The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

He had an uncanny knack for finding tornadoes. Then one found him.

Much of this was well-documented on the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. But it only told part of the story. Samaras and Young were one component of a much larger endeavor. Left out was the rest of TWISTEX, a loose confederation of Ph.D.s, trained spotters and meteorologists who fanned out behind the tornadoes in Chevy Cobalts, assembling themselves into a dragnet of atmospheric measurements. As important as it was to get readings from inside tornadoes, they also needed to understand the environment that caused them to form, intensify and unravel. But that part of the operation didn't make for good TV. So the camera crew focused on Grzych, Samaras and Young, and their daredevil tornado intercepts.

The chasers were willing to get close enough to smell ripped-up grass or the scent of splintered lumber and shredded insulation given off by the twister. Once, when they ventured into Dixie Alley and found a tornado hidden inside the deep pine woods near Canton, Mississippi, Grzych pleaded with them to stay out of the trees. But Samaras had already announced that they would deploy a probe at all costs. They narrowly missed a tornado that felled timber and power lines as it crossed the road no more than a hundred yards in front of them. As Samaras surveyed homes scoured from their foundations, he told the cameras and his colleagues that this was why they chased — to feed hard data into the study of these dimly understood and deadly phenomena. The risks, for him, were worth it. Yet they were carefully calculated, and he had always managed to bring his crew out alive.

Samaras, a slight, professorial-looking man with an aquiline nose and kind eyes, was an autodidact with only a high school education. He nonetheless went on to become a star engineer at Applied Research Associates in Littleton, Colorado, specializing in blast testing and airliner crash investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board recognized him for his work on TWA flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, killing 230 passengers.

Dan Robinson, a storm chaser from St. Louis, narrowly escaped the tornado that took the lives of Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras.
Jon Gitchoff
Dan Robinson, a storm chaser from St. Louis, narrowly escaped the tornado that took the lives of Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras.
A car identical to the one Samaras and crew drove May 31, near El Reno, Oklahoma.
Ed Grubb
A car identical to the one Samaras and crew drove May 31, near El Reno, Oklahoma.

Samaras loved a puzzle, to know how things worked. And there were few greater mysteries than the titans that tore through the plains east of his home in the Colorado foothills. Samaras had nursed an interest in tornadoes since he was a boy, when he first laid eyes on the twister in The Wizard of Oz. He began chasing in his 20s, wanting only to be near them, transfixed by their terrible beauty, and by the sounds and the way they smelled. When experiencing the tornadoes was no longer enough, and his analytical mind sought questions that his eyes couldn't answer, his engineering ability and resources transformed a passing fascination into a legitimate scientific pursuit. Using a wind tunnel, he developed turtle probes that remained firmly anchored to the ground even as they took a direct hit.

They were put to the ultimate test on June 24, 2003, a couple miles north of tiny Manchester, South Dakota. Samaras jogged into a roadside ditch, hefting a probe as an EF-4 tornado bore down on him. Moments later, the tornado struck the instrument. Samaras watched from a safe remove as houses were blown apart like piles of leaves. The tornado that razed Manchester registered the steepest drop in barometric pressure on record, and it was captured on Samaras' turtle.

The finding catapulted him to fame, and Samaras seized the opportunity to advance his work. The National Geographic Society wanted to underwrite his research. He partnered with Iowa State's famed tornado laboratory. Boeing paid him to field-test hail-resistant skin for its aircraft. He found a chase partner in Carl Young, a bit-part Hollywood actor turned atmospheric science student who was quickly becoming a promising forecaster. He began collaborating with Drs. Bruce Lee and Cathy Finley, University of Northern Colorado researchers who studied the forces at work outside of tornadoes. TWISTEX was born.

The group authored peer-reviewed papers for Monthly Weather Review and the American Meteorological Society. They could lay claim to nearly every measurement taken from within a tornado. This was partially because Samaras was a brilliant engineer, but it was also because no one could read a storm quite like he could. Young excelled at choosing the right storm systems using Doppler radar, but once they sat beneath the mesocyclone, Samaras' ability to spot the signs led them to the tornado.

Samaras was an aggressive, dogged chaser, who often had to be reminded by his colleagues to stop and eat. But he was also beloved. To his children, he was the father who set up a tripod camera in front of the Christmas tree because they had demanded evidence of Santa's existence. Something "unexplained" usually happened as it filmed. He once dressed his son Paul as a ham radio for Halloween. Among Samaras' achievements, he was the first male Girl Scout troop leader in Colorado.

To his chasing friends, he was the guy who had them out to his home in Bennett, where the Great Plains met the foothills, for war stories and copious bowls of his "bunghole-burnin' green chili." He was the vaguely superstitious, empirical scientist who left a McDonald's cheeseburger on his dash every season as a sort of tornado-locating talisman. "They were probably as hard as hockey pucks by the end of the season," says TWISTEX team member Ed Grubb.

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11 comments
paizleychieko
paizleychieko

It's not May yet and I have been thinking of Tim, Carl and Pete. When I heard about the recall by GM involving Cobalts, my thoughts went there as well. Did the car have a mechanical issue? We may never know. Thanks for a nice informative article. T,C,P: I thank you for your research and bravery. 

drkilware
drkilware

Note to the editor and/or author of the article: the storm that hit Moore was on 20May and not 19May. 19May saw several tornadoes in the OKC Metro area. One that hit Edmond and places northeast of the metro area and another that hit distant OKC suburb of Shawnee where 2 people were killed.

TSofFire
TSofFire

I drove through that area the day after. The path cut across the landscape is unbelievable. Very sad event.

Obummer
Obummer

Yo ah like ta play in da low 70's. If it gets any hotter than dat ah'll stays ‘n da bar!

ladypegasus
ladypegasus

A great man and his collegues will be terribly missed. But this well written and heart-felt article is a marvelous tribute to both those lost and the power of the storms. Thank you for sharing the story.

Likeyoudidntknow
Likeyoudidntknow

Hooked in a prism. A terrible tragedy. Who would do such a thing?

Christopher Cyrek
Christopher Cyrek

This is really one of the most well written pieces of journalism I have ever had the pleasure of reading. A tip of the hat to Mr. Hargrove, and a moment of silence for the tragedy he so ably describes.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

Powerful stuff, the writing and the tornadoes.  When I heard they were in the cobalt, I thought why the hell was he in a car and not his normal truck.  tornadoes intrigue me too, I love reading about them, watching them on TV and seeing them in person, but Id never leave my house to go chase one.  Such a sad ending to someone who contributed so much to the meteorology world.  Maybe since the "king" of chasing was lost while chasing, it will bring the reigns in on the amateur tornado chasing just out for the thrill and open the roads back up to the real chasers

 
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