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<h3 class="titlespan">Forecast|2</h3>
<h2 class="title">Chasing the Beast</h2>
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<p class="caption">A storm develops just before it produced a tornado near El Reno, Okla., just south of Interstate 40 on May 31. Several tornadoes in the area caused damage and injuries. <span class="photocred">Photo by Chris Machian, The Omaha World-Herald</span></p>
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<p class="lead">The early intimations of the weather event that eventually would take the lives of the three storm chasers appeared several days earlier as bending imaginary lines on a map, shifting elements wavering between unstable opposites: warm and cool, up and down, strong and weak.</p>
<p>Five days out, those lines crossed in a way that provoked both alarm and excitement. A north-south dry line, the invisible border between moist air rising from the Gulf of Mexico and the arid air pushing from the west, crossed a stationary front due west of El Reno. The setup suggested major, violent storms, Frankenstein&rsquo;s monster waiting for a convergence of optimal winds, pent-up energy and temperature to provide a life-affirming jolt.</p>
<p>Conditions had been similar in the prelude to the May 20 tornado that devastated nearby Moore, Okla., just to the south of Oklahoma City, and killed two dozen people while injuring hundreds. Now all signs pointed to May 31, when the atmosphere would be primed to explode once again in this severe weather corridor.</p>
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<p>Meanwhile, on the highways and backroads of the Midwest, other lines converged. Storm chasers, a community of severe weather junkies, plotted routes toward Oklahoma City, drawn by the promise of a meteorological performance of such magnitude that it occurs fewer than a half-dozen times a season.</p>
<p>Like many of them, Tim Samaras had been touring the region for weeks.</p>
<p>A largely self-taught scientist with a r&eacute;sum&eacute; that encompassed both academia and entertainment &mdash; and a reputation for caution and safety &mdash; Samaras in some ways seemed the last storm chaser who would run afoul of a tornado.</p>
<p>Although he had no college degree, he exhibited a rare combination of traits: the intuitive instincts of an engineer, creativity born of endless electronic tinkering, a self-taught grasp of atmospheric science and a calm that allowed him to stay focused under pressure. By marrying those qualities to an elemental fascination with storms, and producing a remarkable track record of research, Samaras became highly regarded inside and outside the storm chasing community.</p>
<p>Both academic colleagues and chasers can tick off a succession of Samaras&rsquo;s triumphs the way a baseball fan might recount the accomplishments of a star player. Bowdle, S.D., May 22, 2010. Aurora, Neb., June 17, 2009. Manchester, S.D., June 24, 2003. At Manchester, in what may be his most famous field achievement, Samaras deployed a probe in front of a tornado and gathered data indicating a world-record pressure drop within the twister.</p>
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<p class="caption">Tim Samaras, pictured in Ames, Iowa, shows the probes he uses when trying to collect data. <span class="photocred">Photo by Charlie Neibergall, The Associated Press</span></p>
<a href="javascript:void();" onClick="revealOne();"><p class="morephotos">More photos</p></a>
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<p>The indirect, practical applications of such data extend to engineering, and creating structures better able to withstand the high winds. But the holy grail of his research was to move toward understanding tornado formation in ways that would lead to greater warning times than the current average of around 13 minutes.</p>
<p>Samaras earned his respect in academia largely through his creativity and the way he designed and built his own instruments on a shoestring budget. He transformed a hulking, outdated camera into a million-frames-a-second behemoth he dubbed the Big Kahuna. He had a patent pending on a device that would measure wind speed in three dimensions. The 45-pound probes he attempted to place directly in the paths of approaching tornadoes have recorded key meteorological data and even have taken photos from within the twisters.</p>
<p>Those probes, which he nicknamed &ldquo;turtles,&rdquo; solved a longstanding problem. Previous instruments couldn&rsquo;t stand up to the high winds, but Samaras engineered a signature design that was &ldquo;as opposite of an airplane wing as you could get,&rdquo; said Bill Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University. Instead of the device blowing away or being destroyed, the design uses the force of the winds to keep it in place against the ground, facilitating data collection.</p>
<p>&ldquo;There had been government-funded research projects going back a few decades that thought they could get instruments in front of a tornado, but they never seemed to work,&rdquo; said Gallus, whose ISU program developed a relationship with Samaras that put students in the field with him during storm chasing season.</p>
<p>Chasers run the gamut, from arms-length observers to adrenaline addicts whose enthusiasm and pursuit of extreme video outpaces their judgment. But Samaras tracked supercells for more than 30 years, from long-ago day trips on Colorado&rsquo;s Eastern Plains with his younger brother, Jim, to the scientific expeditions that came to define his professional life.</p>
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<blockquote>It was about a fascination. He had a strong passion for it. He decided to go out there with minimal training, just like a lot of them did in those days. He understood enough about air currents that he knew what to look for.</blockquote><div class="attrib">Jim Samaras</div>
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<p>&ldquo;It was about a fascination,&rdquo; said 53-year-old Jim Samaras. &ldquo;He had a strong passion for it. He decided to go out there with minimal training, just like a lot of them did in those days. He understood enough about air currents that he knew what to look for.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Eventually, day trips turned into week-long roadies. Jim stayed behind, unable to break away from work, while he watched his older brother&rsquo;s interest grow into full-blown scientific inquiries. That probing, problem-solving approach drove Samaras from the time he was a kid growing up in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, transfixed by <a href="http://www.stormtrack.org/library/fringe/oz.htm" title="THE OZ TORNADO by Tim Marshall" target="_blank">annual airings of &ldquo;The Wizard of Oz.&rdquo;</a> He would walk away from the movie after the tornado scene.</p>
<p>Though barely more than an average student, Samaras loved to learn on his own. He plowed through do-it-yourself Radio Shack electronic project kits and then moved on to new challenges. One year, his father put an ad in the newspaper seeking old, free electronic equipment, then drove around picking it up in his truck before piling it in Tim&rsquo;s bedroom and telling him, &ldquo;Merry Christmas.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Most of the items were old radios, which Samaras methodically dismantled and reassembled. In the process, he cultivated an interest in ham radio, learned Morse code and, in his early teens, earned his operator&rsquo;s license.</p>
<p>After graduating from Alameda High School in 1976, he took a job fixing electronics. A few years later, he started working at the University of Denver, where he shot high-speed photographs of explosions. His affinity for photography stemmed at least in part from his dad, who did professional wedding photography when he wasn&rsquo;t managing his hobby store.</p>
<p>Before he left DU, Samaras claimed that massive old high-speed camera, an outdated analog device that shot 50,000 frames per second. He retooled it and lugged it all across the country to study lightning.</p>
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<p class="caption">Storm chaser Tim Samaras upgraded an outdated analog camera that weighed more than 1,600 pounds to a high-speed piece of equipment that shoots 1.4 million frames per second. Samaras dubbed the camera &ldquo;The Big Kahuna&rdquo; and used it as part of lightning research. <span class="photocred">Photo by Gene Blevins, Reuters</span></p>
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<p>He worked for Applied Research Associates, a scientific research and engineering firm, for a decade and honed his skills on a variety of projects, from the barometric pressure-measuring probes he would later employ in storm chasing to the crash investigation of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.</p>
<p>From there, he launched the research group known simply as TWISTEX &mdash; short for Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes Experiment. It became the definitive outlet that combined his passion for weather with his drive to tinker and build.</p>
<p>Samaras somehow always managed to lash together his talents in the pursuit of both making a living and his passions. He invested in real estate. Jim showed him how to &ldquo;flip&rdquo; houses. Two years ago, he found an ideal property for himself and his wife, Kathy &mdash; a foreclosure on some acreage out on the Eastern Plains in Bennett where he&rsquo;d have plenty of room and could put up radio and weather towers without irking the neighbors. Plus, he had room for a full machine shop where he could breathe life into his ideas.</p>
<p>In recent months, Paul, who shared his parents&rsquo; house in Bennett, had become a fixture on TWISTEX road trips as his budding interest in photography and videography merged with his father&rsquo;s passion for severe weather. But while Tim already had attained standing, Paul remained a promising work in progress. Though quiet and shy, Paul had begun to emerge from his shell as his work distinguished itself.</p>
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<p class="caption">The TWISTEX crew engages in a friendly snowball fight just north of Campo, Colo., on May 15, 2010. Pea- to marble-sized hail had fallen in the area. <span class="photocred">Video by Ed Grubb, Special to The Denver Post</span></p>
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<p>Earlier in May, the Samarases and Young had chased storms across Tornado Alley as part of an official TWISTEX mission. But the last week in May, Tim began three weeks doing lightning research for National Geographic, which had funded Samaras&rsquo; field work 18 times over the years.</p>
<p>They had a heavy truck that held the equipment, including the Big Kahuna, for the sessions shooting lightning. But they also brought along another vehicle from the TWISTEX fleet, a Chevy Cobalt dubbed M3, a smaller and more gas-friendly vehicle often used as part of their storm chasing team.</p>
<p>On MSNBC, just hours before the May 31 weather system exploded on the Oklahoma plains, Tim Samaras&rsquo; voice over the phone <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ntVV6CelW0" title="Tim Samaras' last telephone contact from Oklahoma - YouTube.com" target="_blank">explained to the news anchors</a> &mdash; and to the viewing audience &mdash; in plain language what the coming day held.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Right now, the skies are fairly clear,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;We do not have storm initiation, but we fully expect storm initiation probably within the next two or three hours. Boy, the ingredients are coming together for a pretty volatile day.&rdquo;</p>
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<div id="peopleTimS" class="reveal-modal people-modal infobox">
<img class="bio-mug" src="./img/portrait-tim-samaras.jpg">
<h2>Tim Samaras</h2>
<p>The Colorado-based storm chaser founded the meteorological research group dubbed TWISTEX.</p>
<p>A self-taught engineer without college degrees, his career spanned both serious science and celebrity as one of the leading characters in the Discovery Channel show, &ldquo;Storm Chasers.&rdquo;</p>
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<h2>Paul Samaras</h2>
<p>The son of Tim Samaras and photographer/videographer for TWISTEX, Paul and his quiet, creative personality quickly grew in stature among storm chasers as his passion for capturing images merged with his father&rsquo;s passion for studying tornadoes.</p>
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<h2>Carl Young</h2>
<p>The adjunct professor at a community college also worked as an avid environmentalist and 11-year TWISTEX partner to Tim Samaras. His ability to find &ldquo;hidden nuggets&rdquo; in weather patterns made him a highly regarded forecaster, while his effervescent personality made him the life of the party.</p>
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<h2>Ed Grubb</h2>
<p>The Thornton, Colo.-based storm chaser and longtime colleague of Tim Samaras had a lesser role in the TV &ldquo;Storm Chasers&rdquo; series but remained a frequent chase partner. He toured Tornado Alley with the Samarases and Young until just days before the El Reno twister.</p>
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<h2>Gabe Garfield</h2>
<p>The Norman, Okla.-based storm researcher followed the El Reno tornado in the field and made a narrow escape from its path. Later, he compiled radar data, video images and other information to help reconstruct the twister&rsquo;s path and its intersection with the TWISTEX team.</p>
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<h2>Marc Austin</h2>
<p>The Norman, Okla.-based National Weather Service forecaster issued the tornado warnings that preceded the May 31 El Reno twister. He manned the NWS desk as the tornado ripped across a rural patch of central Oklahoma.</p>
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<h2>Erik Fox</h2>
<p>The Waurika, Okla.-based storm chaser had toured &ldquo;Dixie Alley&rdquo; with good friend Carl Young earlier in the spring. In the wake of the El Reno tornado, Fox helped organize the volunteer search for the belongings of the TWISTEX crew.</p>
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<h2>Dan Robinson</h2>
<p>A storm chaser from New Baden, Ill., Robinson narrowly escaped the violence of the El Reno tornado. His vehicle preceded the TWISTEX vehicle down Reuter Road by a mere 28 seconds and his video proved crucial in providing clues to the fate of the Samarases and Young.</p>
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<h2>Bruce Lee</h2>
<p>A senior atmospheric scientist at WindLogics, Inc., in Grand Rapids, Minn., Lee worked with TWISTEX for several years on various tornado projects. He and his wife, Cathy Finley, both formerly taught at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.</p>
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<h2>Cathy Finley</h2>
<p>A senior atmospheric scientist at WindLogics, Inc., in Grand Rapids, Minn., Finley met Tim Samaras at a 2005 workshop and determined their research efforts complemented each other. She and her husband, Bruce Lee, both previously taught at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.</p>
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