Jesse Ferrell

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Tim Samaras, Other Chasers Killed in Extreme Tornadoes

June 02, 2013; 11:31 AM

UPDATE 6/11/13: I did a phone interview with Martin Lisius for AccuWeather Live 6/13; here is the raw interview audio:

UPDATE: 6/4/13: From KFOR: "The National Weather Service has just upgraded the May 31 El Reno, Union City tornado to an EF-5 with a width of 2.6 miles wide, making it the widest tornado ever documented." If this is true, add that to the list of reasons storm chasers couldn't escape it: It was the largest tornado ever, at the top of the tornado scale. There's no way to get away from that, esp. if it descends over you on the interstate. That would beat every world wind record* except the 318 mph measured during the OKC 1999 tornado. (*Doppler-On-Wheels wind speeds are not considered official, see that link for more info).

UPDATE: 6/4/13: I will be interviewing storm chaser Martin Lisius today for his comments on the tornado and the chaser deaths. AccuWeather's Mike Smith said today in a NY Times op-ed: "Storm chasing is a noble pursuit that has yielded tremendous benefits to American society." The death toll has increased from 5 on Friday night, to 13 Sunday night, to 18 today. One of those killed has been identified as an amateur storm chaser.

UPDATE: 6/3/13: Another (professional) storm chaser, Chris Novy (who created the original WX-TALK weather discussion list in the mid 1990's) took a spill into a creek and almost drowned that day in OKC.

ORIGINAL BLOG 6/2/13:

Today I am writing something I hoped I never would have to -- that storm chasers have been killed while chasing tornadoes. During an unprecedented multiple-tornado outbreak Friday night, when multiple tornadoes hit Oklahoma City and Saint Louis, Missouri, Storm Chaser & Engineer Tim Samaras was killed, along with his son Paul, and Carl Young (Tim and Carl appeared on Season 4 of Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" ).

The weather maps I present here were incredible: showing multiple tornadoes marching through the cities, tornado reports issued by weather observers at airports before they took cover, and storm chasers whose location icons went dark as the tornado overtook them.

The video above shows regional GREarth footage of radar reflectivity, warnings, local storm reports, spotter locations and observations, and around Oklahoma City and Saint Louis as multiple tornadoes moved through. Below is a local version, with NEXRAD and TDWR radar reflectivity, velocity, and NROT rotation.

From the beginning, I knew it was going to be a terrible night. I was out testing a weather station in the car (near my home here in Pennsylvania) when CNN on XM Radio said there was *another* tornado moving through Oklahoma City. After the two tornadoes that struck there less than two weeks ago (Moore and Shawnee, Okla.), it was unthinkable. I chalked it up to the media not understanding the meteorology, but when I got back home and accessed the radar data, I realized that the unthinkable was, in fact, happening.

(IMAGE: Radar at 8:54 p.m. ET, showing three Tornado Warnings, including one Tornado Emergency (double lines), rotational signatures, and an airport observation from Tinker AFB quoting a tornado as part of their current conditions report).

Three supercell thunderstorms were working their way across the city, dropping tornadoes here, there and everywhere, overwhelming storm chasers and residents attempting to evacuate in their path. It seemed to be a worst-case situation. Then the Tornado Warnings were issued for Saint Louis, Mo., and damage reports started flowing in, before the OKC tornadoes had stopped. Even Joplin, Mo., (a town flattened by a tornado in 2011) was threatened with warnings.

(IMAGE: Radar at 8:34 p.m. CT, showing a Tornado Warning (purple outline) for St. Louis metro, a hook echo indicating a possible tornado, and Severe Thunderstorm Warnings (red outlines).

(IMAGE: Half an hour later, little has changed on the radar scope.)

I watched in horror as photos emerged of the Weather Channel's storm chase vehicle, flipped and crushed by a twister (fortunately, only minor injuries to Mike Bettes and the other occupants). Reed Timmer's supposedly-indestructible "Dominator" tornado intercept vehicle lost its hood. In another video, storm chaser Brandon Sullivan's windshield is smashed as large pieces of sheet metal and hay bales hit his car. He slams on the breaks as another car crashes into the ditch beside him:

I got a bad feeling in my stomach. Disasters only reveal a portion of their damage in real time. If we'd already seen three cars damaged, the odds were low that we were going to make it out of this tornado outbreak with no storm chasers severely injured or killed.

(IMAGE: An earlier satellite shot of the storms, with the clusters of warnings around Oklahoma City.)

In the heat of that moment, I issued my first "all caps" tweet:

So what happened? Storm chasers ran out of luck in Oklahoma City Friday night, as multiple (sometimes rain-wrapped) tornadoes in a metro setting overwhelmed them. This changes everything. We may not see the changes in days or weeks, but storm chasers (and the law enforcement officials who corral them) will re-evaluate the way storm chasing works. Some chasers will reconsider their vocation and retire. Legislation could be crafted limiting storm chasing. Storm chase tour groups could shutter.

(IMAGE: Dozens of chasers and spotters crowd around the Oklahoma City storms)

You know what I hope though? I hope that we find out that Tim Samaras left a dozen of his Tornado Probes ( http://ow.ly/lCSUs ) in the path of the El Reno twister, and it tracked over every one of them. And that they provide researchers and meteorologists with a epic collection of videos and data, helping us to finally crack the mystery of why tornadoes form, ushering in a new era of longer-range tornado forecasting that allows for lives to be saved. That's the only ending that seems fitting for Tim's story.

Tim Samaras was a meteorologist, engineer and storm chaser for nearly 30 years. Tim was a nice, fun-loving guy who had a healthy respect for nature and never liked to get too close to a tornado. We had 524 mutual friends on Facebook and most of those are part of a storm chasing community which is devastate by these deaths. The Spotter Network, which transmits chaser's positions during storms, organized a rearrangement of locations that spelled out his initials this morning.

You can read more about Tim on the TwistEX website, and you can also read about Carl, whose college thesis involved placing instrumentation inside tornadoes, on the Discovery Channel website. Tim's son Paul never sought out the spotlight but was a storm photographer and took thousands of beautiful storm pictures. He was also planning on doing a documentary on his father, as a haunting Facebook post from only two months ago reads: "Okay, so let's say the possibility of doing a documentary on my dad with storm chasing is in the air. What have you always wondered about him, storm chasing or not? Anything that you would want explained/shown?"

(IMAGE: Over 26,000 lightning strikes were reported in two hours in BOTH Oklahoma City's and Saint Louis radar scopes.)

(IMAGE: Flooding was also a big problem in Oklahoma City and three people were killed by flooding in Arkansas. Here radar estimates show over 15 inches of rain in the OKC metro after the storms (which continued well into the night).

DISCLAIMER: This blog expresses my opinions only, and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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About This Blog

Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.