Three Famous Storm Chasers Were Killed in Oklahoma #twistex

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Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and their colleague Carl Young were killed yesterday when their research vehicle was crushed almost beyond recognition by a Tornado they were “chasing” in Oklahoma.

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 7.13.05 PMIf you ever watched Storm Chasers, the show on Discovery Channel (it is on Netflix) you may know of these guys. Tim Samaras’s team was “TWISTEX” … they drove pickup trucks with extremely well engineered systems for deploying “probes” that would collect data from tornadoes passing overhead. Their methodology was to get in and out before the tornado came through, and to the extent that we can figure out what was going on in real life from the Discovery Channel show, the TWISTEX team was about a 4 on the 1-5 scale of safety consciousness. For storm chasers that is. Some teams have vehicles that allow them to go into storms up to about F3 strength, and others stay way away from the storms, but TWISTEX attempted to put probes in the storm’s path but always avoided direct contact and Tim Samaras seemed especially careful.

It seems that traffic on roads in the vicinity of tornadoes had become an increasingly serious problem for storm chasers working in Tornado Alley. This was due, I think, to a lot of amateur storm chasers flocking to the vicinity where a storm was expected to drop a tornado. But yesterday was worse. According to news reports I saw yesterday, a lot of people in Oklahoma fled oncoming tornadoes in their cars rather than seeking shelter. I’m not sure what possessed them to do this. Certainly, it would not have been recommended by authorities. I’d like to find out what sort of information went around suggesting this to people … Twitter? Ignorant AM radio jockey? … or was it just massy “hysteria.” Anyway, apparently all of the deaths in yesterday’s Tornado were the result of people being in cars in stead of where they should have been. And, it appears that Tim Samaras, his son, and his colleague were killed because they were in the middle of one of these traffic jams.

Yes, people, it turns out that ignorance can be fatal.

Just so you know, a car is not the place you want to be when you are hit by a tornado.


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29 thoughts on “Three Famous Storm Chasers Were Killed in Oklahoma #twistex

  1. There were 7 storm shelters in the Oklahoma town I’m in… but the government closed them January 2013.. There are more tornados per square foot in Oklahoma than any place in the world. But the government has pretty much closed ALL the public storm shelters in Oklahoma. They blast that storm siren…but seeking shelter in no longer possible. For instance… before that giant tornado hit Moore that killed 24 people and injured hundreds.. the siren was blasting for 16 minutes before it hit… but the storm shelters had been closed and there was no place to go. The politicians should be tried for murder. They are guilty.

  2. If storm chasers know that being in a vehicle is bad, why didn’t these guys get out of their vehicle and move away and lie down?

  3. Bob, it is hard to say what happened. There isn’t any doubt that these three guys knew what to do and not do.

    I think the larger scale lesson here is to not be driving round in rain draped tornadoes to begin with. A large ran shrouded tornado like this would be impossible to see coming.

  4. “…why didn’t these guys get out of their vehicle and move away and lie down?”

    I think the difference is being in a car or truck that’s part of a giant grinding, munching, twisting machine that makes practically anything that can catch wind a missile, to being outside of the vehicle and one of those missiles.

  5. Who/what is this “government” that closed the shelters? Do you know why “they” closed them? Is this rumor?

  6. According to news reports I saw yesterday, a lot of people in Oklahoma fled oncoming tornadoes in their cars rather than seeking shelter. I’m not sure what possessed them to do this.

    Jeff Masters’ blog on the El Reno tornado included this bit: “There was one local TV station that urged residents without underground shelters to get in their cars and ‘get south’ in advance of the tornado that was approaching Oklahoma City…” As Jeff points out, basically the only time it makes sense to do this is if you are in a trailer and don’t have access to a storm shelter (at least your car has seat belts and air bags).

    Getting in your car to try to outrun a dangerous tornado sounds like something people would do in a panic. As a mass response, it guarantees a traffic jam, especially when combined with road blockages due to flooding or downed tree limbs (for similar reasons, if you are going to evacuate in advance of a hurricane you should get out early, and if you can shelter in place you should). Shame on that TV station for encouraging people to panic; the TV announcers are paid to remain cool, calm, and collected in such situations.

    Experienced storm chasers know that what they’re doing is dangerous. It sounds like Samaras and his team had no place to go when the tornado made its unexpected turn. Particularly if they were near an underpass (one of the worst places to be in a tornado, because it can create a wind tunnel effect) or in a spot that was flooding, getting out and lying on the ground may not have been an option.

  7. No shelters: “Your Tax Cuts At Work.”

    Also I suspect that Oklahoma is particularly under the thrall of religious extremist nutbaggery, ignorance of science, and right-wing anti-tax quackery, since they keep sending Senator Inhofe (notorious climate denialist) back to the Senate.

    Thus tornados are “acts of God,” and “God chooses who lives and who dies,” and all of that.

    As a technical matter, apparently Oklahoma soil is hard clay that is difficult to excavate, making underground shelters more expensive than normal. In which case the federal government should be providing additional financial resources to build the shelters.

    But IMHO the federal government should also deliver another message,loud and clear: If you don’t agree to build shelters up to FEMA specs, and then do it, FEMA will not provide disaster aid after the next one.

  8. As I watched local TV coverage of the local weather reporter suggest that persons that could not find shelter under ground to drive away to escape. That suggestion was certainly stupid and may have contributed to the local lnterstate highways becoming parking lots.

  9. As a technical matter, apparently Oklahoma soil is hard clay that is difficult to excavate, making underground shelters more expensive than normal.

    I’m told it’s more than this: the soil has a tendency to shift because of freeze-thaw and wet-dry cycles, so that having a basement (unless it’s done right, which is very expensive) tends to make your foundation less stable than if you didn’t have one. This is in a place with harsh enough winters that you would otherwise want to have a basement in your house to get your foundation below frost line. Of course, if your house has a basement, that is where you should shelter in a tornado.

    My mother grew up in a part of South Dakota that also has this issue. The house where she grew up, which had no basement, was abandoned several decades ago, since the heaving ground was (and still is) gradually causing the house to fall apart. The successor house that my uncle had built when he took over the ranch has also been abandoned, and I’m told that my cousin (who took over the ranch when my uncle died) has bulldozed the remains into what was the basement of the second house. Said cousin now lives in a trailer when he’s on the ranch (full-time ranching is no longer a viable career in that part of South Dakota, so he has kept his day job in Sioux Falls).

  10. I have yet to see a reason for not having basements that does not apply to areas where people habitually have basements.

  11. The only intelligently designed auto for chasing tornadoes was a wedge shaped vehicle I saw on the discovery channel that anchored itself in concrete so the cameras could role to make a movie.Anyone driving around in anything other than that car which i understand cost thousands more than a pickup truck is insane. There is no such thing as a tornado proof factory vehicle.With the amount of knowledge these men had collectively about air pressure someone should have pressed the panic button and stopped this crazy first to get data for the university attitude and realize that jeopardizing their life for academia is not even logical because it stops no one from bad judgement risking their life in plain old high ground clearance trucks easily flipped by air pressure .This is plain nuts!.The lesson here is if you cant afford a to take a direct hit in a much better designed vehicle which i know exists then don’t get yourself into a vehicle knowing how unpredictable tornadoes can be .Their luck ran out! Their will be more loss of life as long as people want to make money and be the first to find something to beat out someone else in tornado knowledge.Their should be laws against this type of insanity.If your vehicle can be turned over by 10 college freshman including girls,then you are not thinking clearly and are to caught up in the ooooo and awe of the experience you will also find yourself betting on your life.All these guys should pool their money and work together non competitive to build appropriate vehicles for this type of chase.It may cost half a million and must tested to withstand amazing lift and pressure but certainly would make partial sense out of these inevitable twists of fate.Tempting providence in cars and trucks thinking your past experiences with tornadoes is also clear insanity.They said it themselves but at least my plan of cooperation among scientists and years of intense testing my give them their golden egg that is costing to many lives.One life saved is worth more than dumping a million dollars into a vehicle that could actually survive assuming research shows it can do it. If I were a governor I would sign a bill tomorrow to completely stop these men from destroying themselves in completely aerodynamically insufficient cars and trucks.I hope someone involved reads this and puts an end to a dead end road. This may or may not work but it is better than watching the news and see this senseless disaster.

  12. Mike, I discuss this further here:

    and echo some of your points. It is worth noting however that the Twistex team’s MO was to avoid tornadoes, and even when the chance of a tornado hitting them was low, if they did not have certainty they would leave the area. This has kept them safe for quite a few years (though of course it is always dangerous) .

    These guys did not die because they were not being cautious, I think. There were other reasons, discussed in the post I linked to.

  13. Eric Lund: in a spot that was flooding, getting out and lying on the ground may not have been an option.

    One of the victims was a four-year-old who was swept into a river. His family had unfortunately taken shelter in a drainage ditch.

  14. Mike, these guys were adults, they knew they were taking risks, they should be allowed to do so. Don’t try to be their mom, and don’t make the goverment their mom either.

    Some people climb mountains, others go sky diving, others go deep sea diving, and these guys chased storms. Want to outlaw anything dangerous? Hell, *driving* is dangerous, lots of fatal accidents all the time.. of course it’s a necessity to get to work, go shopping etc, but maybe we should ban all pleasure trips, no more cruising or going for just a fun, unnecessary car trip, after all that too could be fatal! What’s worse, people even take their children along on a pleasure trip by car, storm chasers generally are all adults (if I saw one who took kids that close, now banning that I could agree on, but it’s probably already covered by child endangerment).

    These guys collected a lot of useful information, their information about the exact position and direction of the tornadoes helped weather stations give warnings, they did a lot more than just risk their lives for nothing. If you don’t want to do it, by all means stay at home, if you try to convince your friends to stay at home that’s fine too, but in the end leave other adults free to make their own choices. It’s not your life, not your decision.

  15. This was one of the safest storm chasing teams out there and it is tragic and sad that they lost their lives. Perhaps we should be more sympathetic and less judgemental.

    Oklahoma earth is bedrock which is very hard to excavate and very expensive, perhaps neighborhoods or counties should pool resources or have a special tax to create community shelters?

  16. Nana, absolutely, and that is a point I tried to make in my post. As far as I know, the Twistex team’s methodology actually required them to leave behind a fair number of possible data collecting opportunities because they could not be sure where the impending tornado was, i.e., because it was rain-wrapped.

    Regarding the problems of digging basements, I’m still not convinced. Having lived in upstate New York and New England, I’ve seen basements dug in all sorts of hard to dig in substrates including bedrock. Also, many regions of the country have circumstances that make basements almost always dank and even wet but they still get built.

    Community shelters are probably a good idea but tornadoes can come on very quickly. Having a way to be protected in each home is still going to work a lot better.

  17. Shocked and saddened @ the Twistex loss. Tim Samaras was an amazing scientist who always seemed to be ever cognizant of keeping his team as safe as possible given the inherantly dangerous business of storm chasing. The data he and his team have collected over the years have been invaluable and has afforded many enough forewarning to get to relative safety. We owe him, his team, and the other professional storm chasers a world of gratitude. The amateur companies and individuals need to be cognizant of the danger they put the scientists in (not to mention themselves) by creating unecessary traffic bottle necks at times when speed and maneuvering is paramount. Unfortunately, there will always be ignorant thrill seeking individuals, but the companies allowing amateurs to get into vans for the sole purpose of picture taking should not be allowed on the road. My heart goes out to the Samaras and Young families. The scientific community has suffered a great loss.

  18. Hard soil, frost-heaves, freeeze/thaw cycles, etc.: Wonderful!, a challenge to civil engineers to come up with something viable. There are some excellent universities in the area, this could keep a bunch of professors & students busy and help perk up the economy.

    These issues were tackled for building major roads across difficult regions of the midwest (I’ve read some of the technology history on this) and somehow they were solved for freeways and overpasses.

    For example: use a cylindrical plan for the basements. Think of a large piece of reinforced concrete sewer pipe standing straight upright, dug into the ground. Build it with a diameter equal to the most narrow dimension of the house floorplan; it could be poured-in-place like any other foundation & basement. Anchor it into a reinforced concrete slab in circular plan form, that matches the largest dimension of the house floorplan, and use the extra slab space for patios.

    For that matter, why keep building stick-houses that keep getting flattened? Aesthetics are subjective & malleable, and nuclear reactor domes are kinda’ cool, so a suburb consisting of concrete domes would look high tech and people would quickly get accustomed to living in rooms with round outer walls. All of this could be done on a mass-production basis just like the original stick-built suburbs.

    Given that one of the known impacts of climate change is an increase in violent storms, there’s every good reason to think outside the wooden box.

  19. G: I don’t think you’d have to go that far.

    We had a strong EF-1 tornado go through an urban-residential neighborhood in Minneapolis a couple of years ago; it was a wedge tornado so the damage area was wide and extensive. It could hardly have found a better route to hit a maximum number of homes.

    Only a few houses were destroyed by thousands were damaged. Agai, this was an EF 01 (almost a 2). But here’s the thing: For almost every house that was damaged, there was one garage that was simply made to no longer exist. In Minneapolis we pride ourselves in making our garages as minimal as possible, for some reason.

    The point here is that the North Minneapolis tornado was an excellent example contrasting construction techniques. Houses mainly built in the mid 20th century or so, built to hold snow on the roof and with basements (not sure if the basements mattered much here) mostly lost shingles; much of the severe damage was when a large tree or two was uprooted and propelled into a home. Meanwhile the garages were almost universally destroyed.

    I don’t think you need domes. You just need homes built like they build them in areas that get lot of hurricanes. Check out the typical residential home in Osaka, Japan. Osaka suffered a major hurricane that flattened many area some time ago. New homes, which are generally very nice, are built to handle a major hurricane with virtually no damage. An F3 tornado hitting those homes would probably not cause widespread destruction and death.

    Having said that the best way to get out of an F 5 tornado is still to not be in it to begin with, and the best way to do that is to go into the basement, so it overshoots you!

  20. Are there certain “tornado standards” which must be met when home/structure building in tornado prone areas (much like the earthquake standards that must be met when building on the West Coast)?
    We must keep in mind that EF5 tornados are still relatively rare and building codes, no matter how strict, cannot offer much protection in the direct line of such. In that case, I agree with Greg, being below ground would offer the only decent chance of survival.
    In regards to the “climate change” issue and increasingly violent storms, once there is irrefutable proof of such (I’m not sure we’re there yet) then simply changing building codes would not necessarily be the most cost-effective answer. This issue needs to be more seriously addressed, worldwide, to help prevent climactic disasters that may befall our planet in the future. Curing the cause would be preferable to slapping on band aids. Not only is it difficult to get the rest of the world on board (China comes to mind), but it seems to be virtually impossible to get Americans to change their massive consumption habits. It seems that none of this will be taken seriously until there is an obvious pattern of annually increasing violent storms (from coast to coast). There is compelling theory but I don’t think this pattern has yet to reveal itself.

  21. I’m not sure we need climate change to be a factor in tornado alley. Far more people are at risk of having their homes destroyed and at physical risk of life and limb, probably about twice as many today as 12 – 15 years go, owing simply to the increase in population density within tornado alley. (I could be wrong on that number but I doubt it).

    Also, no matter how you count it, and no matter what theory of climate change and storms suggests, the present decade has seen about twice the surface area affected by tornadoes compared to the previous decade (actually, more like last 12 years compared to the previous 12 years).

    So, over a 25 year time period, during which we’ve probably not changed building approaches as well (but have gotten better at warning and predicting tornadoes) we may have seen a 400% increase in tornado risk, a doubling in surface area of tornado affect (for whatever reason that may be) and a doubling of population. SO, it may be appropriate to look at building codes not because of climate change but because they were likely not gotten right the first time.

  22. Greg, you make some excellent points and they are well taken. The fact that global population continues to rapidly increase, including in adverse weather-prone areas, creates a major dilemma, indeed.
    The same can be said about people building along coastlines, and on cliff edges. It is not until major catastrophes occur do we all stop and collectively scratch our heads. Humans seem to have rather short memories, however. Wherever we may live, many of us assume the inherent risk for a particular lifestyle. Should there be a major catastrophic event along the San Andreas Fault in So. Cal or affecting the Juan de Fuca plates in the Pacific NW, I’m sure we will all be having similar discussions about earthquake building codes.
    I guess we have been relatively lucky that an EF5 tornado, the size of the recent El Reno one, has not directly hit a major populace ( like Oklahoma City). Sadly, this is probably just a matter of time. Certainly current building codes should be revisited for new structures and underground shelters really should be readily available for populations at-risk (private, or public). Retro-fitting current buildings is probably not a viable option. Living in a capitalistic society, financial burdens oftentimes trump human life. Most of us live our entire lives dodging the proverbial bullet. Maybe denial and our short memories are our real protection?

  23. SOme retrofitting is possible. For example, in some places (I think may be Minnesota) when you do certain work on your roof, you are required to add these little metal thingies that tie the rafters to the joists. Rafters mainly just sit on joists and are not joined that well to them; a strong wind, i.e., an F2+ tornado can easily make the roof turn into a flying wing . But if each joist has this metal plate attached to it, and the other end of the plate is attached to the joist, and the joist is bolted down, you get about one F level of tornado strength grace.

    People building on the coast is actually, as you point out, an even bigger problem. I’ve recently heard that it is being suggested to such land owners that they get reverse mortgages now so when their home is eaten by the sea the bank owns more of it and the “owners” have more cash. Hell, this could be the next major banking crisis!

  24. Fair enough, minor retro-fits just might buy us a little extra protection as many people may actually comply (if not financially prohibitive).
    Hmmm, reverse mortgages, eh? Fascinating (and yes, if this, indeed catches on, could very well be the next major banking crisis as you point out)!

  25. I am sure all of you have heard a multitude of times of how cautious and safe this team was. There are literally several instances as can be witnessed watching the “Storm Chasers” series not to mention the repeated testimony of several meteorologists/storm chasers to prove that Tim and his team were at the most only willing to take “carefully calculated ” risks. So their deaths had absolutely nothing to do with poor decision making on their part or over extending their safety in any way shape or form.

    Several days of reading thru a mountain of input from several sources suggest that their unfortunate demise was due to no fault of their own but rather a rare, but well known and nightmarish tornado that all storm chasers fear known as the “Right Turner”.

    From what I have been able to gather, Tim and his team were not on a main highway but rather a secondary road and that this road was not paved but mostly dirt. All who have watched the series know that chase vehicles can often (and do) get stuck in the mud or in the ditch on such roads.

    I appears that this was a North/South road with no East/West access roads nearby the estimated location of where they got hit.

    So… taking into account the teams safety record and well known cautious action the mostly likely Scenario is simply this.

    The Twistex team were paralleling the storm working on a plan of action to determine the storms predicted path to a point that the Tornado would most likely cross the road so that they get a probe planted and get to safety. They had most likely made some determination as to the destination estimate where they could get ahead of the storm, have enough time to plant the probe and get to a safe distance away from the Tornado and observe it as it hopefully passed over the probe.

    However while in route and most probably dealing with poor road conditions hampering their efforts before they could get ahead of the Tornado it took a sudden Right turn [ This was confirmed by the Known path that the storm was taking (NE) then suddenly East and the estimated point of where it hit the Twitex team.] and was most likely on them before they had enough time to react and take evasive action.

    They didn’t make any mistakes. The bottom line here is that they were the victims of a violent Tornado with sudden and unpredictable changes with the storms path.

  26. The photos of the scene show a large number of cars. Essentially, they show a traffic jam that got tipped over and mushed around.

  27. There was, indeed, the traffic jam on I40, by all reports, but I believe Steve is correct in the fact that the Twistex team seemed to be running parallel on a side road.
    As much respect and admiration as I have/had for Tim Samaras I believe he was caught completely by surprise by the suddend 45 degree jag to the right that the tornado took.
    On a past interview I seem to remember him stating that he was most concerned about the smaller tornadoes as they had a tendency to travel in an erratic manner. He voiced the belief that the larger and “more violent tornadoes” travel in a “straight line” and that “you could put a ruler on their path”.
    The rarity of such a massive, violent tornado taking such a sudden turn should leave all the remaining storm chasers/weather researchers reviewing their methodology when it comes to actually placing themselves in these storms. Hopefully the Twistex team did not die in vain, and that other researchers will have learned from this very tragic outcome and be just a little safer in the future. That said, it is a very dangerous business, indeed.

  28. Correction to above. The tornado actually took that sudden 45 degree turn to the left (not the right). Unknown factors leading to the Twistex team demise including ground conditions, traffic on the side road, ability to maneuver, etc. Also, this violent storm contained multiple vortices that were erratically dropping down. In summary, there were, no doubt, multiple factors that came into play that caught this team completely by surprise.
    Certainly the amount of “storm gawkers” (if you will) have created a most serious component of risk to weather researchers. Does anybody know if there is a direct correlation to the popular Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” program and increase in amateur videographers, and if this is why the show was ultimately pulled from the air?

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