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Veteran Storm Chaser Among Those Killed In Oklahoma

Tornado chaser Tim Samaras shows the probes he uses when trying to collect data from a tornado. This photo was taken May 26, 2006, in Ames, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Tornado chaser Tim Samaras shows the probes he uses when trying to collect data from a tornado. This photo was taken May 26, 2006, in Ames, Iowa.

Tim Samaras had one passion in life: Tornadoes. He told The Weather Channel that when he was kid, his mother sat him down in front of The Wizard of Oz; he was immediately entranced by the violent, dark twister that tore through the landscape.

Samaras went on to become one of the premier storm chasers in the country. He was an engineer who designed probes that captured information at the base of the tornado, the part that can destroy homes and buildings in seconds.

The problem — and the exhilarating part — is that in order for those probes to work, they had to be put in the path of the tornado. It meant Samaras and his team would head out every spring to Tornado Alley in search of the mythical storms.

On Friday during one of those missions, Samaras, along with his 24-year-old son Paul and his friend 45-year-old Carl Young were caught by the large tornado that tore through El Reno, Okla.

The three of them were among the 10 people who were killed.

Storm chasers became a big part of that story early on, when we learned that the tornado flung a Weather Channel car clear across a highway. The car was totaled but everyone was OK.

Mike Bettes, one of the chasers on board, issued a statement asking everyone to "respect the weather." Nate Johnson, a meteorologist for WRAL-TV in North Carolina, responded with an ominous blog post. It was a titled: "Some day our luck will run out." It was followed by images of smashed vehicles and a map showing dozens of storm chasers awaiting the El Reno twister.

Jim Samaras, Tim's brother, announced his death on Facebook today. He said that all three died "doing what they loved": "Chasing tornados. I look at it that he's in the 'big tornado in the sky..."

That love was apparent in an interview Samaras gave National Geographic in May. Samaras described what it's like to stand in awe of a twister. He said:

"You can see in detail the tornado, the wind flow; you can actually hear it. And the sounds are different. If [the tornado is] in an open field, it sounds like a waterfall. If it's in a populated area, it becomes more of a thundering sound.

"And then actually even the smell of tornadoes—if you're in the right place, you get a strong odor of fresh-cut grass, or occasionally, if it's destroyed a house, natural gas. Sometimes you get that raw earth smell, similar to if you run a bulldozer over open land."

Two days before the top-of-the-scale EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., Samaras was in south-central Kansas. His son was in the driver's seat. The wind picked up, the barometric pressured changed. Then, stunningly, beautifully even, the deep, dark clouds start rotating, forming a funnel. Within a couple of minutes, the tornado is on the ground, its base twirling earth with unbelievable ease.

As soon as the tornado lifts, Samaras runs out of the vehicle. The wind is whipping, the sun is setting and the funnel is dancing to his right.

Samaras looks up to take in the moment and he says, "Wow!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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