Most tornadoes of that size maintain a fairly straight heading and make a left turn as they weaken. This tornado's arc turned sharply, growing in size, speed and intensity. The 2.6-mile-wide wedge was incredible. Inside were swarms of sub-vortices, 200-yard-wide tornadoes within the tornado, whose wind speeds approached 300 mph. It "was designed to kill storm chasers," in the words of veteran chaser Amos Magliocco.

On a recent afternoon, beneath a wide dome of sky over the Southern Plains, barbwire lay in coils in the ditch. Steel fence posts laid bent and flat against the earth. A single headlight, the kind belonging to a sedan, sat just off the road. Pieces of metal and glass glinted in the field, where the car would have been carried.

Close by, a stained wooden board had been driven into the ground and etched with initials: TS, PS, CY, all arrayed around a pair of wings with a twister in between. It said: R.I.P., TWISTEX, 5-31-13. Next to it was a bouquet of silk daisies and roses, a tiny American flag and a car's gray floor mat. For an hour, not a single car or truck passed through this remote stretch of road. There was only the sound of the wind blowing down.


Matt Grzych will always wonder why Samaras, Paul and Young were in that place at that moment. Were the winds and the weight of three men too much for the Cobalt? Did the engine fail? Did they blow a tire? Or had they simply been playing the odds for too long?

"Everyone had that false impression in their minds, that we're too good, that we'll always beat it," he says. "As humans, we think of it as a solid object. We plan our actions around a solid object. But they're ghosts. They're in one place and can appear in another."

Their deaths have forced the insular storm-chasing community to search its soul. None from their ranks had ever died in a tornado. And this wasn't some amateur yahoo with an iPhone. Samaras was the godfather of this pursuit. Now he and the compacted hull of his white Chevy Cobalt had become the glaring evidence of their own fallibility. If so great a man could not save himself, how could any?

Yet Dan Robinson had saved himself, a fact that had not ceased to puzzle him. He had stopped and filmed the thing as it passed, barely out of its reach. He should have been poring over the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime footage his video cameras had captured. But he couldn't bring himself to look at any of it for days.

When he finally saw those headlights, Robinson was plagued by the same questions that plagued Grzych. "I've thought about this hundreds of times," he says. "I can't imagine they were doing anything different than me. I wonder why they slowed down and got so far behind."

He's haunted by the blind randomness of it all. Had the tornado's arc been just a degree wider, he isn't so sure he would have survived. He was about to run out of road.

"There's always been chasers who pushed the limits, got too close, and I've certainly done that a few times myself," Robinson says. "You'd think maybe it should have been somebody who did something reckless or careless. It shakes you up when you realize that someone with his experience can end up in that situation."

One of things Samaras loved about the study of tornadoes was that it remains a wide-open frontier. So many fundamental questions go unanswered.

And perhaps that's what is so maddening about what happened to Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras. There is no simple explanation, no single factor. As unknowable as the chain of random events that give rise to tornadoes is, so too was the series of decisions that ended three lives. 

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3 comments
markp392001
markp392001

If Brantley Hargrove spent less time with five dollar words (that don't work or match the subject) and a writing style way out of his league, one might be able to actually see a better picture of what's happening in the story.Five pages of what should have been three, tops!

StLmom
StLmom

Excellent article.  And a warning lesson for all those ignorant "chasers" who think they can outrun nature.  I enjoyed Storm Chasers series but always wondered if it encouraged untrained thrill chasers to put themselves in danger.  A sad ending to a brilliant career and a dedicated scientist.

Anna Probst
Anna Probst

Good job guys. Finally something I wanted to read.

 
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