Inside the nerve center at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma, a team of meteorologists sat around a horseshoe-shaped desk, peering into monitors, their faces bathed in the primary colors of Doppler radar imaging. Along one wall, a battery of flat-screen televisions was tuned to the Weather Channel and local news. Despite the roiling in the atmosphere west of Oklahoma City, the room was quiet.

Meteorologist Jonathan Kurtz saw a complex system of storms merging, and he needed to know where they were headed. Warm, dry air was blowing out of the Rocky Mountains and rising in their lee, leaving a void of low pressure. Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico was rushing into the void along this imaginary boundary, known as the dryline, which happened to be sitting right over central Oklahoma. The gulf air wanted to rise, but it was being blocked by a cap of dry desert air.

The atmospheric instability was building. Once it was warm enough near the surface, probably by late that afternoon, the gulf air would punch through the cap. Soon, it would meet the cold, 85-mph jet stream from the north. At the same time, the vacuum created below by its rising would draw strong southerly winds. The differences in wind speed, elevation and direction of these two currents, known as wind shear, were getting ready to set the unstable air mass spinning. That was the stuff of all super-cell thunderstorms. What alarmed the forecasters was the off-the-charts strength of its ingredients. Kurtz knew something big was about to happen on May 31.

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.


Samaras and Young lost sight of the tornado in the rain as they drove east down Reuter Road. Approaching the intersection at Choctaw, they would have at least known that it was a mile to a mile and half to their south, bearing east-southeast. They were in position. This was how they operated, parallel and northeast of the storm. When they pulled up to the intersection, they would have seen Dan Robinson driving north down Choctaw, then turning on to Reuter ahead of them.

After a mile, as Robinson paused at Highway 81, he would have seen them pull up right behind him, with the gauzy curtain of the tornado's outer circulation looming in the south.

Young's camera captured some of the action over the next twelve minutes. Samaras took a call from a reporter as Young steered along the dusty back roads. Young seemed annoyed: Samaras was supposed to be the navigator, and Young needed to know what the roads ahead looked like; they had a habit of dead-ending unexpectedly. Samaras rushed the reporter off the phone, and they began discussing their next move.

Again and again, Samaras told Young to slow down and let the tornado get ahead of them, worried it might cut them off somewhere down the road. But Young wanted to get further east, to deploy a probe ahead of it. Samaras, who always made the final call in deployment situations, didn't override him.

They commented on how poor the visibility was becoming. They sounded confused, disoriented. Samaras said he wasn't sure he could see the funnel anymore.

But it was still there, growing, hooking to the northeast and doubling in speed. It's likely they were in its outer circulation, though they almost certainly didn't realize it. Because Young put his camera down on the floorboard, there was only the sound of heavy rain, wind and their voices. No one in the car was panicking. At the end of the video, perhaps a minute or two before the tornado overtook them, Samaras said in a matter-of-fact tone: "We're in a bad spot."

Robinson's rear-dash cam tells the rest of the story. At 6:20 p.m., as Robinson fled, the thin, drifting miasma gave way to something opaque and iron-gray, moving toward the road from the south. Headlights behind him appeared to fall back a half a mile or so. They shrank farther and farther into the distance. As Robinson was pummeled by rain bands and 100-mph inflowing winds, the camera lost track of them.

A few moments later, Samaras's car crested a rise and was seen as little more than two points of light in the gathering dark. For the first time, it was as though the tornado had shed its cloak and offered the men a glimpse of itself. Its outline stood sharply against the dim horizon. Sub-vortices roped around a mile-wide column and vanished behind it.

But in a matter of seconds, it swelled to 2.6 miles wide, and its sharp edges were lost again in currents of rain. As it closed in at up to 60 mph, everyone in that car likely knew what was about to happen. Paul probably trained his video camera on the tornado right up until the very end, members of TWISTEX say. But that camera was never found.

In the last existing images of the three men alive, their headlights shone brightly as the clouds above lowered and a dark wall swallowed the horizon. They were obscured for a moment by a sheet of rain running down Robinson's rear window. They reappeared as the faintest of lights and glimmered once more. Then, in an instant, the wall moved into the road and they were extinguished.

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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.


@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.