Longform

The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

Page 7 of 7

"Everyone had that false impression in their minds, that we're too good, that we'll always beat it," he says. "As humans, we think of it as a solid object. We plan our actions around a solid object. But they're ghosts. They're in one place and can appear in another."

Their deaths have forced the insular storm-chasing community to search its soul. None from their ranks had ever died in a tornado. And this wasn't some amateur yahoo with an iPhone. Samaras was the godfather of this pursuit. Now he and the compacted hull of his white Chevy Cobalt had become the glaring evidence of their own fallibility. If so great a man could not save himself, how could any?

Yet Dan Robinson had saved himself, a fact that had not ceased to puzzle him. He had stopped and filmed the thing as it passed, barely out of its reach. He should have been poring over the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime footage his video cameras had captured from within the outer circulation of a tornado. But he couldn't bring himself to look at any of it for days.

When he finally saw those headlights, Robinson was plagued by the same questions that plagued Grzych. "I've thought about this hundreds of times," he says. "I can't imagine they were doing anything different than me. I wonder why they slowed down and got so far behind."

He's haunted by the blind randomness of it all. Had the tornado's arc been just a degree wider, he isn't so sure he would have survived. Reuter dead-ended at the next intersection. He was about to run out of road.

"There's always been chasers who pushed the limits, got too close, and I've certainly done that a few times myself," Robinson says. "You'd think maybe it should have been somebody who did something reckless or careless. It shakes you up when you realize that someone with his experience can end up in that situation."

One of things Samaras loved about the study of tornadoes was that it remains a wide-open frontier. So many fundamental questions continue to go unanswered. How much can the pressure fall inside of a tornado? Why do some mesocyclones produce tornadoes while others do not?

These were the mysteries Samaras was working to solve. The data he gathered were fed into the collaborative engine of scientific inquiry, where weather models attempt to quantify and weight the forces known to spawn tornadoes, so better predictions might be made and earlier warnings issued. Yet the brightest minds in the field were quickly learning that not everything in the natural world can be accounted for. They know that minuscule perturbations of the atmosphere can alter the course of events dramatically over time.

And perhaps that's what is so maddening about what happened to Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras, for those who knew them and for those who survived. There is no simple explanation, no single factor. As unknowable as the chain of random events that give rise to tornadoes is, so too was the series of decisions that ended three lives.

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