They commented on how poor the visibility was becoming. They sounded confused, disoriented. Samaras said he wasn't sure he could see the funnel anymore.

But it was still there, growing, hooking and doubling in speed. It's likely they were in its outer circulation, though they almost certainly didn't realize it. Because Young put his camera down on the floorboard, there was only the sound of heavy rain, wind and their voices. No one in the car was panicking. At the end of the video, perhaps a minute or two before the tornado overtook them, Samaras said in a matter-of-fact tone: "We're in a bad spot."

Robinson's rear dash cam tells the rest of the story. At 6:20 p.m., as Robinson fled, the thin, drifting miasma gave way to something opaque and iron-gray. Headlights behind him shrank farther and farther into the distance. As Robinson was pummeled by rain bands and 100-mph winds, the camera lost track of them.

Team TWISTEX after the Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009. From left: Ed Grubb, Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras, and Paul Samaras
Ed Grubb
Team TWISTEX after the Kirksville, Missouri, intercept on May 13, 2009. From left: Ed Grubb, Carl Young, Tony Laubach, Tim Samaras, and Paul Samaras
The crumpled remains of Samaras’s Chevy Cobalt
Charity Head/KWTV News 9
The crumpled remains of Samaras’s Chevy Cobalt

A few moments later, Samaras's car crested a rise, and was seen as little more than two points of light in the gathering dark. For the first time, it was as though the tornado had shed the cloak and offered the men a glimpse of itself. Its outline stood sharply against the dim horizon.

But in a matter of seconds, it swelled to 2.6 miles wide and its sharp edges were lost again in currents of rain. As it closed in at up to 60 mph, everyone in that car likely knew what was about to happen. Paul probably trained his video camera on the tornado right up until the very end, members of TWISTEX say. But that camera was never found.

In the last existing images of the three men alive, their headlights shone brightly as the clouds above lowered and a dark wall swallowed the horizon. They were obscured for a moment by a sheet of rain running down Robinson's rear window. They reappeared as the faintest of lights and glimmered once more. Then, in an instant, the wall moved into the road, and they were extinguished.

Ahead of them, the way before Robinson cleared. Behind, through the rain-streaked window, there was nothing—no gravel road, no trees, no wheat fields, no sun or sky. It was as though the world had ended there.

Robinson stopped 400 yards away. The post oaks along the road bowed toward the tornado as the storm drew wind to its core. He would always question what he did next. He would come to see differently the act of stopping, pulling his video camera from the back seat, and crow-hopping with the 80-mph gusts at his back, tearing a shoe from his foot. He knew he had gone out that day and met some other thing that he was not equal to. He knew it when a two-inch hailstone opened up a bleeding gash over his left eye. He knew it when he was sheltering in the ditch and the tornado's outer circulation shattered his Toyota's rear window and waylaid the world around him.

Once the hail had passed, Sergeant Doug Gerten of the Canadian County Sheriff's Office got out of his SUV to investigate a car sitting in a canola field. He knew it was a car only because it had a single wheel left, with the Chevy emblem on the hubcap. Otherwise, it was unrecognizable, as though it had been cubed by a salvage yard's compactor. "There wasn't a straight piece of metal on it," he says.

He could see that there was a person inside, still wearing his safety belt. He confirmed the man was dead and removed his wallet and took out the driver's license. Gerten watched Storm Chasers, and he knew exactly who Tim Samaras was. As he began his search, he found the Cobalt's motor half a mile away. He noted gouges in the field where the car had been driven into the soil.

Judging by where the debris field began, the car had been carried nearly half a mile before it was dropped vertically on its rear end. Somewhere in between, deputies found Young in a ditch. Paul's body wouldn't be located until early the next morning. The fire department cut Samaras out of the Cobalt, and a wrecker hauled it off. Gerten met Kathy Samaras a few days later. She had come to see where her husband and son had died.

"You've got to admire the lady," Gerten says. "She's held up better through this than I would have."

At a memorial in Littleton, Colorado, she said she didn't know how she was still standing.

From time to time over the next month or so, Gerten drove down that stretch, looking for the equipment he knew must still be out there. On July 3, he caught sight of a small black object, half submerged in the creek. He stopped, clambered down into water that was only a few inches deep, and came up with Young's camera.

The following day, Gabe Garfield of the National Weather Service set out from Norman with a team to explore a savaged landscape. Little had actually been damaged, primarily because the tornado had passed through unpopulated farm country. The most incredible evidence he saw was in high-resolution Doppler images collected by the University of Oklahoma.

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1 comments
OverTheRiver
OverTheRiver

An excellent article. So much as been learned due to those in harm's way. I have enjoyed Storm Chasers and was saddened by the deaths. Well done Mr. Hargrove. 

 
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