Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

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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.

Ahead of them, the way before Robinson cleared. Behind, through the rain-streaked window, there was nothing — no gravel road, no trees, no wheat fields, no sun or sky. It was as though the world had ended there. Nearly veiled in the tornado's half-light, brighter shapes emerged from inside and spun across the face of it.

Just south of the road, there was a thin band of sky between the mesocyclone and the earth. The ragged trailing edge was back-lit in the sun. Below it, the inflowing air feeding the tornado raced low over the plain like smoke in an impossible wind. Robinson stopped 400 yards away and stepped out of the car and looked on the thing that had nearly killed him. The post oaks along the road bowed toward the tornado as the storm drew the wind to its core. He would always question what he did next, and what he had done that day. He would come to see differently the act of stopping, pulling his video camera from the back seat and crow-hopping with the 80-mph gusts at his back, tearing a shoe from his foot. He knew he had gone out that day and met some other thing that he was not equal to. He knew it when a 2-inch hailstone opened up a bleeding gash over his left eye. He knew it when he was sheltering in the ditch and the tornado's outer circulation shattered his Toyota's rear window and waylaid the world around him.


Once the nickel-size hail had passed, Sergeant Doug Gerten of the Canadian County Sheriff's Office got out of his SUV to investigate a car sitting in a canola field, northeast of the intersection at Reuter and Radio roads. He knew it was a car only because it had a single wheel left, with the Chevy emblem on the hubcap. Otherwise, it was unrecognizable, as though it had been cubed by a salvage yard's compactor. "There wasn't a straight piece of metal on it," he says.

He could see that there was a person inside, still wearing his safety belt. He confirmed the man was dead and removed his wallet and took out the driver's license. Gerten watched Storm Chasers, and he knew exactly who Tim Samaras was. As he began his search, he found the Cobalt's motor half a mile away. He noted gouges in the wheat field south of Reuter, where the car had been driven into the soil.

Judging by where the debris field began, the car had been carried nearly half a mile before it was dropped vertically on its rear end. Somewhere in between, deputies found Young in a ditch. Paul's body wouldn't be located until early the next morning. The fire department cut Samaras out of the Cobalt, and a wrecker hauled it off. Gerten met Kathy Samaras a few days later. She had traveled from their home in Colorado, to see where her husband and her only son had died.

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Brantley Hargrove