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<h3 class="titlespan">Contact|5</h3>
<h2 class="title">Chasing the Beast</h2>
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<p class="caption">Storm chaser Dan Robinson photographed the El Reno, Okla., tornado as it crossed Reuter Road on May 31, looking back to the west just moments after he escaped its powerful force. <span class="photocred">Photo by Dan Robinson, <a href="http://rivalimaging.com" target="_blank">rivalimaging.com</a></span></p>
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<p class="lead">About 3 miles to the north, Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young, having veered away from a close call with the tornado just moments earlier on Reno Street, cruised north on Reformatory Road.</p>
<p>Samaras answered his cellphone &mdash; an apparent media call that, despite the pressures of the pursuit, he responded to with a quick assessment of what he predicted to be a &ldquo;long-lived tornado.&rdquo; As he talked, the Cobalt turned east onto Reuter Road, another of the unpaved routes that criss-cross the expanse of farm fields.</p>
<p>&ldquo;OK,&rdquo; said Young. &ldquo;Here we go. Should get a view of it again.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The chase resumed, with the TWISTEX crew tracking the tornado to the south and moving east at a good clip. Meanwhile, a shroud of precipitation descended between the tornado and the Cobalt as Young guided it along Reuter Road.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Looks like it&rsquo;s pretty well rain-wrapped now,&rdquo; Samaras said. &ldquo;In fact, it&rsquo;s hard to tell what the hell it&rsquo;s doing now. Probably just a gigantic wedge, we can&rsquo;t see it anymore. ... OK, stop sign up here.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I see it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>While Samaras chipped in driving tips and Young deflected them, they continued tracking the tornado that appeared less distinct against the gauzy wall of rain. A blast of wind shuddered the vehicle.</p>
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<p class="caption">Carl Young, left, and Tim Samaras chased tornados together for 11 years as part of the Colorado-based research team TWISTEX. The two men, along with Tim&rsquo;s 24-year-old son Paul, were among the many chasers in Oklahoma at the El Reno tornado on May 31. <span class="photocred">Photo by Marion Cunningham, Discovery Channel</span></p>
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<p>&ldquo;What a beast,&rdquo; Samaras said. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re just doing everything we can to keep up with this thing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yeah.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So we&rsquo;re probably going to have to cross 81, if this road is good,&rdquo; Samaras continued, &ldquo;and then try and drop down if we&rsquo;ve got some viable roads.&rdquo;</p>
<p>They pulled up to the intersection of Reuter and U.S. 81 behind a Toyota Yaris and watched it cross the divided highway. The Cobalt followed. Although the road was dry, rain to the south made it difficult to discern the twister&rsquo;s movement, much less the violently skittering sub-vortices within.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This thing is moving 40 miles an hour, 30-40 miles an hour to the east,&rdquo; Samaras said, sensing that the tornado&rsquo;s speed had picked up.</p>
<p>His rough calculation was nearly accurate, except for one thing: the tornado&rsquo;s rapid expansion, to a record 2.6 miles wide, effectively meant that it was closing at a much higher speed &mdash; something closer to 50 mph. The Cobalt, with four cylinders and 155 horsepower, carried three passengers, three 45-pound probes and other equipment, straining against rising winds.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now I see it,&rdquo; Young said. &ldquo;Well, maybe I don&rsquo;t.&rdquo;</p>
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<blockquote>It&rsquo;s like a bunch of rain here. In fact, uh, keep going. This is a very bad spot.</blockquote><div class="attrib">Tim Samaras</div>
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<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s like a bunch of rain here,&rdquo; Samaras said. &ldquo;In fact, uh, keep going. This is a very bad spot.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The tornado had taken a sharp turn to the north and enveloped them. Even had they been monitoring radar images broadcast by the National Weather Service, they wouldn&rsquo;t have seen this coming. The radar scans went out at five-minute intervals. The tornado turned on a dime in between scans.</p>
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<p>They crossed Alfadale Road a mile east of U.S. 81. The grid of rural byways offered no options between Alfadale and Radio roads, where the Cobalt became vulnerable to the manic sub-vortices whose wind speeds packed the most lethal power.</p>
<p>The video camera switched off.</p>
<p>By later estimates, the three men had perhaps 90 seconds to live.</p>
<p class="lead later">Like the TWISTEX folks with whom he had only a passing acquaintance, Dan Robinson minutes earlier had been tracking the El Reno tornado from the north. His route took him east along West Jensen Road, which cuts across the town&rsquo;s southern edge.</p>
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<p>As he drove, he saw the supercell thunderstorm moving southeast, pulling farther away from his path. So he veered south a mile and then turned east again on Reuter Road. Almost as soon as he made the turn onto Reuter, a white Chevy Cobalt appeared in his rearview mirror.</p>
<p>But for Robinson &mdash; absorbed in his pursuit of the tornado &mdash; this development was, at that moment, barely noticed and of no particular import.</p>
<p>He had taken a week off from his job doing website design, left his home in New Baden, Ill., and headed west for the frenetic close of storm-chasing season. This would be his last day in the field, chasing and shooting video from three cameras mounted in his car, before heading back home just outside the St. Louis metro area.</p>
<p>Robinson slowed to a stop where Reuter Road intersected U.S. 81. He judged the tornado to be about a mile and a half to the south, and briefly considered venturing closer by turning south on U.S. 81.</p>
<p>But now the tornado seemed to be closing. He pulled through the intersection and continued east. Meanwhile, the headlights of the white Cobalt rolled up to the stop sign, hesitated, and then continued on behind him.</p>
<p>About a half-mile down the road, Robinson sensed the rain curtain advancing on him in a hurry and jolted to the realization that he might be in trouble. The tornado, cloaked in precipitation, had punched the accelerator. Now Robinson did the same, but with frighteningly little effect.</p>
<p>He faced a triple-whammy: rocky road, headwinds from the tornado&rsquo;s outer circulation &mdash; sustained speeds of at least 65 mph, probably closer to 90 &mdash; and a traction-control setting on his Yaris that suddenly seemed to be working at cross-purposes to his escape.</p>
<p>The traction control, designed to keep wheels from spinning in slippery conditions, reduced his power on the yielding gravel. Robinson couldn&rsquo;t coax the car to anything above 45 mph, all the while flooring the accelerator and backing off, flooring it and backing off, while he fumbled to try to deactivate the feature.</p>
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<blockquote>I wouldn&rsquo;t say I was in full panic mode, but I was definitely very concerned. I knew this was a bad situation and I needed to get out of it at all costs.</blockquote><div class="attrib">Dan Robinson</div>
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<p>&ldquo;I wouldn&rsquo;t say I was in full panic mode,&rdquo; he said, &ldquo;but I was definitely very concerned. I knew this was a bad situation and I needed to get out of it at all costs.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He blew through three stop signs where, thankfully, there was none of the congestion that had built on other roads in the area. Where was the tornado now? Even that had faded into irrelevance. Escape was all that mattered and there seemed only one way out &mdash; forward. He did not notice that the headlights trailing him had disappeared behind sheets of wind-lashed rain.</p>
<p>Suddenly, Robinson emerged from the curtain of wind and precipitation. He drove another thousand feet or so and finally stopped to look back. Judging himself out of danger, he grabbed his camera and started shooting pictures. The tornado edged toward him. He got back in the car, drove a little farther on, stepped outside to take more photos.</p>
<p>Then the hail arrived, golf-ball size. One hailstone struck him just above his left eye, stunning him and producing a bloody gash. He dived into a roadside ditch with the split-second reasoning that if his car rolled in the sudden high winds, he didn&rsquo;t want to be near it. The hail subsided less than a minute later, but not before the car&rsquo;s rear window had been blown out.</p>
<p>That damage was recorded by Robinson&rsquo;s rear-facing camera, the same one that had captured the Cobalt driving behind him. Days later, examining the video, Robinson would watch as both cars crossed Alfadale Road. Then he would put a stopwatch to the segment. The Cobalt crossed the intersection exactly 28 seconds behind him. Its headlights disappeared from view behind sheets of heavy rain at 6:22 p.m.</p>
<p>At the time, hurt and bleeding next to his hail-ravaged Yaris, Robinson didn&rsquo;t realize exactly how lucky he&rsquo;d been. He stood alone amid the wind-raked fields of central Oklahoma, unable to see a single vehicle ahead or behind him.</p>
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<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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