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For now, his tornado research would remain on the back burner. Samaras brought his 24-year-old son, Paul, a Star Wars geek who'd developed into a brilliant photographer and videographer. And he brought Young, his trusted chase partner. They crisscrossed the Corn Belt together, hunting lightning. If they chased twisters, it would be on their own time and on their own dime.
On May 19, Matt Grzych sat in gridlocked traffic in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, during a stalled chase. A mile-wide EF-5 tornado tore through the middle of town and across Interstate 35, uprooting sturdy oaks and shearing houses from their foundations. The elementary school near him was razed, killing seven children. Grzych watched as those around him panicked. Trucks sped through the median, some in reverse, while insulation rained down from the sky. It was the first EF-5 he'd ever witnessed. He swore he'd never chase in the Oklahoma City metro area again.
Almost as soon as he'd posted about his experience on Facebook, he heard from an envious Young. "He called me up immediately, freaking out about how I got onto Moore," Grzych says. "His main thing was, 'What were you looking at in the forecast that brought you to Moore?' Carl was all about big tornadoes." Yet he'd never witnessed the strongest: For all their talent for finding tornadoes, neither Young nor Samaras had ever encountered an EF-5.
Eleven days later, violent supercell thunderstorms were forecast near Oklahoma City. Samaras, Paul, and Young met Cathy Finley and Bruce Lee in Guthrie, 30 miles away. They'd arrived in the Cobalt, with three turtle probes in the trunk, leaving the kahuna back in Kansas. Looking back, some of Samaras's colleagues were surprised by his decision to use the Cobalt to attempt to deploy a probe. The four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive sedan would have been weighed down with three grown men and three heavy probes. Tony Laubach, a TWISTEX team member who'd driven one, likened it to a pizza delivery car. "It did fine," he said. "I chased with it for many years. But it didn't handle some roads so good. It didn't handle high winds."
It was, however, economical, and TWISTEX operations were on a shoestring.
Young was a little frustrated, Finley recalls. They'd missed a strong tornado a few days before because of Samaras's research obligations. They weren't about to miss the setup forming over Oklahoma, predicted to explode the following day. But Finley and Lee told them they would not be joining them for this chase. They were wary of pursuing tornadoes into densely populated areas. As they'd seen in Moore, the roads tended to clot with panicked people and the growing ranks of amateur storm chasers.
Inside the nerve center at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma, 10 miles south of Moore, a team of meteorologists peered into monitors, their faces bathed in the primary colors of Doppler radar imaging. Along one wall, a battery of flatscreen televisions was tuned to the Weather Channel and local news. Despite the boiling in the atmosphere west of Oklahoma City, the room was quiet.
Meteorologist Jonathan Kurtz saw a complex system of storms merging, and he needed to know where they were headed. Warm, dry air was blowing out of the Rocky Mountains and rising in their lee, leaving a void of low pressure. Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico rushed into the void along this imaginary boundary, known as the dryline, which was sitting right over Central Oklahoma. The Gulf air wanted to rise, but it was being blocked by a cap of dry desert air.
Atmospheric instability was building. Once it was warm enough near the surface, probably by late that afternoon, the Gulf air would punch through the cap. Soon, it would meet the cold, 85-mph jet stream from the north. At the same time, the vacuum created below would draw strong southerly winds. The differences in wind speed, elevation, and direction of these two currents, known as wind shear, were getting ready to set this unstable air mass spinning. That was the stuff of all supercell thunderstorms. What alarmed the forecasters was the off-the-charts strength of its ingredients. Kurtz knew something big was about to happen.
Samaras and Young lost sight of the tornado in the rain, but they would have known at least that it was a mile away. They were in position. They would have seen Dan Robinson driving ahead of them.
As Robinson paused at Highway 81, he would have seen them pull up right behind him, along with the gauzy curtain of the tornado's outer circulation. Because Young's camera was later found, we know a little about what transpired in that car until the final minute or two.
Samaras took a call from a reporter as Young steered along the dusty back roads. Young seemed annoyed: Samaras was supposed to be the navigator, and Young needed to know what the roads ahead looked like; they had a habit of dead-ending unexpectedly. Samaras rushed the reporter off the phone, and they began discussing their next move.
Again and again, Samaras told Young to slow down and let the tornado get ahead of them, worried it might cut them off. But Young wanted to get farther east, to deploy a probe ahead of it. Samaras, who always made the final call in deployment situations, didn't override him.