The Chevrolet Cobalt driven by Samaras was found on an unimproved county road that paralleled Interstate 40. It had apparently been thrown, somersaulting, for half a mile, said Chris West, the undersheriff of Canadian County.
“It looks like it had gone through a trash compactor,” West said. “The car was probably about 60 to 70 percent of its normal size because it had been pushed and mauled and compacted as it was tumbling down the road. Like wadded up.”
Samaras’s body was found in the car, still buckled in, and the other two victims were found half a mile to the east and half a mile to the west, the undersheriff said.
The tragedy, coupled with multiple near-disasters among teams chasing the same storm — a Weather Channel crew was lofted in an SUV and deposited 200 yards away — cast new attention on the increasingly competitive storm-chasing phenomenon. So many people are racing around on the edge of severe weather that they are creating traffic jams on rural roads in Tornado Alley. Old hands worry that amateurs are getting too close to killer storms.
“Use a telephoto lens for gosh sakes. That’s what they’re made for,” said David Hoadley, of Falls Church, who has been in the business for 57 years and pursued the El Reno twister. “The fact that it could happen to someone like Tim, it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. People who chase storms need to back off a little bit. Plan for a lifetime, like I did. Take your time.”
Josh Wurman, president and founder of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., said: “People have been getting away with being more extreme. . . . I would hope it would put some damper on the escalation of daredevilness.”
John Francis, vice president for research, conservation and exploration at the National Geographic Society, which gave Samaras 18 grants over the past decade, said he fears that there are too many people jamming the roads in pursuit of twisters and that this might have contributed to Friday’s fatalities.
“It reminds me a little bit of Everest,” Francis said Monday. “When you have a few people climbing, it’s fine. If you have a bunch of people stacked up and a bad situation occurs, it can be devastating. . . . What is an important science practice and one that is informative for the public can suddenly become an opportunity for disaster.”
The funnel that chased down the storm chasers formed Friday afternoon and remained shrouded in rain and difficult to see. It was eccentric in its behavior, like many tornadoes. First, it traveled to the southeast, then shifted due east in a track paralleling Interstate 40. When it reached the north-south U.S. Highway 81, the tornado made a sharp turn to the northeast, as if following a road sign.