The storm chasers had always managed to get away. No one had ever died. But the unthinkable finally happened — and it was unthinkable because of the people involved, a veteran team of chasers led by one of the deans of the profession, Tim Samaras, 55, known for being cautious even as he stalked the world’s most dangerous vortexes.
His son, Paul, 24, was also killed, as was colleague Carl Young, 45. Precisely how an experienced team of chasers met disaster remained unclear Monday, three days after a mile-wide tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno. Eleven other people died from Friday’s tornadoes, almost all of them in vehicles.
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.
Undersheriff West said that, based on the debris field left by the Cobalt, it appears that the Samaras team was driving due east on the unimproved county road on the north side of the tornado. That would have kept the Samaras team on a parallel path — until the tornado suddenly turned to the northeast and closed on the men. “We’re never going to know, because they’re not here to tell us,” West said.
Many other motorists were also in the path of the storm, which struck near rush hour. Some were trying to flee the tornado in their vehicles. At least one local TV meteorologist had suggested that tactic. But the major highways turned into parking lots.
Among the storm chasers caught by surprise were Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and two photographers. Their SUV, emblazoned with the channel’s logo and the words “Tornado Hunt,” was tossed by the twister and left in a mangled heap in a field, though no one suffered life-threatening injuries.
“Hopefully our mishap will teach us all to respect the weather & be responsible & safe at all costs. I thought I was doing the right thing, but obviously I wasn’t. Lesson learned the hard way,” Bettes said on his Facebook page.
Samaras, who had appeared on Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” program, was never known to be reckless. He specialized in putting customized instruments into the path of storms to measure their wind velocities, pressure drops and other characteristics. He once measured the largest pressure drop ever recorded.
He also led the field campaign known as TWISTEX — Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment. Samaras also had a research interest in lightning and had designed a camera that captures 1 million frames per second to record lightning strikes.
He missed the big tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on May 20, but only because he was chasing another twister moving across the state. At one point, he got within 500 feet of it. The funnel tracked across four miles of open country and created, as Samaras put it the next day in a telephone interview with The Washington Post, “a near-perfect data set.”
In an interview with NationalGeographic.com, Samaras noted the explosion of storm chasing in recent years. “On a big tornado day in Oklahoma, you can have hundreds of storm chasers lined up down the road. Oklahoma is considered the mecca of storm chasing. We know ahead of time when we chase in Oklahoma, there’s going to be a traffic jam.”
Fellow storm chasers were struggling Monday to come to grips with the death of one of their most esteemed colleagues. The people who knew him are saying the same thing: Of all people, how could it have been Tim Samaras?
“Tim was a great chaser. It boggles my mind,” said chaser Reed Timmer.
The Samaras family — Tim’s wife, Kathy, and their two daughters — released a statement saying, in part: “Tim had a passion for science and research of tornadoes. He loved being out in the field taking measurements and viewing mother nature. His priority was to warn people of these storms and save lives. Paul was a wonderful son and brother who loved being out with his Dad. He had a true gift for photography and a love of storms like his Dad. They made a special team. They will be deeply missed. We take comfort in knowing they died together doing what they loved.”
Friday’s tragedy is unlikely to slow down the boom in storm chasing. Chris McBee, co-owner of Rapid Rotation Storm Tours — “We charge $2,800 for a week tour” — was eyeing the forecast Monday, getting ready for another busy week.
“There’s a chance of storms tomorrow, out in western Oklahoma,” McBee said. “And I intend to be out there.”
Carol Morello contributed to this report.