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

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

Add to this the unfathomable velocity of sub-vortices the size of two football fields, and Samaras's position to the northeast of the tornado was not survivable. "In terms of the sub-vortices' closing speed: 150 to 200 mph," Garfield says. "You don't have time to respond to that. It would literally be there and you would not know."

On a recent afternoon, beneath a wide dome of sky over the Southern Plains, untroubled by clouds, a stretch of Reuter Road still bore signs of violence. Barbed wire 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 to the south, where the car would have been carried by the counter-clockwise rotation of the tornado. Nearly three quarters of a mile down, on the other side of the road, a car's white bumper lay in the waist-high grass.

Close by, a stained wooden board had been driven into the ground and etched with initials: TS, PS and 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 or so, not a single car or truck passed through this remote stretch of road. There was only the sound of the wind blowing down out of the northeast.

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.


Matt Grzych will always wonder why Samaras, his son, 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 had not ceased 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 from within the outer circulation of a tornado. 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. Reuter dead-ended at the next intersection. 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 continue to go unanswered. How much can the pressure fall inside of a tornado? Why do some mesocyclones produce tornadoes while others do not?

And perhaps that's what is so maddening about what happened to Carl Young and Tim and Paul Samaras, for those who knew them and for those who survived. 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.

Get a Houston take on storm chasing in Do The Twist(er): Local Musician Chases Storms For Fun and Profit.

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