Three veteran storm chasers died doing what they loved: roaming the Great Plains in search of dangerous storms like the one in Oklahoma that ended their final pursuit.
Tim Samaras, his son Paul and colleague Carl Young died Friday night when an EF3 tornado with winds up to 165 mph turned on them near El Reno, Okla. After years of sharing dramatic videos with television viewers and weather researchers, they died chasing a storm that killed 13 in Oklahoma City and its suburbs.
“It’s something we’ve done countless times in the past and have done it successfully and safely,” said Tony Laubauch, who was working with Tim Samaras’ chase team Friday night. “And, you know, whatever happened on this one, it’s just horrible beyond words.”
The men’s deaths in pursuit of the storm are believed to be the first among scientific researchers while chasing tornadoes, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said.
“They put themselves in harm’s way so that they can educate the public about the destructive power of these storms,” said Chris West, the undersheriff in Canadian County, where the men died.
Tim Samaras, 54, of Bennett, Colo., had a reputation for being safe but was trapped on the highway with his son, Paul Samaras, 24, also of Bennett, and Young, 45, who taught geology at Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“I don’t know if I would say I worried about it because one of the biggest things he stressed was safety,” said Tim’s brother, Jim Samaras, who confirmed the deaths to The Associated Press. “He knew what to look for. He knew where not to be and in this case, the tornado took a clear turn toward them.”
Tim Samaras and his Twistex tornado chase team produced material for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and meteorological conferences.
“He looked at tornadoes not for the spotlight of TV but for the scientific aspect,” Jim Samaras said. “At the end of the day, he wanted to save lives and he gave the ultimate sacrifice for that.”
The Oklahoma storm that killed the three chasers developed right in front to them. Tim Samaras tweeted a photo of clouds rising through a volatile atmosphere and noted: “Storms now initiating south of Watonga along triple point. Dangerous day ahead for OK — stay weather savvy!”
It was his final tweet.
The Storm Prediction Center said in a statement Sunday that it was saddened by the deaths.
“Samaras was a respected tornado researcher and friend … who brought to the field a unique portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing and videography,” the center said.
The tornado in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” fascinated a then-6-year-old Tim Samaras, his brother said. “He didn’t give a crap about Toto, he didn’t give a crap about the munchkins,” Jim Samaras said.
Laubach said Tim Samaras, as an engineer, was interested in using storm research to make homes more storm-resistant.
“The data collected can go a long way with forecast models even down to building better structures that are able to withstand tornadic winds more,” Laubach told the AP.
The storm hit Oklahoma City during rush hour. High winds swept several vehicles off roads — including one from The Weather Channel that was tossed 200 yards and flipped without causing serious injuries.
“This is a very sad day for the meteorological community and the families of our friends lost. Tim Samaras was a pioneer and great man,” Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore tweeted Sunday.
Ed Grubb, a chaser who works with Twistex at times, told the AP that Tim Samaras did not take unnecessary risks.
“We hope that we can find out exactly what happened here so that we can have some closure and so we can better understand,” he said. “So that when other researchers are in the field, if there was a mistake, they can take the necessary actions to keep this from happening again.”
The Discovery Channel, which featured Tim Samaras on “Storm Chasers” until last year, planned to dedicate a show Sunday evening to the three men, noting they died “doing what they love, chasing storms.”
The National Geographic Society called Tim Samaras a “courageous and brilliant scientist” and posted on its website an interview conducted with him last month.
“Being close to a tornado is one of those incredible, fleeting moments that sometimes you have to take a couple of seconds to take in,” he said in the interview. He told the magazine there were probably fewer than five storm chasers who pursue tornadoes for data.
“On a big tornado day in Oklahoma, you can have hundreds of storm chasers lined up down the road,” he said. “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 Storm Prediction Center said scientific storm chasing is performed as safely as possible, with trained researchers using appropriate technology. It encouraged all, including the media and amateurs, to chase safely to avoid a repeat of Friday’s deaths.