The Dark Wall: Legendary tornado chaser Tim Samaras' last ride

The Dark Wall: Legendary tornado chaser Tim Samaras' last ride
Ed Grubb
Team TWISTEX after a May 13, 2009, Kirksville intercept. From left: Ed Grubb, Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras.

Before it came for him, Dan Robinson watched the thing grow. It began as a bolus that descended out of the storm, projecting needlelike vortices that lanced the wheat fields. Columnar towers 100 yards wide gathered and darkened against the pale light, unspooling into wispy coronas that moved across the prairie beneath the two-and-a-half-mile-wide wall cloud above.

It was a little after 6 p.m. on May 31. Dozens of storm chasers were navigating back roads beneath a swollen mesocyclone that had brought an early dusk to the remote farm country southwest of El Reno, Oklahoma. Robinson, a website designer and chaser from St. Louis, jumped into his compact Toyota and sped east. He peered out at the tornado, now wrapping itself in rain so dense that he struggled to make out its leading edge. He swore it was moving farther away. If he got out ahead of it, he reasoned, he might get a better look.

For seven miles, he raced the tornado over dirt roads. It spanned close to a mile, but it would have looked like a shapeless wall of torrential rain to the untrained eye. The last time he'd had a good bead on the funnel, it was tracking east-southeast. Now, as he drove south, he could tell something had changed. It was nearly imperceptible, the way mountains loom larger as you drive toward them. But in 30 seconds, the darkness on the horizon was filling his entire field of vision.

"I'm getting too close," he said to himself.

His view to the south was wide open, a country of buffalo grass, red cedar and scrubby blackjack oak. He glanced out of the passenger window, but he couldn't find the tornado's outline. That was worrisome. Robinson didn't like getting in front of tornadoes he couldn't see.

He rolled up to Highway 81 but stopped. The mass was already passing over. Robinson drove across the highway's four lanes and picked up a gravel road. He caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.

A gray, vaporous curtain swept toward the road ahead of him.

At the heading and speed he thought the tornado had been traveling, there was no reason it should be this close. Yet his windshield was lashed by bands of rain. A darker form took shape in the south. Robinson blew through the stop sign. The heavy rains slackened, and in that moment he knew he should not be there.

The curtain overtook him again and the rain came faster, with a sound against his windshield like stones against glass. His Toyota lurched to the side in 100 mph gusts and began fishtailing in the gravel, causing the car's traction control to cut power to the wheels. He backed off on the accelerator to override it. He did this again and again, never maintaining a speed faster than 42 mph.

He punched through swirling eddies of rain. His windshield wipers couldn't clear the water. He drove on, blind.

If he had looked at his rearview mirror, he would have seen the headlights of a white Chevy Cobalt. Inside was Tim Samaras, one of the country's most respected tornado scientists, who had built his career by placing sophisticated probes in the paths of oncoming tornadoes. These devices, which he called "turtles," took measurements from inside the storms. No chaser could claim as many intercepts.

Samaras had an uncanny ability for finding twisters and escaping them with his life. But the monster hiding in the rain that day was something he had never encountered. What neither Robinson nor Samaras could have known was that in seconds it had grown from 1 mile to 2.6 miles wide, making it the largest tornado ever documented. And it was tearing toward them across open wheat fields at highway speed. The difference between escape and incomprehensible violence was measured in hundreds of yards. And while Robinson never looked back, his rear-facing dash camera did, capturing the last living images of a legend.

To ride with Tim Samaras and his expert forecaster, Carl Young, was to ride with the "big boys," as Matt Grzych puts it. For two seasons, Grzych ventured with them beneath mesocyclones, the rotating masses of air that stretch for miles overhead and often spawn tornadoes. In a crew-cab GMC truck outfitted with a winch, chain saws and a mobile weather station, they'd run them down.

He remembers the way that truck could slice through the current of rain, hail and wind feeding a supercell thunderstorm. They'd drop down ahead of the tornado, deploy devices made of hardened steel and filled with instrumentation to measure wind velocity, barometric pressure and temperature. Then they'd run as fast as the GMC could carry them.

Much of this was well documented on the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. But it only told part of the story. Samaras and Young were one component of a much larger endeavor. Left out was the rest of TWISTEX, a loose confederation of PhDs, trained spotters and meteorologists who fanned out behind the tornadoes in Chevy Cobalts, assembling themselves into a dragnet of atmospheric measurements. As important as it was to get readings from inside tornadoes, they also needed to understand the environment that caused them to form, intensify and unravel. But that part of the operation didn't make for good TV. So the camera crew focused on Grzych, Samaras, and Young, and their daredevil tornado intercepts.

Next Page »