How did storm chaser Tim Samaras, one of the safest, most cautious chasers, get killed in a tornado?

Paul Samaras, Carl Young pulled from vehicle

DENVER - The news of the deaths of storm chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and veteran chasing partner Carl Young have stunned the storm chasing and weather science community and left many questions unanswered.

How did this happen to one of the most cautious and safest storm chasers in the country? How did the team find themselves trapped in a tornado? What happened?

"He was just caught up in a very unfortunate situation, where he was tracking a tornado and the tornado turned against him and there was no way he could get out from it," Tim's brother, Jim Samaras, told 7NEWS.

The three men were killed Friday by an EF-3 tornado that tore through El Reno, a suburb of Oklahoma City. The tornado, which packed winds of 165 mph, also killed 10 others.

Storm chasers in the area say that it was a highly erratic, multi-vortex tornado, with a mesocyclone, or parent storm, that measured about 4 miles in diameter.

"According to some of the storm chasers I've talked to, Tim and his team were on a two lane road and one of these rogue vortexes may have literally dropped right on top of them," said 24/7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson. "The mesocyclone was dropping down and pulling up these tornadoes around it.  It was like an octopus with many tentacles."

However, the data is still inconclusive as to whether the team's vehicle was hit by one of these vortices, or by the main tornado, which was about a mile wide.

"When the tornado made that sudden turn to the north, it caught everyone off guard," said Tony Laubach, a 7NEWS storm chaser and Samaras friend  who was looking into the radar data to find out what happened.

He was chasing the same storm a couple of miles south.

He said the tornado was moving east/southeast, when it hit Highway 81 and made a sharp 120 degree turn to the northeast and accelerated.

"It was moving an average 25-35 mph, and it turned and accelerated to 40-45 mph," Laubach said.

The Chevrolet Cobalt that the men were in was one of their typical chase vehicles, but it doesn't have the power to outrun 80 mph winds -- which was what may have been headed their way, Laubach said.

The tornado's movement apparently caught many by surprise. Several chasers positioned north of the storm were also caught unaware.  The Weather Channel 's chase vehicle was thrown several hundred yards and the driver suffered multiple broken bones.

Add to that increased congestion on the roads.

"Tornadoes by their nature are unpredictable, and can change course unexpectedly, or pop up suddenly," Jeff Masters wrote in a Weather Underground blog. "It’s particularly dangerous when a tornado is wrapped in rain, making it hard to see, or if a chaser is operating in a heavily populated area, where roads may suddenly become congested. All four of these conditions occurred Friday during the El Reno tornado."

When the team's car was found, it was a mangled heap of metal. Tim Samaras was still buckled in his seat.  His 24-year-old son, Paul, and Carl Young had been pulled out of the car by the storm. One of them was found dead a half-mile away, according to ABC News.

Storm chasers converged in the area over the weekend and have since found a couple of cameras, backpacks, cell phones and three of Samaras' probes, which had been turned on and was recording data, Nelson said.

That data and those cameras could hold vital clues as to what happened.

The families take some solace knowing that Tim, Paul and Carl died doing what they loved, but it's still a startling end to one the pioneers in the storm chasing field, not known to be reckless.

"Of all the hundreds of storm chasers that roam that Great Plains Tim and his crew would the last ones I would expect to run into harm's way," Nelson said. "I have known Tim for over 20 years, he was the most brilliant and most careful severe weather researcher of them all. Tim was not a cowboy, he was as cautious as possible about his approach to studying these dangerous storms."

However, their deaths underscore the unpredictability and danger of being a storm chaser.

"Tim has chased 1,000 tornadoes and much like an astronaut, there are inherent risks. And even if you do everything right, something can go wrong. It's a dangerous profession," Nelson said.

Tim Samaras became fascinated with tornadoes while watching "The Wizard of Oz" while he was 6. While he initially started chasing tornadoes for the thrill of it he later combined that passion with his engineering background, and sought to find answers about how to improve tornado warning systems and better forecast tornadoes.

He founded TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling of Tornadoes Experiment) and invented probes that measured wind velocity, pressure drops and other data.

"Tim made scientific history with the TWISTEX Probe, jokingly referred to as “the turtle" because of its shape. By deploying these probes into a tornado’s path, Tim, along with Carl, provided key data for researchers studying the storm’s movements and deadly force. The information collected has directly resulted in increased warning time for local authorities to tell residents to take cover," said Eileen O'Neill, president of Discovery Network.

His son, Paul, had a talent for capturing tornadoes on film.

"Paul was goofy, and it was fun to watch him grow over the years.  He was so quiet in the early times, and to watch him become someone who could capture a moment so vividly. He shot one of the most amazing tornado photos I have ever seen hanging out the window of my Mesonet car in Oklahoma back in 2011. Myself and Ed Grubb would always laugh cause we'd take great shots then see Paul's, and just shake our heads cause he just had the talent. He was quirky, fun, and just so easy going,"  Laubach said.

Carl Young was featured with Samaras on the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" show. They starred in the series for three years before the TV show was canceled in 2012.

Young had been working with Samaras every spring since 2003 and together they tracked more than 125 tornadoes, according to his bio on the  "Storm Chasers" website.

In 2000, he decided to take off on a two month storm chasing adventure in the Great Plains hoping to catch a glimpse of a few tornadoes but ended up with over a dozen twister encounters. This inspiration led Carl to the study of tornado dynamics and ultimately a masters degree in atmospheric science from the University of Nevada, Reno. While attending a meteorological conference, Carl met Tim Samaras who encouraged him to collect meteorological data from inside tornadoes as the principal focus of his thesis research.

Samaras documented and narrated what he did in a YouTube video, recognizing the danger inherit in his field. "At times I have mixed feelings about chasing the storms," he said in the video. "On one hand they are incredibly beautiful, on the other hand these powerful storms can create devastating damage that change people lives forever."

Services for Tim and Paul Samaras are pending. They are expected to be held Thursday in the Denver metro area.

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