The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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

Add to this the unfathomable velocity of sub-vortices the size of two football fields, and Samaras' 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. Barbwire 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.

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.


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.

Matt Grzych will always wonder why Samaras, Paul 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."

Their 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's 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?

These were the mysteries Samaras was working to solve. The data he gathered were fed into the collaborative engine of scientific inquiry, where weather models attempt to quantify and weight the forces known to spawn tornadoes, so better predictions might be made and earlier warnings issued. Yet the brightest minds in the field were quickly learning that not everything in the natural world can be accounted for. They know that minuscule perturbations of the atmosphere can alter the course of events dramatically over time.

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.

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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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