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Storm chasers were dedicated tornado researchers, colleagues say

Three storm chasers killed by an Oklahoma tornado were veteran researchers, not thrill-seekers, colleagues say.

June 02, 2013|By Devin Kelly, Los Angeles Times
  • Carl Young, left, and Tim Samaras were among three professional storm chasers killed by a tornado near Oklahoma City. Samaras' son, Paul, also was killed.
Carl Young, left, and Tim Samaras were among three professional storm chasers… (Discovery Channel )

Three storm chasers killed by a tornado near Oklahoma City last week were not risk-takers or thrill-seekers, but experienced researchers dedicated to advancing the field of meteorology, family and colleagues said Sunday.

Tim Samaras, 54, was well-respected in the meteorological community and widely considered a leader in tornado research and data collection, experts said.

He died along with his 24-year-old son, Paul Samaras, and partner Carl Young, 45, while tracking an EF-3 tornado that struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday evening. The three reportedly were trapped in their car when the twister turned toward them.

PHOTOS: Severe weather

All three were known from the Discovery Channel show "Storm Chasers," which aired for five years, ending in fall 2011.

In all, 13 people died in the storms, including four children, the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said Sunday.

Oklahoma has been hit by a spate of tornadoes — eight on Friday, including five in the Oklahoma City area, and at least 19 since May 19, the National Weather Service said. On May 20, a monstrous storm rated EF-5 killed 24 people in the Oklahoma City area. EF-5, the top ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, means a storm has the power to sweep strong frame houses off their foundations and hurl automobiles more than 100 yards, the weather service says.

Tim Samaras well understood the potency of the storms he worked to capture, said his brother, Jim Samaras.

"I don't know if I would say I worried about it because one of the biggest things he stressed was safety," Samaras told the Associated Press. "He knew what to look for. He knew where not to be, and in this case, the tornado took a clear turn toward them."

The Colorado native had long-standing ties with local news stations, National Geographic and Boeing, in addition to the Discovery Channel. He founded Twistex — Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes Experiment — to better understand the formation of tornadoes and to increase warning times.

"Tim was a veteran storm chaser," said David Payne, a meteorologist with KWTV News 9 in Oklahoma City. "He's not what I call a cowboy chaser. He didn't show up once a year to go see a storm."

Young, a native of South Lake Tahoe, had worked with Samaras on collecting meteorological data since 2003, according to his Discovery Channel biography. The two chronicled more than 125 tornadoes together.

Mark Wiley, a National Weather Service meteorologist based at the agency's regional headquarters in Fort Worth, said the majority of storm chasers head out into turbulent weather as thrill-seekers, but a small minority put research first.

"Unfortunately, these three were part of the group much more interested in the research aspect of it," Wiley said.

News of the deaths spread quickly on social media.

"This is a very sad day for the meteorological community and the families of our friends lost. Tim Samaras was a pioneer and great man," Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore tweeted Sunday.

Friday's erratic twisters also swept up a Weather Channel truck, tossing it 200 yards. None of the crew members inside was seriously injured.

Mike Bettes, an anchor and meteorologist for the Weather Channel who was riding in the truck, described the storm in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

"I think this was just an erratic tornado. I think the size of it and the speed of it changed very, very quickly," Bettes said. "I think the direction of movement changed quickly. And I think there were a lot of people out there that, you know, ended up getting stuck in positions we didn't want to be in."

In an April interview with National Geographic, Tim Samaras said his work with tornadoes stemmed from his awe of a fictional twister. "I watched 'The Wizard of Oz' when I was a kid and vowed to myself, 'I'm going to see that tornado one day,'" he said. "Tornadoes have pretty much become a focus of my life."

Samaras sent his last tweet Friday afternoon: a photo of clouds gathering in the distance.

"Storms now initiating south of Watonga along triple point. Dangerous day ahead for OK — stay weather savvy!" the tweet said.

Traces of the storm moved to the East Coast on Sunday, where reports said strong winds downed trees and power lines in northern New England. The weather service issued a series of severe thunderstorm warnings in Vermont, New Hampshire and much of Maine.

In Maine, areas that have already seen 2 inches of rain in recent days were expected to receive 2 to 3 inches more, triggering a series of flash-flood warnings.

In New York, departing flights were delayed about two hours, according to the website flightaware.com.

In the South and Southwest, a chance of severe weather was predicted for western Texas and southeastern New Mexico, the weather service said. Meteorologists predicted quarter-size hail in El Paso and winds of at least 58 mph.

devin.kelly@latimes.com

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