Tim Samaras, one of the world's best-known storm chasers, died in Friday's El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado, along with his 24-year-old son, a gifted filmmaker, according to a statement from Samaras's brother.
"They all unfortunately passed away but doing what they LOVED," Jim Samaras, Tim's brother, wrote on Facebook, saying that storm chaser Carl Young was also killed. "I look at it that he is in the 'big tornado in the sky.'"
Tim Samaras, who was 55, spent the past 20 years zigzagging across the Plains, predicting where tornadoes would develop and placing probes he designed in a twister's path to measure data from inside the cyclone. (Read National Geographic's last interview with Tim Samaras.)
"Data from the probes helps us understand tornado dynamics and how they form," he told National Geographic. "With that piece of the puzzle we can make more precise forecasts and ultimately give people earlier warnings."
Samaras's instruments offered the first-ever look at the inside of a tornado by using six high-resolution video cameras that offered complete 360-degree views. He also captured lightning strikes using ultra-high-speed photography with a camera he designed to capture a million frames per second. (See stunning videos shot by Samaras.)
Samaras's interest in tornadoes began when he was six, after he saw the movie The Wizard of Oz. For the past 20 years, he spent May and June traveling through Tornado Alley, an area that has the highest frequency of tornadoes in the world. He worked with his son Paul, who was known for capturing cyclones on camera.
The Samaras team used probes that Tim designed to measure the pressure drops within the tornadoes themselves. But the work could be frustrating. Tornadoes developed from only two out of every ten storms the team tracked, and the probes were useful in only some of those tornadoes.
When the probes did work, they provided information to help researchers analyze how and when tornadoes form.
"This information is especially crucial, because it provides data about the lowest ten meters of a tornado, where houses, vehicles, and people are," Samaras once said.
In 2003, Samaras followed an F4 tornado that dropped from the sky on a sleepy road near Manchester, South Dakota. He deployed three probes in the tornado's path, placing the last one from his car a hundred yards ahead of the tornado itself.
"That's the closest I've been to a violent tornado, and I have no desire to ever be that close again," he said of that episode. "The rumble rattled the whole countryside, like a waterfall powered by a jet engine. Debris was flying overhead, telephone poles were snapped and flung 300 yards through the air, roads ripped from the ground, and the town of Manchester literally sucked into the clouds.
"When I downloaded the probe's data into my computer, it was astounding to see a barometric pressure drop of a hundred millibars at the tornado's center," he said, calling it the most memorable experience of his career. "That's the biggest drop ever recorded—like stepping into an elevator and hurtling up a thousand feet in ten seconds."
Samaras received 18 grants for fieldwork from the National Geographic Society over the years.
"Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena," said Society Executive Vice President Terry Garcia in a statement on Sunday. "Though we sometimes take it for granted, Tim's death is a stark reminder of the risks encountered regularly by the men and women who work for us."
Samaras is survived by his wife Kathy and two daughters. The Samaras family released a statement on Sunday asking for thoughts and prayers for both Tim and Paul:
"We would like to express our deep appreciation and thanks for the outpouring of support to our family at this very difficult time. We would like everyone to know what an amazing husband, father, and grandfather he was to us. Tim had a passion for science and research of tornadoes. He loved being out in the field taking measurements and viewing mother nature. His priority was to warn people of these storms and save lives. Paul was a wonderful son and brother who loved being out with his Dad. He had a true gift for photography and a love of storms like his Dad. They made a special team. They will be deeply missed. We take comfort in knowing they died together doing what they loved. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers."
—Kathy Samaras, Amy Gregg, Jennifer Scott
Jim Samaras told 7NEWS in Denver, Colorado, that his brother Tim was "considered one of the safest storm chasers in the business.
"He knew he wasn't going to put him[self], his son, or anyone else that was with him in the line of danger," said Jim Samaras. "He enjoyed it, it's true." Jim went on to praise the technology Tim developed "to help us have much more of an early warning." His brother's passion was "the saving of lives," Jim Samaras reflected, "and I honestly believe he saved lives, because of the tools he deployed and developed for storm chasing."
Severe storms photojournalist Doug Kiseling told CNN: "This thing is really shaking up everyone in the chasing community. We knew this day would happen someday, but nobody would imagine that it would happen to Tim. Tim was one of the safest people to go out there."
Discovery Channel: "We are deeply saddened by the loss of Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and their colleague Carl Young who died Friday, May 31st doing what they love: chasing storms." (Discovery Channel)
7NEWS chief meteorologist Mike Nelson: "Tim was not only a brilliant scientist and engineer, he was a wonderful, kind human being. If anyone could be called the 'gentleman of storm chasing,' it would be Tim. He was iconic among chasers and yet was a very humble and sincere man." (Facebook)
|Born||Timothy Michael Samaras|
(1957-11-12)November 12, 1957
Lakewood, Colorado, U.S.
|Died||May 31, 2013(2013-05-31) (aged 55)|
El Reno, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Cause of death||Tornado incident|
|Known for||Tornado field research|
|Children||Paul Samaras (deceased)|
|Institutions||Applied Research Associates|
Timothy Michael Samaras (November 12, 1957 – May 31, 2013) was an American engineer and storm chaser best known for his field research on tornadoes and time on the Discovery Channel show, Storm Chasers.
Samaras was born November 12, 1957 in Lakewood, Colorado, to Paul T. and Margaret L. Samaras. Paul (1925-2005) was a photographer and model airplane distributor who was an Army projectionist in WWII. Tim assisted in the photography and shop work. Margaret was born in 1929 and died in 1996. His mother talked him into watching an annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz at age six. "When the tornado appeared," he recalled. "I was hooked!" It was the scene where the sky was black and got darker. The hens began to go around in circles and the horses ran out of the barn. Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and their three farmworkers were shouting as well as clutching on to their hats. Bundles of weeds blew past, then whole small trees. A wide black swirling column loomed on the horizon. It howled like an express train. Dorothy and Toto struggled to get through the gate. But no sooner were they safe in the farmhouse when the window fell in, and the entire house took off into that storm, tumbling through the inky clouds. He attended Lasley Elementary and O'Connell Junior High in Lakewood, before graduating from Alameda High School in 1976. In his twenties, he began to chase storms "not for the thrill, but the science."
Samaras was an autodidact who never received a college degree. He became an amateur radio operator at age 12 and built transmitters using old television sets. As an adult he held an Amateur Extra Class license, the highest amateur radio class issued in the United States, and was proficient in Morse code. He communicated by amateur radio when chasing storms and was also a storm spotter, reporting sightings of hazardous weather. At 16, he was a radio technician and was service shop foreman at 17. Immediately out of high school and without a résumé, he was hired as a walk-in at the University of Denver Research Institute. He obtained a Pentagon security clearance by 20, testing and building weapons systems.
Samaras became a prominent engineer at Applied Research Associates initially focusing on blast testing and airline crash investigations. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recognized him for his investigations of the TWA Flight 800 crash. His research included high-speed photography, such as on ballistics. He also worked at National Technical Systems and Hyperion Technology Group.
In addition to tornadoes, he was interested in all aspects of convective storms with particular research focus on lightning, for which he utilized cameras shooting up to 1.4 million fps. An accomplished photographer and videographer, another research method was photogrammetry, with some footage derived from cameras in probes shooting from within tornadoes. Samaras also shot for art and for pleasure. He was an avid amateur astronomer and also interested in electronics and inventions.
Samaras was the founder of a field research team called Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes EXperiment (TWISTEX) which sought to better understand tornadoes. His work was funded in large part by the National Geographic Society (NGS) which awarded him 18 grants for his field work.
Samaras designed and built his own weather instruments, known as probes, and deployed them in the path of tornadoes in order to gain scientific insight into the inner workings of a tornado. With one such in-situ probe, he captured the largest drop in atmospheric pressure, 100 hPa (mb) in less than one minute, ever recorded when a F4tornado struck one of several probes placed near Manchester, South Dakota on June 24, 2003. The accomplishment is listed in the Guinness World Records as "greatest pressure drop measured in a tornado". The probe was dropped in front of the oncoming tornado a mere 82 seconds before it hit. The measurement is also the lowest pressure, 850 hectopascals (25.10 inHg), ever recorded at Earth's surface when adjusted for elevation. Samaras later described the tornado as the most memorable of his career. Samaras' aerodynamic probes were a breakthrough design for survivability inside tornadoes. A patent was pending for instrumentation measuring winds in 3D. Samaras held a patent, "Thermal imaging system for internal combustion engines", with Jon M. Lesko.
Samaras and his team logged over 35,000 miles (56,000 km) of driving during the two peak months of tornado season each year. When asked, Samaras said that the most dangerous part about following tornadoes is not the actual storms themselves, but rather the road hazards encountered along the way. In total, he tracked down more than 125 tornadoes during his career. His colleagues considered him to be one of the most careful chasers in the business.
Beginning in 1998, Samaras founded and co-produced (with Roger Hill) the National Storm Chasers Convention, an annual event held near Denver and attended by hundreds of chasers from around the world. Samaras's widow, Kathy, revealed in her first news interview since his death that she will continue ChaserCon, which consistently attracts luminary scientists and chasers as speakers. In 2005, he was named an "Emerging Explorer" by the National Geographic Society. From 2009 until the show's cancellation in 2012, Samaras was a featured personality on the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. He also worked for Boeing, doing field testing on hail-resistant skins for aircraft, and for the federal government during his career. According to Eileen O'Neill, president of the Discovery networks, Samaras' work was directly responsible for increased warning times ahead of tornadoes.
Samaras coauthored, along with Stefan Bechtel and Greg Forbes, Tornado Hunter: Getting Inside the Most Violent Storms on Earth (ISBN 978-1426203022), in 2009. Samaras authored or coauthored around one dozen scientific papers. He also contributed to Storm Track magazine. He appeared in major pieces in National Geographic in April 2004, June 2005, August 2012, and November 2013. He was also widely interviewed by news stations, newspapers, and magazines and appeared in documentaries.
See also: 2013 El Reno tornado
In the spring of 2013, TWISTEX was conducting lightning research (including with a high-speed camera) when active tornadic periods ensued in mid to late May, so Samaras decided to deploy atmospheric pressure probes and to test infrasound tornado sensors that were still under development. At 6:23 p.m. on May 31, 2013, Samaras, his 24-year-old son Paul (a photographer), and TWISTEX team member Carl Young (a meteorologist), 45, were killed by a violent wedge tornado with winds of 295 mph (475 km/h) near the Regional Airport of El Reno, Oklahoma. The TWISTEX vehicle was struck by a subvortex, which generate the highest winds and some of which were moving at 175 mph (282 km/h) within the parent tornado. Their Chevrolet Cobalt was distinguishable as a vehicle to the first responding sheriff's deputy only due to its single intact wheel, as it had been compressed into a ball of metal after the tornado tumbled it approximately one-half mile (0.8 km).
The tornado was sampled by University of Oklahoma RaXPol radar as 2.6 miles (4.2 km) wide, the widest tornado ever recorded. The true size of the multiple-vortex tornado confused onlookers by its mammoth proportions containing orbiting subvortices larger than average tornadoes and its expansive transparent to translucent outer circulation. The strong inflow and outer circulation winds in conjunction with rocky roads and a relatively underpowered vehicle also hampered driving away from the tornado. The tornado simultaneously took an unexpected sharp turn closing on their position as it rapidly accelerated within a few minutes from about 20 mph (32 km/h) to as much as 60 mph (97 km/h) in forward movement and swiftly expanded from about 1 mile (1.6 km) to 2.6 miles (4.2 km) wide in about 30 seconds, and was mostly obscured in heavy precipitation, all of which combined so that several other chasers were also hit or had near misses. It was the first known instance of a storm chaser or a meteorologist killed by a tornado.
Even before it was known that Samaras, his son, and Young had been killed, the event led many to question storm chasing tactics, particularly in close proximity to tornadoes. In addition to the three TWISTEX members, the tornado took the lives of five other people, including local resident Richard Charles Henderson who decided to follow the storm.
Atmospheric scientists and storm chasers embarked on a major project to gather information and analyze what happened regarding chaser actions and meteorological occurrences. A makeshift memorial was established at the site soon after the incident and a crowdfunded permanent memorial is under development, spearheaded by Doug Gerten, the deputy who first found the vehicle wreckage. A permanent memorial was later established and this monument was vandalized in late March 2016. The monument was struck by bullets and the American flag was cut away from the flagpole.
Meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issued a statement saying they were very saddened by Tim's death. "Samaras was a respected tornado researcher and friend ... who brought to the field a unique portfolio of expertise in engineering, science, writing and videography," read the statement. Severe weather expert Greg Forbes called Samaras "a groundbreaker in terms of the kind of research he was doing on severe thunderstorms and tornadoes". Meteorologist Jim Cantore remarked "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."National Geographic remarked "Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena." On Facebook, Samaras' brother said he died "doing what [he] LOVED. Chasing Tornadoes". On June 2, Discovery dedicated "Mile Wide Tornado: Oklahoma," a special about the May 20 Moore, Oklahoma tornado, to the memory of Samaras and his TWISTEX colleagues.
Samaras is survived by his brothers Jim and Jack, wife Kathy, two daughters, two grandchildren, and a son from a previous relationship, Matt Winter. His memorial service was held on June 6, 2013 at Mission Hills Church in Littleton, Colorado.
Samaras and his wife Kathy had three children — Paul (November 12, 1988 - May 31, 2013), Amy Gregg, and Jennifer Scott. The family lived on 35 acres near Bennett, Colorado, at the time of his death. The open space enabled Tim to erect amateur radio and other towers and provided ample room for workshops. He learned of the property through real estate investment work that he did on the side and to which his brother Jim introduced him. Samaras had another son, Matt Winter, whom he had only learned about seven years before Samaras' death and who was welcomed into the family. Winter was also fascinated by weather and was informed by his mother that Tim was his father after he heard Samaras speak at the 2006 Severe Storms and Doppler Radar Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
In 2011, Samaras took time off chasing to help build homes in Alabama for victims of tornadoes earlier that year. According to O'Neill he worked "from dawn to dusk" with "the same dedication and focus he brought to his meteorological work".
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