Carl Young, left, and Tim Samaras watch the sky. The two were killed along with Tim Samaras' son May 31 in an Oklahoma tornado.
(Photo: The Discovery Channel via AP)
Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
The adrenaline-soaked thrill of stalking a twister is best displayed by the countless videos spawned when storms approach -- jittery images from a hand-held camera with the breathless voice-over of a storm chaser in the background.
But Friday night those voices turned to panic. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph says she could hear the audio from storm chasers trapped on Oklahoma highways as a tornado bore down.
"They were screaming, 'We're going to die, we're going to die,' " she recalls. "There was just no place to go. There was no place to hide."
The burgeoning community of storm chasers was shaken over the weekend by news that one of their most esteemed members, veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras, 55, along with his son, Paul Samaras, 24, and chase partner Carl Young, 45, were killed by a tornado in El Reno that packed winds of up to 165 mph. They were among 13 killed in storms Friday in Oklahoma.
The storm chasers' deaths have cast into stark relief the hazards for those who choose to place themselves near lethal tornadoes.
"He (Tim Samaras) was a really well-respected researcher and he was not at all considered someone who was reckless. And so that's why this is so surprising," says Cameron Redwine, 32, a storm chaser and photojournalist from Denver.
Tim Samaras founded TWISTEX, the Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes Experiment, to help learn more about tornadoes and increase lead time for warnings, according to its official website. Samaras' field work was supported by the National Geographic Society.
"Thank you to everyone for the condolences. It truly is sad that we lost my great brother, Tim, and his great son, Paul," Jim Samaras wrote in a statement posted on his brother's Facebook page. "Our hearts also go out to the Carl Young family as well as they are feeling the same feelings we are today. They all unfortunately passed away but doing what they loved."
Samaras' crushed vehicle was found along a road running south of and parallel to Highway 40 just outside El Reno, Okla., leading authorities to speculate he was tracking the tornado as it was heading east before suddenly turning south, says Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West. One body was found inside the wreckage, a second about quarter-mile east and a third a quarter-mile west, West says.
STORY: Deadly tornadoes, floods strike Oklahoma
Storm chasers have become a staple of weather coverage on cable TV networks such as The Weather Channel, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. The practice involves individuals driving equipment-laden vehicles as close as possible to potential tornadoes and other violent weather, sending live video feeds and eyewitness accounts as storms approach and unleash their fury. Storm chasing puts the participants at risk.
In recent years, their numbers have expanded far beyond scientific researchers or professional weather reporters.
"There are thousands of storm chasers across the country now, all parts of the country," Weather Channel severe weather expert Greg Forbes says.
They hold conventions. Tour companies with names such as Extreme Chase Tours or Weather Gods have sprung up promising, for a price, to deliver anyone seeking a thrill to the doorstep of a tornado. Videos on their sites are a pantheon of twisters and dark skies with hard-driving rock music in the background and a voice exclaiming: "This is what it's all about right here."
The proliferation of storm chasers, particularly those armed only with a video camera and a taste for thrill-seeking, has left law enforcement and many veteran storm followers concerned about growing safety risks.
"When they put themselves in harm's way to chase the storms for whatever the reason," says Trooper Randolph, "they make it harder for us because then we're having to work around more people on the highway, more people that we're trying to rescue. And, sometimes, they end up being part of the problem."
Already, groups are suggesting that the deaths Friday could lead to re-evaluation of storm-chasing tactics.
"It is too early to say specifically how this might change how we cover severe weather, but we certainly plan to review and discuss this incident," says David Blumenthal, a spokesman for The Weather Company, parent company of the Weather Channel. Three members of The Weather Channel staff were in an SUV that was sent tumbling some 200 yards by the storm Friday, leaving one occupant hospitalized with broken bones, Forbes says.
"I hope there are lessons learned from this tornado," he says, "that people realize that if they're going to go out storm-chasing, that they could die. There's no guarantee that they're going to be able to escape the tornado."
The Capital Weather Gang, The Washington Post's weather coverage team, criticized storm chasing in a post this weekend headlined "The day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever."
Forbes says there have been times when so many vehicles were chasing a tornado that drivers were getting in each other's way, all while a dangerous funnel cloud roared nearby.
"Storm-chasing is not something to be taken lightly. Sometimes you chase the tornado and sometimes you get in a position where the tornado chases you," he says.
Still, there remains significant value in on-the-ground reporting of tornadoes, Forbes says. Storm chasers can confirm the sighting of funnels and whether they have reached the ground. Skilled storm analysts such as Tim Samaras, who was killed Friday, can provide valuable data about a phenomenon around which many mysteries still remain.
In addition, viewers find most credible the first-hand accounts of a tornado in their area, Forbes says, and will choose to seek shelter as a result.
"There's tremendous amount of value from spotters and storm chasers," he says. "There is concern that law enforcement agencies or government agencies might outlaw or seek to curtail chasing activity because of the few bad behaviors or just too much road congestion."
It is certainly perilous work. In the Oklahoma storm Friday, the tornado that was about a mile wide crossed interstate highways where traffic was jammed and motorists were unable to get away. Forbes says GPS readings confirmed there were probably two dozen storm-chasing vehicles in the area at the time.
Redwine -- who was not in Oklahoma for the storm, but has chased tornadoes for 16 years -- says the lure of one of these monsters is powerful.
"There are others, like me, who are just absolutely fascinated by it," Redwine says. "They are as equally beautiful and awe-inspiring as they are dangerous and destructive."
In an online video about his work, Tim Samaras tries to explain his passion for the storms. "I'm not sure exactly why I chase storms. Perhaps it's to witness the incredible beauty mother nature can create," he says. "All my life I've been on a quest to find out how these things work."
Contributing: Trevor Hughes; the Associated Press