Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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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.

To his colleagues, he was their benevolent leader and mentor. Chris Karstens, a Ph.D. at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, was just a young Iowa State meteorology student when he encountered Samaras' unflappability. A fuse had blown on the converter powering Karsten's laptop. A storm churned above.

"We didn't know how to fix it, and I was pretty new," Karstens recalls. "He came back and he was very calm and chipper and came in there and fixed it in 10 seconds. It was just the most bizarre thing. Most people are stressed out and angry, but he wasn't."

Samaras made sure his crew ate well and stayed in the best lodging to be found in the one-stoplight towns they passed through. But every chaser will tell you the pursuit exacts a price. For days, sometimes weeks at a time, they leave loved ones and place themselves at hazard — in part because they want to better understand the storms, but also because men have always taken the measure of themselves against the natural world. Though he respected these forces, by walking away with his life from hundreds of tornadoes, in some way Samaras had shown he was equal to them.

"You have to wonder, because people liken it to some supernatural force," Karstens says. "Did he get away with seeing that thing too many times? Was it just too much contorted in one way that it had to take something back at some point? I don't know."

After the 2011 tornado season, the Discovery Channel canceled Storm Chasers, and with it a significant source of funding for TWISTEX. The next year, one of the weakest seasons on record, the team was all but dormant. But as 2013 rolled around, Samaras managed to secure a grant through the National Geographic Society for lightning research. As a ballistics researcher, he'd used a one-ton camera capable of capturing 150,000 frames per second to study explosions. When the government put it up for auction, he bought the hulking device for $600. Samaras replaced the film technology with digital sensors that allowed him to capture up to a million frames per second. The "Kahuna," as it came to be known, sought the moment of contact when intricate, negatively charged fingers of light splintered out of the sky, meeting a positive charge reaching up out of the earth. Samaras pursued yet another of nature's most fleeting moments.

For now, his tornado research would remain on the back burner. Samaras brought his 24-year-old son Paul, a Star Wars geek who'd developed into a brilliant photographer and videographer. And he brought his trusted chase partner Carl Young. They crisscrossed the Corn Belt together, hunting lightning. If they chased twisters, it would be on their own time and on their own dime.


On May 19, Matt Grzych sat in gridlocked traffic in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, during a stalled chase. A mile-wide EF-5 tornado tore through the middle of town and across Interstate 35, uprooting sturdy oaks and shearing houses from their foundations. The elementary school near him was razed, killing seven children. Grzych watched as those around him panicked. Trucks sped through the median, some in reverse, while insulation rained down out of the sky. It was the first EF-5 he'd ever witnessed. He swore he'd never chase in the Oklahoma City metro area again.

Almost as soon as he'd posted about his experience on Facebook, he heard from an envious Young. "He called me up immediately, freaking out about how I got onto Moore," Grzych says. "His main thing was, 'What were you looking at in the forecast that brought you to Moore?' Carl was all about big tornadoes." Yet he'd never witnessed the strongest: For all their talent for finding tornadoes, neither Young nor Samaras had ever encountered an EF-5.

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Brantley Hargrove