By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
The chasers were willing to get close enough to smell ripped-up grass or the scent of splintered lumber and shredded insulation given off by the twister. Once, when they ventured into Dixie Alley and found a tornado hidden inside the deep pine woods near Canton, Mississippi, Grzych pleaded with them to stay out of the trees. But Samaras had already announced that they would deploy a probe at all costs. They narrowly missed a tornado that felled timber and power lines as it crossed the road no more than 100 yards in front of them. He told the cameras that this was why they chased—to feed hard data into the study of these dimly understood and deadly phenomena. The risks, for him, were worth it. Yet they were carefully calculated, and he had always managed to bring his crew out alive.
Samaras, a slight, professorial-looking man with an aquiline nose and kind eyes, was an autodidact with only a high school education. He nonetheless went on to become a star engineer at Applied Research Associates in Littleton, Colorado, specializing in blast testing and airliner crash investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board recognized him for his work on TWA flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, killing 230 passengers.
Samaras loved a puzzle, to know how things worked. And there were few greater mysteries than the titans that tore through the plains east of his home in the Colorado foothills. He began chasing in his 20s, wanting only to be near them, transfixed by their terrible beauty, and by the sounds and the way they smelled. When experiencing the tornadoes was no longer enough, and his analytical mind sought questions that his eyes couldn't answer, his engineering ability and resources transformed a passing fascination into a legitimate scientific pursuit. Using a wind tunnel, he developed turtle probes that remained firmly anchored to the ground even as they took a direct hit.
They were put to the ultimate test on June 24, 2003, outside Manchester, South Dakota. Samaras jogged into a roadside ditch, hefting a probe as an EF-4 tornado bore down on him. Moments later, the tornado struck the instrument. Samaras watched from a safe remove as houses were blown apart like piles of leaves. The tornado that razed Manchester registered the steepest drop in barometric pressure on record, and it was captured on Samaras's turtle.
The finding catapulted him to fame. National Geographic wanted to underwrite his research. He partnered with the University of Iowa's famed tornado laboratory. Boeing paid him to field-test hail-resistant skin for its aircraft. He found a chase partner in Carl Young, a bit-part Hollywood actor turned atmospheric science student who was quickly becoming a promising forecaster. He began collaborating with Bruce Lee and Cathy Finley, University of Northern Colorado researchers who studied the forces at work outside of tornadoes. TWISTEX was born.
The group authored peer-reviewed papers for Monthly Weather Review and the American Meteorological Society. They could lay claim to nearly every measurement taken from within a tornado. This was partially because Samaras was a brilliant engineer, but it was also because no one could read a storm quite like him. Young excelled at choosing the right storm systems using Doppler radar, but once they sat beneath the mesocyclone, Samaras's ability to spot the signs led them to the tornado.
Samaras was an aggressive, dogged chaser, who often had to be reminded by his colleagues to stop and eat. But he was also beloved. To his children, he was the father who set up a camera on a tripod in front of the Christmas tree because they had demanded evidence of Santa's existence. He once dressed his son, Paul, as a ham radio for Halloween. He was the first male Girl Scout troop leader in Colorado.
To his chasing friends, he was the guy who had them out to his home in Bennett, where the Great Plains met the foothills, for war stories and copious bowls of his "bunghole-burnin' green chili."
To his colleagues, he was their benevolent leader and mentor.
Samaras made sure his crew ate well and stayed in the best lodging to be found. But every chaser will tell you the pursuit exacts a price. For days, sometimes weeks at a time, they leave loved ones and place themselves at hazard—in part because they want to better understand the storms, but also because humans have always taken the measure of themselves against the natural world. Though he respected these forces, by walking away with his life from hundreds of tornadoes, in some way Samaras had shown he was equal to them.
After the 2011 tornado season, the Discovery Channel canceled Storm Chasers, and with it a significant source of funding for TWISTEX. The next year, one of the weakest seasons on record, the team was all but dormant. But as 2013 rolled around, Samaras managed to secure a grant through National Geographic for lightning research.
As a ballistics researcher, he'd used a one-ton camera capable of capturing 150,000 frames per second to study explosions. When the government put it up for auction, he bought the hulking device for $600. Samaras replaced the film technology with digital sensors that allowed him to capture up to 1 million frames per second. The "kahuna," as it came to be known, sought the moment of contact when intricate, negatively charged fingers of light splintered out of the sky, meeting a positive charge reaching up out of the earth. Samaras pursued yet another of nature's most fleeting moments.