Three storm chasers among 13 killed by Oklahoma tornadoes

Cary Dehart photographs tornado damage at Canadian Valley Technology Center's Aviation Technology building in El Reno, Oklahoma June 1, 2013. REUTERS/Bill Waugh
Cary Dehart photographs tornado damage at Canadian Valley Technology Center’s Aviation Technology building in El Reno, Okla. on Monday. Credit: Reuters

Three storm chasers were among 13 people killed by tornadoes that rampaged through central Oklahoma on Friday, underscoring the high risk of tracking tornadoes and forcing the media to rethink how they cover deadly twisters.

Tim Samaras, 55, a leading storm chaser and founder of the tornado research company Twistex, was killed in the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno along with his son, Paul Samaras, 24, and Carl Young, 45, a Twistex meteorologist, according to a statement from Tim Samaras’ brother, Jim Samaras.

“He’s mostly going to be remembered as somebody who tried to help save lives,” Jim Samaras told Reuters, saying his brother had done a lot of research and innovative work with probes and other instruments placed in the path of twisters to gather data.

“He died doing what he loved and literally put his life on the line to save others,” he said.

Five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma and caused flash flooding 11 days after a twister categorized as EF5, the most powerful ranking, tore up the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore and killed 24 people. Severe storms also swept into neighboring Missouri, while Moore experienced only limited damage this time.

Oklahoma’s Medical Examiner on Sunday put the state’s death toll at 13, including four children. Authorities in neighboring Missouri said there had been at least three deaths on Friday in flooding triggered by the violent storms.

As usual, so-called storm chasers closely tracked the storm to measure its power, gather research and take video to feed the television and Internet appetite for dramatic images.

“It is too early to say specifically how this tornado might change how we cover severe weather, but we certainly plan to review and discuss this incident,” said David Blumenthal, a spokesman for The Weather Channel, for which Tim Samaras and Young had worked in the past.

Three employees of the channel suffered minor injuries when their sport-utility vehicle was thrown about 200 yards by the winds while tracking the El Reno storm on Friday.

In a field known for risk-takers seeking the most dramatic images of tornadoes, Samaras was seen as a cautious professional whose driving passion was research rather than getting the “money shot,” said friend and fellow storm chaser Tony Laubach.

“Tim Samaras was the best there was and he was the last person you would think this would happen to,” said Laubach, a photojournalist who had been storm chasing with Samaras since 2007.

“It’s going to bring everybody down to earth. A lot of chasing has been getting very, very careless, and Tim is not a careless person. He is as nimble and skilled as he could be.”

In interviews, Samaras said he had been enthralled by tornadoes ever since childhood when he was forced to watch the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the central character is swept into another world by a tornado.

“That tornado was the best part of the entire movie,” he told The Weather Channel in 2009. “From that day, I was hooked for the rest of my life.”

Samaras founded Twistex, based in Colorado, to collect temperature, humidity, pressure and wind-speed data with the goal of increasing lead times for tornado warnings. Some of his research was funded by the 18 grants he received over the years from the National Geographic Society.

“Tim was a courageous and brilliant scientist who fearlessly pursued tornadoes and lightning in the field in an effort to better understand these phenomena,” Society Executive Vice President Terry Garcia said in a statement Sunday. “Tim’s death is a stark reminder of the risks encountered regularly by the men and women who work for us.”

Carl Young had been chasing storms with Samaras since 2003, according to his biography on the Discovery Channel website.

Both men were featured in the Discovery Channel series, “Storm Chasers,” and had contributed to The Weather Channel.


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