Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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Eleven days later, violent super cell thunderstorms were forecast near Oklahoma City. Samaras, Paul and Young met Cathy Finley and Bruce Lee in Guthrie, 30 miles to the north. They'd arrived in the Cobalt, with three turtle probes in the trunk, leaving the Kahuna back in Kansas. Looking back, some of Samaras' colleagues were surprised by his decision to use the Cobalt to attempt to deploy a probe. The four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive sedan would have been weighed down with three grown men and three heavy probes. Tony Laubach, a TWISTEX team member who'd driven one, likened it to a pizza delivery car. "It did fine," he said. "I chased with it for many years. But it didn't handle some roads so good. It didn't handle high winds."

It was, however, economical, and TWISTEX operations were on a shoestring.

Young was a little frustrated, Finley recalls. They'd missed a strong tornado a few days before because of Samaras' research obligations, and Young was itching to see one. They weren't about to miss the setup forming over Oklahoma, predicted to explode the following day. But Finley and Lee told them they would not be joining them for this chase. They were wary of pursuing tornadoes into densely populated areas. As they'd all seen in Moore, the roads tended to get clotted with panicked people and the growing ranks of amateur storm chasers. They wished their friends luck, and watched the towering clouds decay in the sunset.

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.


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.

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Brantley Hargrove