking apart broken appliances his father brought home. By the age of 16, he was a radio technician. At the age of 17, he became a service shop foreman.
His peers marched off to college, but Samaras—without any resume or credentials—got a job working for the University of Denver Research Institute and the defense contractor Applied Research Associate, where he did blast testing for the Pentagon and airline crash investigations. The lifelong tinkerer would use what he learned at his prior jobs to invent what would become his career.
Why did he chase storms? He answered that question in a YouTube video. “These supercells are responsible for creating the planet’s most powerful and destructive forces of nature—the tornado,” he said. “All my life I’ve been on a quest to figure out how these things work.”
Samaras had an audacious goal, one that would ultimately save lives. "Right now, the typical warning time is about 17 minutes," Samaras told reporters about the average lead time for tornado alerts. "Wouldn't it be great if that could be 30 minutes?”
For much of his career, the Holy Grail for Samaras was recording data from inside a tornado. One of the instruments he developed was designed to do just that. It was called a “turtle probe,” and got the name because it was able to stay on the ground as it took a direct hit from a tornado.
The probe was put to the test on June 24, 2003, a few miles north of Manchester, South Dakota. As an EF4 tornado bore down on him, Samaras managed to get the probe in the path of the storm—a mere 82 seconds before the tornado struck. That tornado, which destroyed the small town, registered the steepest drop in barometric pressure ever recorded. It earned Samaras a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, and catapulted him to fame. Samaras described the event as the most memorable of his career.
Soon, he was partnering with The National Geographic Society, Iowa State's tornado lab, and Boeing paid him to test surfaces of their planes. He partnered with two University of Northern Colorado researchers who studied conditions outside tornadoes. That collaboration led to the birth of TWISTEX, an acronym for Tactical Weather-Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes Experiment.
Samaras was not reckless man. His team missed the catastrophic EF5 tornado that ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma in May of 2013. It was, Samaras surmised, too dangerous to chase. He was a great engineer, but he also had an intuitive understanding of storms. His peers talked about his uncanny ability to predict the path of a tornado, allowing him to record some of the best data ever captured by storm scientists.
“At times I have mixed feelings about chasing the storms,” Samaras once confessed. “On one hand, they’re incredibly beautiful. On the other hand, these powerful storms can create devastating damage that can change people’s lives forever.”
The supercell near Oklahoma City that would take the life of Samaras, his friend, and his son was a rough one. One storm chaser told a reporter for the Dallas Observer that it was the kind of storm "designed to kill storm chasers."
Doppler imaging mapped the tornado's width at 2.5 miles, the widest ever recorded. Worse, it was infested with smaller tornadoes, some moving at speeds of nearly 180 miles per hour.
“Samaras' Chevy Cobalt was traveling east down a dirt road with the tornado to his south,” the Dallas Observer reported after the release of a postmortem on the tragedy by The American Meteorological Society. “He almost certainly didn't know that the rain-shrouded vortex was hooking toward him, to the northeast, and that he had entered its circulation.”
It turns out the fast subvortex—essentially a tornado within a tornado—was more than even Samaras could handle. Moments before they lost their lives, the terrified voices of Samaras and his son Paul could be heard shouting "We're going to die" as they tried to outrun the tornado.
"There was just no place to go,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph told USA Today. “There was no place to hide."
Sergeant Doug Gerten of the Canadian County Sheriff's Office discovered a car sitting in a field after the tornado passed. "There wasn't a straight piece of metal on it," he said. Inside the wrecked car, wearing a seat belt, was the body of Samaras. Sheriff deputies found the body of Carl Young in a ditch. His son’s body wasn’t found until the next morning. The engine of the Chevy Cobalt was found almost half a mile away.
On Sunday afternoon, just days after the tragedy, the Samaras family released a statement to grieving fans and friends. “They made a special team,” the note said of Samaras and his son Paul. “They will be deeply missed. We take comfort in knowing they died together doing what they loved.”
Samaras tracked down more than 125 tornadoes in his career.
Christopher Karstens, a storm science expert, was asked to comment on Samaras and guys like him who chase tornadoes for a living. He told the Dallas Observer:
"You have to wonder, because people liken it to some supernatural force. Did he get away with seeing that thing too many times? Was it just too much contorted in one way that it had to take something back at some point? I don't know."
Lee Habeeb is a Vice President of Content at Salem Media Group, and is host of Our American Stories, a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast.
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