To his colleagues, he was their benevolent leader and mentor. Chris Karstens, a Ph.D. at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, was just a young University of Iowa meteorology student when he encountered Samaras's unflappability. A fuse had blown on the converter powering Karstens's laptop. A storm churned above.

"We didn't know how to fix it, and I was pretty new," Karstens recalls. "[Samaras] came back, and he was very calm and chipper and came in there and fixed it in ten seconds. It was just the most bizarre thing. Most people are stressed out and angry, but he wasn't."

Samaras made sure his crew ate well and stayed in the best lodging to be found in the one-stoplight towns they passed through. But every chaser will tell you that the pursuit exacts a price. For days, sometimes weeks at a time, they leave loved ones and place themselves at hazard — in part because they want to better understand the storms, but also because men have always taken the measure of themselves against the natural world. Though he respected these forces, by walking away with his life from hundreds of tornadoes, in some way Samaras had shown he was equal to them.

Team TWISTEX after Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009: Ed Grubb (from left), Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras.
Ed Grubb
Team TWISTEX after Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009: Ed Grubb (from left), Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras.
Matt Grzych in Greeley, near a Colorado State University weather-radar dome.
Anthony Camera
Matt Grzych in Greeley, near a Colorado State University weather-radar dome.

"You have to wonder, because people liken it to some supernatural force," Karstens says. "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."

After the 2011 tornado season, the Discovery Channel canceled Storm Chasers, and with it a significant source of funding for TWISTEX. The next year, one of the weakest seasons on record, the team was all but dormant. But as 2013 rolled around, Samaras managed to secure a grant through National Geographic for lightning research. As a ballistics researcher, he'd used a one-ton camera capable of capturing 150,000 frames per second to study explosions. When the government put it up for auction, he bought the hulking device for $600. Samaras replaced the film technology with digital sensors that allowed him to capture up to a million frames per second. The "Kahuna," as it came to be known, sought the moment of contact when intricate, negatively charged fingers of light splintered out of the sky, meeting a positive charge reaching up out of the earth. Samaras pursued yet another of nature's most fleeting moments. For now, his tornado research would remain on the back burner.

Samaras took his 24-year-old son, Paul, a Star Wars geek who'd developed into a brilliant photographer and videographer, with him, along with his trusted chase partner, Carl Young. They crisscrossed the Corn Belt together, hunting lightning. If they chased twisters, it would be on their own time and on their own dime.

**********

On May 19, Matt Grzych sat in gridlocked traffic in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, during a stalled chase. A mile-wide EF-5 tornado tore through the middle of town and across Interstate 35, uprooting sturdy oaks and shearing houses from their foundations. The elementary school near him was razed, killing seven children. Grzych watched as those around him panicked. Trucks sped through the median, some in reverse, while insulation rained down out of the sky. It was the first EF-5 he'd ever witnessed. He swore he'd never chase in the Oklahoma City metro area again.

Almost as soon as he'd posted about his experience on Facebook, he heard from an envious Young. "He called me up immediately, freaking out about how I got onto Moore," Grzych says. "His main thing was, 'What were you looking at in the forecast that brought you to Moore?' Carl was all about big tornadoes." Yet he'd never witnessed the strongest: For all their talent for finding tornadoes, neither Young nor Samaras had ever encountered an EF-5.

Eleven days later, violent super-cell thunderstorms were forecast near Oklahoma City. Samaras, Paul and Young met Cathy Finley and Bruce Lee in Guthrie, thirty miles to the north. They'd arrived in the Cobalt, with three turtle probes in the trunk, leaving the Kahuna back in Kansas. Looking back, some of Samaras's colleagues were surprised by his decision to use the Cobalt to attempt to deploy a probe. The four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive sedan would have been weighed down with three grown men and three heavy probes. Tony Laubach, a TWISTEX team member who'd driven one, likened it to a pizza-delivery car. "It did fine," he said. "I chased with it for many years. But it didn't handle some roads so good. It didn't handle high winds."

It was, however, economical, and TWISTEX operations were on a shoestring.

Young was a little frustrated, Finley recalls. They'd missed a strong tornado a few days before because of Samaras's research obligations, and Young was itching to see one. They weren't about to miss the setup forming over Oklahoma, predicted to explode the following day. But Finley and Lee told them they would not be joining them for this chase. They were wary of pursuing tornadoes into densely populated areas. As they'd all seen in Moore, the roads tended to get clotted with panicked people and the growing ranks of amateur storm chasers. They wished their friends luck and watched the towering clouds decay in the sunset.

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4 comments
hal0
hal0

Can't we use airborne (or non-airborne for that matter) drones to investigate tornadoes now?  They're faster, inexpensive-ish, flexible, can be designed to be disposable, and can reach any altitude along the tornado and fly right into it.  Although they may enjoy it, it seems such a waste to put people with so much knowledge in harm's way.

Chriss Hoffman
Chriss Hoffman

R.I.P. Tim and Paul, that was such a sad day. Good article on an amazing and selfless researcher who died doing what he loved, trying to learn how to predict storms and save lives a real tragedy and loss for all of us that call Tornado Alley home.

StormGroper
StormGroper

@hal0 This has actually been suggested and tested but there's a few problems with it. Because they are aircraft, the FAA has been deterring progress with it because they are worried about it causing issues with other aircraft and they will only approve of the flight of drones by people that have undergone proper pilot training and even then, they have to communicate to the FAA as a pilot while flying it. In an area with little or no cell signal it can be extremely difficult to communicate with anyone other than with CB radios. 

The other issue with drones is transportation. In order to get close enough to the tornado to get any kind of useful information, it would have to be a larger drone that is capable of dealing with 100+ mph inflow winds (not the tornado) as well as the outer circulation of the tornado itself. It would be very difficult to transport an aircraft like that that is deployable at a moments notice. Bringing a trailer is a bad idea as a lot of the time during a chase, you're on a back-country dirt road that is only big enough for a passenger vehicle to turn around (which happens frequently). 

It's a good idea but the implementation of it could take a lot of effort and the FAA isn't the easiest agency to work with.

-source; Researcher at NCAR, Meteorologist, Storm Chaser, I was also at the El Reno tornado and almost met a similar fate to TWISTEX. On a side note, a lot of my friends and colleagues knew Tim and Paul and were devastated by what happened. They were as careful as possible but this storm was not like others.

Let me know if you want to know more. I enjoy sharing information about these topics.

 
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