Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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He remembers the way that truck could slice through the current of rain, hail and wind feeding the super-cell thunderstorm. They'd drop down ahead of the tornado, deploy devices made of hardened steel and filled with instrumentation to measure wind velocity, barometric pressure and temperature. Then they'd run as fast as the GMC could carry them.

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.

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.

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Brantley Hargrove