By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Before it came for him, Dan Robinson watched the thing grow. It began as a bolus that descended out of the storm, projecting needle-like vortices that lanced the wheat fields near a lone pump jack. Columnar towers a hundred yards wide gathered and darkened against the pale light to the south, unspooling into wispy coronas that moved across the prairie beneath the rotating, two-and-a-half-mile-wide wall cloud above.
It was a little after 6 p.m. on May 31. Dozens of storm chasers were navigating back roads beneath a swollen, low-hung mesocyclone that had brought an early dusk to the remote farm country southwest of El Reno, Oklahoma. Robinson, a Web site designer and chaser from St. Louis, jumped into his compact Toyota and sped east. He peered out at the tornado framed in his passenger-side window, now wrapping itself in rain so dense that he struggled to make out its leading edge. He swore it was moving farther away. If he got out ahead of it, he reasoned, he might get a better look.
For seven miles, he raced the tornado over dirt roads. It spanned close to a mile, but it would have looked like a shapeless wall of torrential rain to the untrained eye. The last time he'd had a good bead on the funnel, it was tracking east-southeast. Now, as he drove south, he could tell something had changed. It was nearly imperceptible, the way mountains loom larger as you drive toward them. But in 30 seconds, the darkness on the horizon was filling his entire field of vision.
"I'm getting too close," he said to himself. "I need to start looking for the east [road] option."
An arcing transformer on a utility pole ahead pulsed white light as Robinson bailed east onto Reuter Road. His view to the south was wide open, a country of buffalo grass, red cedar and scrubby blackjack oak. He glanced out of the passenger window, but he couldn't find the tornado's outline. That was worrisome. Robinson didn't like getting in front of tornadoes he couldn't see.
He rolled up to Highway 81 and began to pull his car onto the southbound lane, but stopped. The mass was already passing over the road to his south. Robinson drove across the highway's four lanes and picked up the gravel road on the other side. After no more than half a mile, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.
"What is that?" he said, as a gray, vaporous curtain swept toward the road ahead of him. "What is that?"
At the heading and speed he thought the tornado had been traveling, there was no reason it should be this close. Yet his windshield was lashed by bands of needling rain. A darker form took shape in the south. Robinson blew through the stop sign at Alfadale Road. The heavy rains slackened, and in that moment he knew he should not be there.
"It's just off the side of the road."
The curtain overtook him again and the rain came faster, with a sound against his windshield like stones against glass. His Toyota lurched to the side in 100-mph gusts and began fishtailing in the gravel, causing the car's traction control to cut power to the wheels. He backed off on the accelerator to override it. He did this again and again, never maintaining a speed faster than 42 mph. "The car won't go!" he said.
He punched through swirling eddies of rain. His windshield wipers couldn't clear the water from his windshield. He drove on, blind.
If he had looked at his rearview mirror, he would have seen the headlights of a white Chevy Cobalt, which was somewhere south on Reuter Road. Inside was Tim Samaras, one of the country's most respected tornado scientists, who had built his career by placing sophisticated probes in the paths of oncoming tornadoes. These devices, which he called "turtles," took measurements from inside the storms. No chaser could claim as many intercepts.
Samaras had an uncanny ability for finding twisters and for escaping them with his life. But the monster hiding in the rain that day was something he had never encountered before. What neither Robinson nor Samaras could have known was that in seconds it had grown from a mile to 2.6 miles wide, making it the largest tornado ever documented. And it was tearing toward them across the wide-open wheat fields at highway speed. The difference between escape and incomprehensible violence was measured in hundreds of yards on Reuter Road. And while Robinson never looked back, his rear-facing dash camera did, capturing the last living images of a legend.
To ride with Tim Samaras and his expert forecaster, Carl Young, was to ride with the "big boys," as Matt Grzych puts it. For two seasons Grzych ventured with them beneath mesocylones, the rotating masses of air that stretch for miles overhead and often spawn tornadoes. In a white crew-cab GMC truck outfitted with a winch, chain saws and a mobile weather station, they'd run them down.
He remembers the way that truck could slice through the current of rain, hail and wind feeding the super-cell thunderstorm. They'd drop down ahead of the tornado; deploy devices made of hardened steel and filled with instrumentation to measure wind velocity, barometric pressure and temperature. Then they'd run as fast as the GMC could carry them.