Add to this the unfathomable velocity of sub-vortices the size of two football fields, and Samaras's position to the northeast of the tornado was not survivable. "In terms of the sub-vortices' closing speed: 150 to 200 mph," Garfield says. "You don't have time to respond to that. It would literally be there and you would not know."


On a recent afternoon, beneath a wide dome of sky over the Southern Plains, untroubled by clouds, a stretch of Reuter Road still bore signs of violence. Barbed wire lay in coils in the ditch. Steel fence posts laid bent and flat against the earth. A single headlight, the kind belonging to a sedan, sat just off the road. Pieces of metal and glass glinted in the field to the south, where the car would have been carried by the counter-clockwise rotation of the tornado. Nearly three-quarters of a mile down, on the other side of the road, a car's white bumper lay in the waist-high grass.

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.

Close by, a stained wooden board had been driven into the ground and etched with initials: TS, PS and CY, all arrayed around a pair of wings with a twister in between. It said "R.I.P., TWISTEX, 5-31-13." Next to it was a bouquet of silk daisies and roses, a tiny American flag and a car's gray floor mat. For an hour or so, not a single car or truck passed through this remote stretch of road. There was only the sound of the wind blowing down out of the northeast.


Matt Grzych will always wonder why the Samarases and Young were in that place at that moment. Were the winds and the weight of three men too much for the Cobalt? Did the engine fail? Did they blow a tire? Or had they simply been playing the odds for too long?

"Everyone had that false impression in their minds, that we're too good, that we'll always beat it," he says. "As humans, we think of it as a solid object. We plan our actions around a solid object. But they're ghosts. They're in one place and can appear in another."

The three men's deaths have forced the insular storm-chasing community to search its soul. None from their ranks had ever died in a tornado. And this wasn't some amateur yahoo with an iPhone. Samaras was the godfather of this pursuit. Now he and the compacted hull of his white Chevy Cobalt had become the glaring evidence of their own fallibility. If so great a man could not save himself, how could any?

Yet Dan Robinson had saved himself, a fact that had not ceased to puzzle him. He had stopped and filmed the thing as it passed, barely out of its reach. He should have been poring over the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime footage his video cameras had captured from within the outer circulation of a tornado. But he couldn't bring himself to look at any of it for days.

When he finally saw those headlights, Robinson was plagued by the same questions that plagued Grzych. "I've thought about this hundreds of times," he says. "I can't imagine they were doing anything different than me. I wonder why they slowed down and got so far behind."

He's haunted by the blind randomness of it all. Had the tornado's arc been just a degree wider, he isn't so sure he would have survived. Reuter dead-ended at the next intersection. He was about to run out of road.

"There've always been chasers who pushed the limits, got too close, and I've certainly done that a few times myself," Robinson says. "You'd think maybe it should have been somebody who did something reckless or careless. It shakes you up when you realize that someone with his experience can end up in that situation."

One of things Samaras loved about the study of tornadoes was that it remains a wide-open frontier. So many fundamental questions continue to go unanswered. How much can the pressure fall inside of a tornado? Why do some mesocyclones produce tornadoes while others do not?

And perhaps that's what is so maddening about what happened to Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras, for those who knew them and for those who survived. There is no simple explanation, no single factor. As unknowable as the chain of random events that give rise to tornadoes is, so, too, was the series of decisions that ended three lives.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help

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.