Friday’s tornadoes to batter the Oklahoma City metro area were bad enough already. You had a mother and child being sucked out of their vehicle, thrown and killed. Noted Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist Mike Bettes’ team was thrown and rolled 200 yards but survived.
And now we learn that pioneering storm chaser/researcher Tim Samaras, his son, Paul, and his partner, Carl Young, were all killed in the El Reno twister.
I think a lot of people are going to dismiss what the Samaras TWISTEX project was doing — I’ve already seen the headline, “You Play With Fire, You Get Burned” — and a lot of people already question the sanity of what Samaras and fellow chasers/researchers like Reed Timmer, Sean Casey and others are doing when they try to get into the paths of such monsters, if not right inside the beasts themselves. I’m torn because the ground-level research side is apparently crucial to figuring out why tornadoes form (or don’t), and unfortunately the only way to get that is by going into harm’s way. And that’s the flip side. Having chased for years before being moved to the co-anchor chair at KVOE (and having several small funnel clouds dance overhead in various episodes)…if you don’t know what you’re getting into before you chase, you’re either very, very naive or very, very stupid.
And even if you do know what you’re doing, you can’t be prepared for everything. Mother Nature threw a massive curveball at a host of stormchasers and people stuck on OKC-area highways on Friday when the twister got sucked into the mesocyclone, by all accounts, meaning it turned sharply to the northeast and likely strengthened.
The next two graphics show the tornado’s track at the likely point where it met the Samaras vehicle and the slew of chasers in the immediate vicinity of the El Reno twister.
What makes this so unnerving to everybody in the severe weather community is because it was this crew that perished. Tim Samaras was so careful with his approach to each individual situation (during the last two years of the Discovery Channel’s Stormchasers show, he was criticized for being too cautious). Their deaths are believed to be the first for a chase team in action. We all thought it would be the less-experienced, the yahoos who call in to National Weather Service offices saying they have wedge tornadoes bearing down when there is no chance of any tornadic activity, the idiots who block highways and fight with law enforcement or rescue personnel trying to save lives. The last people we thought would be on the list of chase deaths — let alone being the first on the list — were Tim, Paul and Carl.
The aura of invincibility among storm chasers as very much like that of teenagers. That aura has now been shattered, much like a tornado-thrown 2-by-4 going through a glass window. If it hasn’t something’s wrong. Because this will happen again with a bigger, more powerful tornado taking out more storm chasers and researchers. It may not be for years, but this will happen again.