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‘You can only roll the dice so many times:’ Tim Samaras lived life like a twister

Transient, mystical and deadly. Tornadoes can happen any time, but they ramp up in the spring, when outbreaks typically terrorize large portions of the country. Despite their brevity, their violent winds leave lasting scars on the landscape and in the lives of those touched.

While most folks will never see a twister, caravans of storm hunters find them every year. Hundreds or thousands of chasers might be active in the Great Plains at any given moment during peak tornado season, but only a handful have plopped themselves close enough to feel the storm’s heartbeat.

Tim Samaras was one of those storm chasers. His death on May 31, 2013 in El Reno, Okla., at the hands of the widest tornado on record, was hard to fathom. It still is. He and his crew — including his son Paul and his chase partner Carl Young — were legends. We were stunned — this couldn’t happen to them. Not to Tim.

The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras is the story of a guy that sought adventure and knowledge. A man ultimately taken before his time, but not before he changed a field that he forced his way into.

Brantley Hargrove, the book’s author, is a storm-chasing journalist from Texas. In “The Man Who Caught the Storm,” he takes the reader not only on a journey through the remarkable life of engineer-explorer Samaras, but also through the beautifully desolate roads of the Plains while on the chase.

As I eagerly flipped the pages, I couldn’t help but feel like parts were about me. I am quite sure other storm-watchers will feel the same. Although I did not know Samaras personally, after reading “The Man Who Caught The Storm,” I can imagine myself having a laugh with him at a waypoint of the “wandering brotherhood,” as Hargrove aptly calls it.

Samaras first felt the spark as a child at home in Colorado. A snaking funnel cloud sparked a curiosity that grew into passion. Passion became obsession, and the rest is history.

Many compare chasing to mountain climbing, primarily because both are their own version of extreme. While I can tell you chasers are considerably less fit, there are some real parallels, particularly the potential for injury or death. Unlike today’s mountain climbers, chasing is not just for the accomplishment or the thrill.

In fact, storm chasing’s roots are in universities and government research. While there are many amateur “rubberneckers” on the roads during severe weather, the pastime originated in the need to study severe storms up close. Samaras was one of those researchers.

Despite their importance in unlocking the mysteries of what Native Americans called the “Black Wind,” observations close to a tornado remain sparse today. Actually getting data from inside a tornado was unheard of except in Hollywood takes on tornado research. Until Samaras.

One of his partners was Cathy Finley. When they met, Finley was a former professor living in Minnesota doing research as a private meteorologist. One of the things that drew Finley to Samaras was the idea of getting observations from his vehicle.

“Nobody collects data there,” Finley jokes in the book, “unless it’s by accident.” The prospect of strapping a weather observation tower to the top of the car excited Finley immensely.

Samaras was an outsider initially lacking pedigree in a field of highly-educated scientists. Hargrove describes some of the tension Samaras felt that may have at times nudged him to push the envelope. Early in “The Man Who Caught The Storm,” Hargrove describes Samaras as someone who “taught himself how to read a weather map and how to identify the morphological features of storms.” Later, Hargrove wrote, “[h]e believed he could teach himself anything he needed to know.” We see throughout the book that Samaras is nothing if not a go-getter.

There were signs Samaras knew he was playing nature’s version of Russian roulette by repeatedly standing in the path of nature’s most severe winds. Hargrove describes a particularly hairy chase in Stratford, Tex., in 2003.

“Tim knows they don’t belong here,” Hargrove writes, “but this is what it takes.”

That was the storm which got Tim’s early chase partner, Anton Seimon to call it quits on close encounters with a tornado. In the book, Seimon is quoted stating, “you can only roll the dice so many times, before things go wrong.”

So is it hubris, or is this what researchers on the cutting edge of science sometimes have to do?

Hargrove argues Samaras was seeking answers to big questions in hopes of bettering society. History is replete with the deaths of men and women who had similar desires, and the willingness to walk the tightrope between life and death is part of a particularly American quality. We believe we can conquer anything if we try hard enough.

That drive has helped us unleash life changing and lifesaving technology. This seems to have been Tim’s goal.

Hargrove is one today’s great science writers. His book delivers once it gets going. Some early slowness is simply the subject matter when there are no tornadoes. Chasing has its moments, and then a lot of other time is spent with a bunch of geeky (mostly) guys meandering through nowhere.

The book will surely enthrall chasers, and it will find a special spot in the hearts of many meteorologists. Everyone can follow along and stay captivated with ease. So, sit back and take a journey through America’s heartland with one of chasing’s legends.