We knew that some storm chasers had been killed in Oklahoma last week but were not aware that storied storm chaser, Tim Samaras, one of the highly-respected stars of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers television series, was one of the victims of the May 31, 2013 twister. The 2.6-mile wide twister (the widest tornado in history) that formed Friday near El Reno, Okla., was shrouded in rain and moved in an eccentric, quick turning path toward the east. The tornado overtook Samaras and his team who found themselves caught up in traffic during rush hour. Among the 13 reported fatalities were veteran tornado researcher Tim Samaras, 55; his son, Paul, 24; and colleague Carl Young, 45.
Samaras, who had appeared on Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” program, was considered one of the most cautious storm chasers on the show – sometimes even appearing comically overly cautious. He specialized in putting instruments, some handcrafted and customized, into the path of storms to measure their wind velocities, pressure drops and other characteristics. He missed the big tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on May 20, but only because he was chasing another twister moving across the state (which he got within 500 feet of).
Samara knew the risks of tornado chasing, and prophetically told National Geographic that he had concerns with the crowds of chasers and the resulting traffic jams they created.
“On a big tornado day in Oklahoma, you can have hundreds of storm chasers lined up down the road. Oklahoma is considered the mecca of storm chasing. We know ahead of time when we chase in Oklahoma, there’s going to be a traffic jam.”
The twister caught other storm chasers by surprise too, including Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and two photographers. Their SUV, emblazoned with the channel’s logo and the words “Tornado Hunt,” was tossed 200 yards by the twister. The driver, Austin Anderson, suffered multiple broken bones and will need surgery.
Tim Samaras was found inside his specially-rigged Chevrolet Cobalt car, on an unimproved road about half a mile away from Interstate 40 where he was last seen, with his seatbelt still on. The car was said to be 60-70% of its normal size after the tornado picked up their car and threw it, somersaulting, a half a mile. Paul and Young were thrown from the car, one found half a mile to the east and the other half a mile to the west.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph heard the teams’ frantic calls over the police scanner. She recalled hearing the men screaming:
“We’re going to die, we’re going to die. There was just no place to go. There was no place to hide.”
According to Chris West, undersheriff of Canadian County:
“It looks like it had gone through a trash compactor,” West said. “The car was probably about 60 to 70 percent of its normal size because it had been pushed and mauled and compacted as it was tumbling down the road. Like wadded up.”
Here is Tim Samaras’ official biography.
Mr. Tim Samaras has led, designed, and fielded complex instrumentation research efforts over the past 30 years. More notably he has participated in the TWA crash investigation by performing numerous scale model fuel tank explosions, the Oklahoma City bombing, and studying new techniques of explosive countermeasures. Samaras’ background includes extensive research work in energetic materials including velocity measurement within explosives, blast pressure, high-speed acceleration, and stress/strain measurements. Mr. Samaras is considered an expert in high-speed camera imaging, utilizing photographic techniques that captures imagery to over 1 million frames per second. Samaras’s work has been recognized by The National Geographic Society, which awarded him the honor of ‘Emerging Explorer’ in 2005 for his research studies of tornadoes. Samaras has designed instrumented probes to measure the pressure drop of tornadoes for measurements of tornado strength. These hardened probes are designed to be placed in the paths of tornadoes, thus the tornado passes over the top for numerous precision measurements including static pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. One such measurement includes a 100 millibar pressure drop in a violent tornado in South Dakota on June 24th, 2003. To date, Samaras is the only individual ever to accomplish this task. In the past few years, he has been the field coordinator for TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in-near Tornadoes EXperiment) in the pursuit of gaining a better understanding of the near-surface internal tornado environment and insight into the thermodynamic and kinematic conditions in the proximity of tornadoes. Samaras has also been heading summer season campaigns to capture lightning on ultra high speed video to better understand the attachment point of the stepped leader/return stroke. Finally, he as recently co-authored with Steven Bechtel the book Tornado Hunterwhich is published by National Geographic.
Check out more Tim Samaras pics in the photo gallery below.