Most tornadoes of that size maintain a fairly straight heading and make a left turn as they weaken. This tornado arced and turned sharply, growing in size, speed, and intensity. The 2.6-mile-wide wedge was incredible. Inside were swarms of sub-vortices, 200-yard-wide tornadoes within the tornado, whose wind speeds approached 300 mph. It "was designed to kill storm chasers," in the words of veteran chaser Amos Magliocco.

On a recent afternoon, beneath a wide dome of sky over the Southern Plains, barbwire lay in coils in the ditch. Steel fence posts laid bent and flat against the earth. A single headlight, the kind belonging to a sedan, sat just off the road. Pieces of metal and glass glinted in the field, where the car would have been carried.

Close by, a stained wooden board had been driven into the ground and etched with initials: TS, PS, CY, all arrayed around a pair of wings with a twister in between. It said: R.I.P., TWISTEX, 5-31-13. Next to it was a bouquet of silk daisies and roses, a tiny American flag, and a car's gray floor mat. For an hour, not a single car or truck passed through this remote stretch of road. There was only the sound of the wind blowing down.

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

Matt Grzych will always wonder why Samaras, Paul, and Young were in that place at that moment. Were the winds and the weight of three men too much for the Cobalt? Did the engine fail? Did they blow a tire? Or had they simply been playing the odds for too long?

"Everyone had that false impression in their minds, that we're too good, that we'll always beat it," he says. "As humans, we think of it as a solid object. We plan our actions around a solid object. But they're ghosts. They're in one place and can appear in another."

Their deaths have forced the insular storm-chasing community to search its soul. None from their ranks had ever died in a tornado. And this wasn't some amateur yahoo with an iPhone. Samaras was the godfather of this pursuit. Now he and the compacted hull of his white Chevy Cobalt had become the glaring evidence of their own fallibility. If so great a man could not save himself, how could any?

Yet Dan Robinson had saved himself, a fact that did not cease to puzzle him. He had stopped and filmed the thing as it passed, barely out of its reach. He should have been poring over the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime footage his video cameras had captured. But he couldn't bring himself to look at any of it for days.

When he finally saw those headlights, Robinson was plagued by the same questions that plagued Grzych. "I've thought about this hundreds of times," he says. "I can't imagine they were doing anything different than me. I wonder why they slowed down and got so far behind."

He's haunted by the blind randomness of it all. Had the tornado's arc been just a degree wider, he isn't so sure he would have survived. He was about to run out of road.

"There's always been chasers who pushed the limits, got too close, and I've certainly done that a few times myself," Robinson says. "You'd think maybe it should have been somebody who did something reckless or careless. It shakes you up when you realize that someone with his experience can end up in that situation."

One of things Samaras loved about the study of tornadoes was that it remains a wide-open frontier. So many fundamental questions go unanswered.

And perhaps that's what is so maddening about what happened to Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras. There is no simple explanation, no single factor. As unknowable as the chain of random events that give rise to tornadoes is, so too was the series of decisions that ended three lives.

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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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