The Dark Wall: Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras's Last Ride

The story of Tim Samaras and the largest tornado ever documented.

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. Nearly veiled in the tornado's half-light, brighter shapes emerged from inside and spun across the face of it.

Just south of the road, there was a thin band of sky between the mesocyclone and the earth. The ragged trailing edge was back-lit in the sun. Below it, the inflowing air feeding the tornado raced low over the plain like smoke in an impossible wind. Robinson stopped 400 yards away and stepped out of the car and looked on the thing that had nearly killed him. The post oaks along the road bowed toward the tornado as the storm drew the wind to its core. He still questions what he did next and what he had done that day. 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 2-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 nickel-size 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 northeast of the intersection of Reuter and Radio roads. 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.

Tim Samaras and Carl Young surveying damage to the Novinger, MO area on May 14, 2009.
Photo by Ed Grubb
Tim Samaras and Carl Young surveying damage to the Novinger, MO area on May 14, 2009.
Paul Smaras posing in front of the Bowdle, SD, tornado on 
May 22, 2010.
Photo by Ed Grubb
Paul Smaras posing in front of the Bowdle, SD, tornado on May 22, 2010.

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 wheat field south of Reuter, 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's body in a ditch. Paul Samaras'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 traveled from their home in Colorado to see where her husband and her only 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 of Reuter, 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 pore over a savaged landscape. He found, however, that little had actually been damaged, primarily because the tornado had passed through the unpopulated farm country. What wreckage in its path he did find merited the twister a middling EF-3 rating. Yet for all the drama of ruined homes and broken trees, the most incredible evidence he saw was in high-resolution Doppler images collected by the University of Oklahoma's RaXpol mobile radar system.

Most tornadoes of that size maintain a fairly straight heading and make a left turn as they weaken. This tornado arced to the southeast, riding the southern edge of the mesocyclone. It was then slung-shot sharply northeast, growing in size, speed and intensity as it turned. It became so powerful that it pulled the tornado cyclone — the wall cloud itself — to the ground sometime after it crossed Highway 81.

The 2.6-mile-wide wedge was incredible, but its winds weren't all that powerful. Inside of it, though, were swarms of sub-vortices, 200-yard-wide tornadoes within the tornado, whose wind speeds approached 300 mph. Combined with the way it wreathed itself in rain drawn from the mesocyclone it orbited, this tornado, in the words of veteran chaser Amos Magliocco, "was designed to kill storm chasers."

Garfield believes that from their position to the north of the tornado, Samaras, Paul Samaras and Young didn't see it coming through the rain until it was too late. "I did the calculation. If you're spanning from a mile to two and a half miles wide in five minutes, it adds another five to ten mph to your effective speed. So, if you're talking 45- to 50-mph actual storm motion, what you're ending up with effectively is a 55- to 60-mph closing speed. That's highway speed that the edge of the tornado is coming at you, and your expectation is for speeds of 20 to 30 mph. If you think you have five minutes based on what your expectation of the scenario is, you actually only have two and a half minutes to get out of there."

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