Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

Page 6 of 7

"You've got to admire the lady," Gerten says. "She's held up better through this than I would have."

At a memorial in Littleton, Colorado, she said she didn't know how she was still standing.

From time to time over the next month or so, Gerten drove down that stretch of Reuter, looking for the equipment he knew must still be out there. On July 3, he caught sight of a small black object, half submerged in the creek. He stopped, clambered down into water that was only a few inches deep, and came up with Young's camera.


The following day, Gabe Garfield of the National Weather Service set out from Norman with a team to pore over a savaged landscape. He found, however, that little had actually been damaged, primarily because the tornado had passed through the unpopulated farm country. What wreckage in its path he did find merited the twister a middling EF-3 rating. Yet for all the drama of ruined homes and broken trees, the most incredible evidence he saw was in high-resolution Doppler images collected by the University of Oklahoma's RaXpol mobile radar system.

Most tornadoes of that size maintain a fairly straight heading and make a left turn as they weaken. This tornado arced to the southeast, riding the southern edge of the mesocyclone. It was then slung-shot sharply northeast, growing in size, speed and intensity as it turned. It became so powerful that it pulled the tornado cyclone — the wall cloud itself — to the ground sometime after it crossed Highway 81.

The 2.6-mile-wide wedge was incredible, but its winds weren't all that powerful. Inside of it, though, were swarms of sub-vortices, 200-yard-wide tornadoes within the tornado, whose wind speeds approached 300 mph. Combined with the way it wreathed itself in rain drawn from the mesocyclone it orbited, this tornado, in the words of veteran chaser Amos Magliocco, "was designed to kill storm chasers."

Garfield believes that from their position to the north of the tornado, Samaras, Paul and Young didn't see it coming through the rain until it was too late. "I did the calculation. If you're spanning from a mile to two and a half miles wide in five minutes, it adds another five to 10 mph to your effective speed. So, if you're talking 45- to 50-mph actual storm motion, what you're ending up with effectively is a 55- to 60-mph closing speed. That's highway speed that the edge of the tornado is coming at you, and your expectation is for speeds of 20 to 30 mph. If you think you have five minutes based on what your expectation of the scenario is, you actually only have two and a half minutes to get out of there."

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.


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?

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brantley Hargrove