The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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

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 boiling 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 this 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.


Tim Samaras and Carl Young surveying damage to the Novinger, Missouri, area on May 14, 2009.
Ed Grubb
Tim Samaras and Carl Young surveying damage to the Novinger, Missouri, area on May 14, 2009.
Paul Samaras, Tim's son, posing in front of the Bowdle, South Dakota, tornado on May 22, 2010.
Ed Grubb
Paul Samaras, Tim's son, posing in front of the Bowdle, South Dakota, tornado on May 22, 2010.

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 known at least 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 onto Reuter ahead of them.

After a mile, as Robinson paused at Highway 81, he would have seen them pull up right behind him, along with the gauzy curtain of the tornado's outer circulation looming in the south. Because Young's camera was later found, we know a little about what transpired in that car for roughly 12 minutes, until the final minute or two.

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' 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 the 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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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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