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<h3 class="titlespan">Reckoning|6</h3>
<h2 class="title">Chasing the Beast</h2>
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<p class="caption">A memorial sprouted on the edge of Reuter Road, just east of Radio Road, where the TWISTEX team&rsquo;s white Chevrolet Cobalt was found in a farmer&rsquo;s field. The TWISTEX storm chasing crew of Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young died May 31. <span class="photocred">Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post</span></p>
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<p class="lead">On Saturday, June 1, Tim Marshall got a call from the National Weather Service asking him to help survey the damage wrought by the tornado that ripped through the mostly rural area south of El Reno, Okla., the evening before.</p>
<p>Marshall, a renowned forensic engineer and meteorologist who lives in Dallas, had been in the area chasing the turbulent weather &mdash; and like many others, found himself fleeing the sudden jukes of the massive twister.</p>
<p>When the tornado became cloaked in rain, Marshall sought to keep a buffer between himself and the circulating curtain of precipitation known as the Bear&rsquo;s Cage. He didn&rsquo;t want to be overtaken, because &ldquo;that means you&rsquo;re inside with the bear.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But from his vantage point moving parallel to the rain, he figured he was fine. And then the tornado took a sudden left turn and headed northeast.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The chaser became the chasee,&rdquo; Marshall said. He couldn&rsquo;t stop to shoot video. He couldn&rsquo;t stop for anything. He drove east as quickly as possible until the tornado passed behind him.</p>
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<p class="caption">The tornado made its way across the Oklahoma landscape about 4 miles south of the town of El Reno near an area where two other men were killed before the tornado turned and hit the TWISTEX team about 3 miles from this intersection. <span class="photocred">Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post</span></p>
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<p>It was a matter of a few minutes that seemed like forever.</p>
<p>The tornado pirouetted, performing a tight, counterclockwise loop, and followed Interstate 40 due east about four miles until its path squiggled and died, finally spent after 40 minutes at 6:43 p.m., at the intersection of the interstate and Banner Road.</p>
<p>The next day, Marshall traced the tornado&rsquo;s track looking for evidence of destruction that would offer clues to its intensity, which would then be rated from 1 to 5 on a measurement known as the Enhanced Fujita scale, which he helped develop. The problem with twisters of the El Reno variety is that they occur largely in wide-open, rural spaces where structures are relatively few and far between &mdash; in stark contrast to, say, the Moore, Okla., tornado 11 days earlier that had leveled portions of that city.</p>
<p>Strictly from a damage standpoint, El Reno looked like an EF3. It had destroyed 20-odd houses and some other structures. Marshall remembered thinking that houses must have been hit, because at one point during the storm he saw insulation falling like pink snow. But generally there was a sense of relief that it had missed highly populated areas &mdash; and the panic-clogged highways around Oklahoma City &mdash; where results could have been catastrophic.</p>
<p>Still, debris littered acres of thigh-high wheat.</p>
<p>When Marshall saw the remnants of a vehicle near the intersection of Reuter and Radio roads, he knew immediately that if anyone had been inside when the twister lit into it they would not have survived. In fact, a sheriff&rsquo;s deputy told him three people who&rsquo;d been in that car had died.</p>
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<p class="caption">Storm chaser and researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul &mdash; both of Bennett &mdash; and longtime research partner Carl Young of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., died after this car was overtaken by the El Reno, Okla., tornado. <span class="photocred">Photo by KWTV News 9</span></p>
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<p>Marshall took a closer look at the vehicle, trying to determine a make or model. Only when he opened the glove compartment and found an owner&rsquo;s manual did he identify it as a 2009 Chevy Cobalt. He noted the information, but even then, the vehicle represented only an abstract tragedy.</p>
<p>Gabe Garfield, the storm researcher who had narrowly dodged the tornado, also was among those working on the damage survey. He, too, came across the white Cobalt, took photos and transmitted them to the Norman, Okla., office of the National Weather Service.</p>
<p>There, forecaster Marc Austin, already back at work after the adrenaline-charged night before, looked at the pictures but didn&rsquo;t register any glimmer of recognition. Still, the images stayed with him.</p>
<p>Later on Saturday, the social network connecting storm chasers shifted from rehashing the El Reno chase to the first speculative rumors that some of their own might have been among the casualties.</p>
<p>Word spread quickly.</p>
<p>Austin had fallen asleep around 10 p.m. when he was abruptly awakened by a text message asking him to call immediately. But before he could punch in the number, Garfield called, asking if he&rsquo;d heard about any fatalities from the El Reno tornado. Austin said that he&rsquo;d heard about deaths in some vehicles, rumors that perhaps storm chasers had been among them.</p>
<p>Garfield paused on the phone, gathering himself. He said there was speculation that the TWISTEX crew had died. Austin&rsquo;s heart sank while his wife Sharon, there beside him, broke into tears. But even as Austin cautioned that they should wait for confirmation, the image of the Cobalt flashed in his mind.</p>
<p>He had talked earlier to Ed Grubb, who like many folks found it curious that no one had heard from the Samarases or Young since the El Reno twister. Austin remembered that Grubb told him that they were on a lightning project, and were driving a large vehicle to accommodate the high speed camera &mdash; nothing they would take on a chase.</p>
<p>But they also had taken a scout vehicle. Austin knew the TWISTEX scout vehicles were Cobalts. The image of the wreckage again flashed in his head &mdash; now indelible.</p>
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<p>On Sunday, Jim Samaras, Tim&rsquo;s younger brother, released a brief statement on Facebook confirming the fears that had permeated the far-flung community.</p>
<p>That same day, Erik Fox and several volunteers combed through the fields along a nearly half-mile stretch of Reuter Road, searching for belongings of the three TWISTEX victims. Fox, an Army veteran, split the volunteers into two groups. One scoured the area surrounding a creek on the south side of Reuter, between Alfadale and Radio roads, where the tornado caught up to the TWISTEX crew.</p>
<p>Both Paul Samaras and Carl Young already had been found in this vicinity, their bodies not more than 100 yards apart. A day later, Fox now divided the area into a grid, lending reason and structure to a heartbreaking task.</p>
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<blockquote>It was kind of mixed emotions for me. I was more on a mission than upset at the time. I didn&rsquo;t surround myself with the negative. So it didn&rsquo;t hit me until I found Carl&rsquo;s shoe.</blockquote><div class="attrib">Erik Fox</div>
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<p>&ldquo;It was kind of mixed emotions for me,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I was more on a mission than upset at the time. I didn&rsquo;t surround myself with the negative. So it didn&rsquo;t hit me until I found Carl&rsquo;s shoe.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The athletic shoe lay near the creek bed, which had been swollen by 11 inches of rain from the storm. Fox recognized it immediately from their weeks chasing together earlier in the spring. And then they found a backpack. Fox knew the backpack&rsquo;s owner the moment he opened it and found virtually all the contents neatly packaged in individual plastic bags.</p>
<p>Another group, including some visiting Australian storm chasers, walked the field north of Reuter, just east of Radio, where the Cobalt landed with Tim Samaras still strapped into the front passenger seat, roughly four-tenths of a mile from where the winds seemed to have lifted the vehicle and repeatedly slammed it down, producing something like giant footprints across the fields.</p>
<p>Toward day&rsquo;s end, everyone gathered along the creek to sift through that area once more. Most of the belongings turned up here &mdash; some in the fields and along the banks and some in the slow-moving water where the volunteers waded. All three probes landed alongside the creek. Cameras, clothes, laptop computers.</p>
<p>Near the spot east of Radio Road where the Cobalt came to rest, mourners paid their respects by planting a wooden marker with the three men&rsquo;s initials, &ldquo;R.I.P. TWISTEX,&rdquo; a tornado with angel wings and the date. Others left flowers and the collected debris from the car. Two months after the tornado, bits and pieces still could be found along Reuter Road.</p>
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<p class="caption">Erik Fox stands near a small memorial site that appeared on the edge of Reuter Road where the TWISTEX team's white Chevrolet Cobalt was found in a farmer's field. Fox and several volunteers combed the fields for nearly a half-mile stretch just after the tornado, searching for belongings of the three victims. <span class="photocred">Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post</span></p>
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<p>Meanwhile, Kathy Samaras, who lost her husband and son, arrived in Oklahoma along with one of her two daughters to view the bodies and arrange for cremation. Austin hosted them and invited Garfield to meet with them as well.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I began to share some things (about the chase) to help them come to terms,&rdquo; Garfield said. &ldquo;It seemed so nonsensical to happen the way it did. I began to unpack some of that information about how it moved quickly and was exceptionally wide and powerful. I wanted them to get a sense of what happened, to get that closure they needed &mdash; that what happened wasn&rsquo;t something Tim and Paul and Carl did wrong, but just that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Efforts shifted into an unofficial inquiry, an attempt to piece together what had happened from all available sources &mdash; the three probes, Carl&rsquo;s video camera, radar images of the developing storm, photos and video from others who chased that day and might have crossed paths with the TWISTEX crew.</p>
<p>Carl&rsquo;s videotape, whose audio picked up discussion in the car, proved helpful in understanding the group&rsquo;s reasoning as they chased the twister. It confirmed what most suspected: They had intended to race ahead of the tornado and deploy the pods.</p>
<p>Of the three pods themselves, two were designed for data collection and one was configured to take photographs. Marshall determined from the photo pod&rsquo;s data card that it had not been deployed. But at least one of the other probes had been turned on, though this could have happened accidentally sometime after the vehicle was struck.</p>
<p>Lacking the necessary software to decipher the data cards from the other two probes, Marshall drove them to the manufacturer in Tupelo, Miss., where it was found that no data had been recorded on the day of the tornado.</p>
<p>The Cobalt also left clues. The transmission was found in reverse, which left some unanswered questions: Had they been blown off the road, gotten stuck and were trying to reposition the vehicle? Were they trying to turn around and head west? Dodge any of the destructive sub-vortices?</p>
<p>Another question: Why the Cobalt in the first place? They had left a heavy duty truck, filled with equipment for a lightning research project, parked in northwest Oklahoma while they went on this side chase.</p>
<p>&ldquo;People say Tim was the safest chaser and he was,&rdquo; said Matt Grzych, who had chased in the same car that was destroyed in El Reno and considered it a &ldquo;death box.&rdquo; &ldquo;But TWISTEX&rsquo;s rule was don&rsquo;t drive the Cobalts off asphalt. That&rsquo;s why I&rsquo;m still trying to make sense of why this all happened.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Aided by radar data, Garfield pieced together the tornado&rsquo;s timeline. Then he overlaid that with information gleaned from the video taken by Dan Robinson, whose vehicle was just ahead of the Cobalt on Reuter Road, the recovered video from Carl Young&rsquo;s camera and other chasers&rsquo; video to reconstruct the TWISTEX crew&rsquo;s path.</p>
<p>He calculated the Cobalt&rsquo;s driving speed based on known locations, distances and estimates of the headwinds. After crossing U.S. 81, the car likely couldn&rsquo;t top 28 mph.</p>
<p>The damage to the Cobalt, and to the fields along Reuter Road where coarse gravel had been scraped away and even the hardy wheat and flax had been flattened, spoke to the tornado&rsquo;s violence and the randomness of the sub-vortices &mdash; tornadoes within the tornado &mdash; that criss-crossed the terrain at breakneck speeds.</p>
<p>So did the numbers.</p>
<p>In a peer-reviewed <a href="" title="Paper: The Role of Multiple Vortex Tornado Structure in Causing Storm Researcher Fatalities - Center for Severe Weather Research" target="_blank">paper on the El Reno tornado</a>, Josh Wurman and colleagues at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder used data from their own Doppler on Wheels radar, Robinson&rsquo;s time-stamped video and the damage survey to zero in on the sub-vortex that likely struck the TWISTEX vehicle. It moved with a looping motion, heading north, then turning to the northwest and becoming almost stationary near the Cobalt&rsquo;s location.</p>
<p>Although winds in the tornado&rsquo;s outer flow were survivable, those in the looping sub-vortices intensified to more than 180 mph. Wurman estimates that with low visibility and the shifting direction of the sub-vortex, the TWISTEX team had perhaps 30 seconds of warning and no clear way out.</p>
<p>At a little past 6:23 p.m., radar picked up a &ldquo;debris ring echo&rdquo; at the location of the Cobalt &mdash; indicating a sub-vortex with strong winds at ground level capable of severe damage. Wurman speculates that this sub-vortex, which ranged from 100 to 250 yards in diameter, may have struck the vehicle and flung it to where it finally came to rest nearly a half-mile away.</p>
<p>By his calculations, the ordeal probably lasted about 20 seconds.</p>
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<p>Other mobile radar clocked winds in some sub-vortices in the area where the Cobalt was struck as high as nearly 300 mph &mdash; though in short gusts &mdash; which would vault the tornado to an EF5 rating. But the rating system itself remains controversial and the precise rating of the El Reno twister a point of contention.</p>
<p>By any calculation, it ripped two adult men out of a locked vehicle, tore apart the car and slammed it to the earth perhaps six times before casting it into a field nearly a half-mile away. Anyone who had chased, who had seen a tornado&rsquo;s raw power at close range, had on some abstract level done the gruesome calculus. This event, Garfield said, &ldquo;personalized something that inherently we&rsquo;d been disconnected from in the past.&rdquo;</p>
<p>After months of collecting, cross-referencing and crunching the data, Garfield found Robinson&rsquo;s rear-camera footage, in which the Cobalt&rsquo;s headlights fade into the gray veil of precipitation, a far less wrenching way to remember how his friends met their fate.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s more poetic than anything,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;They simply disappear.&rdquo;</p>
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<li class="top-top social firstsocial"><a href=" the Beast: How the deadly El Reno tornado turned on storm chaser Tim Samaras&url=" onclick=", 'gpluswin', 'left=20,top=20,width=500,height=500,toolbar=1,resizable=1'); return false;"><img src="./img/icon-twitter.png"></a></li>
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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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