Understandably, this is a very difficult post for me to create today. Storm chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Tim’s long-time partner Carl Young, died when their chase vehicle was hit by a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma.
Tim, Paul & Carl were famous chasers. They were featured on Season 4 of the Discovery Channel’s show “Storm Chasers.” This team was the most cautious of all the chasers featured on that program. Tim would often call off a chase if conditions grew too dangerous. Carl was often at odds with Tim about calling off chases “too soon,” but he always obeyed Tim’s orders. The cautious nature of Tim Samaras makes their deaths even more shocking.
I have spent the last day trying to glean as much information as I can about what went wrong in their chase, and not to my surprise, I have found very little. Still, here is what I have been able to piece together.
As they approached “an intersection” near El Reno, the EF-3 tornado they were chasing suddenly turned. This was not the only tornado in this Oklahoma outbreak that did this. This raises a question I will address later.
Tim was broadcasting audio at this time. Apparently, an Oklahoma State Trooper was monitoring their channel. When the tornado turned into them, someone in the car shouted “We are going to die! We are going to die!” That was the last words heard from them.
Their mangled chase vehicle was found at the intersection. Tim was found inside with his seat belt fastened. Carl and Paul were found over one hundred yards away…one found on the west side of the road, the other on the east side.
Here is the question I have. Tim was very good at predicting tornado paths. How did he not see that this tornado was going to turn?
I was watching the live broadcast of this storm’s impact on KFOR in Oklahoma City. Reed Timmer was one of the chasers providing updates. Tim was not. The “mile wide” tornado that was near the south side of downtown, suddenly turned south and headed towards Moore. Apparently, everyone was caught by surprise, including Timmer. The forecast broadcaster was informed of the storm’s turn south by Timmer, who was in full shout mode…a full two minutes before the Doppler radar showed it.
I found my answer to this question in an interview between Tim Samaras and Boyd Matson via radio for National Geographic News. This interview was conducted as Tim was heading from Kansas to Oklahoma…just hours before he was killed.
Please read Boyd’s questions to Tim carefully. Tim actually answers my question as Boyd persists with his line of questioning.
I almost could not believe my eyes!
Boyd Matson: This is National Geographic Weekend. I’m Boyd Matson. It’s tornado season. The one person who knows as much as anyone about tornadoes is National Geographic grantee Tim Samaras, a storm chaser who is, right now, in his vehicle on the way from Kansas to Oklahoma because tornado season is still underway. Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim Samaras: Thanks for having me.
BM: Last year was kind of calm, but this year it’s brought back in full force just how bad tornadoes can be, and they’re frightening because you can see them coming but you’re not exactly sure where they’re going to hit.
TS: Yeah, that’s correct. And actually, the season was quiet right up until about the middle of May, and it was like a switch that came on. And all of a sudden, tornadoes were just on an incredible rampage, certainly with Moore, Oklahoma, at the top of our minds.
BM: And of course, people like you, Tim, as we’ve seen over the years, you go out looking for tornadoes. I just saw a video you shot in May, standing outside your vehicle, looking up at the sky with a huge cloud. What convinces you that it’s ok to get out and take pictures—that it won’t make a sudden turn and come right toward you?
TS: Well, when you’re out looking for these things, because they’re so fleeting and unpredictable, there’s always that chance. But I’ve been chasing these things for almost 30 years now. And not that I know exactly where they’re headed and what they’re doing, [but] I feel reasonably comfortable getting up close and personal so that we can collect measurements of these tornadoes.
And certainly the clip that you witnessed was during the final stages of a tornado that actually struck western Kansas. We’re watching the demise of this tornado right in front of our eyes. We are watching some of the winds wrap and I can predict that the tornado is basically dissipating, so at that point we were safe to get out and really observe it.
BM: Does it seem that the force of these tornadoes, as weather patterns are changing, as climate is warming, does it seem that they’re getting stronger? Are the conditions present to make the tornadoes more destructive than ever?
TS: Well, that’s the part that’s really tough to get a handle on, simply because we really don’t have a very long time history to make comparisons.
What I have personally seen over the past 20 years is it appears that a lot of the tornado activity has shifted a little bit toward the north. It may be that the tornado season gets going a little earlier than usual, and then ends a little earlier.
Typically tornado season begins somewhere in April and tapers off in late June. And what we have been finding is basically a shift, perhaps closer to March and early April, and then tornado season comes to more of an abrupt end toward the end of June.
That wasn’t necessarily true 20 years ago.
BM: One thing, though, when you’re chasing storms, and you have a pretty good idea of how they’re going to go, have you ever had one turn on you, Tim, and you just start to think, “We’ve got to get out of here”? In fact, don’t I remember you once having your keys locked in the car when a tornado was coming your way?
TS: Well, you know, as a matter of habit, in some of these newer cars, if you don’t set your system up right, you get out of your car, you slam the door shut, and then the door locks! So I have this habit, that every time I get out of my vehicle and there’s a tornado in progress, I roll the window down. I think about that very thing, and the sheer panic, and if does happen, I’m quick to find a rock to get in.
BM: So you have had them turn on you.
TS: Tornadoes, I have had them turn, especially during what we call the “rope-out” stage, which is the end of their life. Because they wrap up in a very tight, high-velocity tornado that’s on the ground and their paths are very, very unpredictable.
And I’ve seen them do a 360 or 180 and come right back at me. So we’re really careful during the rope-out stage.
Now, when they’re in what we call the mature stage, and the tornado is at its greatest strength, we find that the tornado actually tracks in more or less a straight line. That’s not always the case, but the tornadoes that we have witnessed and we have actually deployed instruments on, they actually go in a pretty good straight line.
BM: All right, Tim, thanks for updating us on these devastating forces of nature, and we really appreciate the work that you’re doing out there, trying to give us a better understanding of how they form, where they’re coming, and reminding us, if you live in Tornado Alley, you better have a tornado shelter somewhere nearby.
TS: It’s a pleasure to be on, Boyd. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Reader comments on Internet news reports of this tragedy are predictably polarized to each side of the spectrum.
Those in the know justify Tim, Paul & Carl and their chasing adventures. Their business, Twistex, invested both resources and time in creating and deploying devices that would help gather data on these super cells that spawn tornadoes. Tim was a scientist chaser.
Others say that they got what they deserved. Only fools and idiots would do something as crazy as chase storms. I was surprised by the number of comments about benefits to the gene pool due to their demise.
And predictably, it is the new thing to be scrutinized by the nanny state as an outlaw activity. Many of the news reports are skewed to this aspect of this terrible tragedy.
My personal opinion about the possible outlawing of storm chasers is “What took them so long.”
As many of you know, I have been hassled and practically arrested on virtually every storm chase I undertook. However, there were times when a policeman would question me about my business in the path of a landfalling hurricane and I would reply “I am a storm chaser.” That simple sentence would get them to leave me alone.
In the near future, that simple sentence could get you arrested and thrown into jail.
I have family and friends that storm chase. They know the risks. I know the risks. We accept the risks.
Tim Samaras, the most cautious of all storm chasers, died with his son and close friend. He knew the risks, but in the end, the worst of those risks caught up to him.
Am I lucky that I have never been hurt in a storm? Sure. Was I an idiot for being there in the first place?
Maybe not an idiot as such, but certainly a crazy mother.
My deepest condolences to the Samaras and Young families. We may have lost more than their precious lives in this terrible storm.
We may have lost some more of our liberty, too.
Time will tell.