Three researchers including a father and son who starred on the TV reality show Storm Chasers died doing what they loved on Friday night: venturing treacherously close to killer tornadoes to help the rest of us understand how they work.
Tim Samaras, founder of the tornado research company Twistex, and his son Paul Samaras were killed after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday. Their partner, Carl Young, also died.
“They all unfortunately passed away doing what they LOVED,” wrote Tim Samaras’s brother, Jim, in a post on Facebook. “I look at it that he is in the ‘big tornado’ in the sky.”
“As far as we know, these are the first documented storm intercept fatalities in a tornado,” NOAA said in a statement. “Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways.”
The tornado researchers were among 13 people killed when five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma on Friday night. Three more people drowned in floods triggered by the storms.
Tim Samaras, who was 55, spent the past 20 years zigzagging across the Plains, predicting where tornados would develop and placing probes he designed in the twister’s path in 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 radially placed 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 1 million frames per second.
Samaras’s interest in tornados began when he was 6, after seeing the movie The Wizard of Oz. For the past 20 years, he spent May and June traveling through Tornado Alley, an area which has the highest frequency of tornados in the world.
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 this video, Tim Samaras describes how watching The Wizard of Oz triggered his lifelong obsession with tornadoes:
Get Grist in your inbox