THORNTON, Colo. – Colleagues of storm-chasing guru Tim Samaras said Monday they were stunned that someone so careful would be among the first researchers killed while pursuing tornadoes.
Samaras, his son Paul, a videographer, and Carl Young, a researcher and conservationist, were killed Friday when a powerful tornado near El Reno, Okla., turned on them as they were conducting research.
The National Weather Center issued a statement saying they were likely the first "storm intercept fatalities" among researchers.
"He was as far from reckless as you can get, and I just don't know what happened," said Ben McMillan, a storm chaser from Des Moines, Iowa, who last worked on the same team as Samaras in 2011 on the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" series with Ed Grubb of Thornton, Colo.
In addition to looking at weather models and tracking temperatures and dew points, Samaras spent hours developing safe escape routes and rendezvous points should they have to pull away from a tornado, colleagues said.
A key strategy was looking for well-maintained roads that wouldn't turn into "pancake batter" in rain, Grubb said.
Grubb recalled that Samaras turned down a chance to chase a slow-moving tornado — ideal for researchers — in Kansas last month because of the road conditions. He said Samaras also wouldn't chase a tornado if there was so much rain that it was hard to make out the funnel cloud.
"Storm chasing isn't about what you see on TV. It's about forecasting and safety preparation," said McMillan, an EMT who keeps a medical bag, fire extinguishers, portable cots and tow ropes in case he needs to help anyone who gets into trouble because of a storm.
His Ford SUV is also equipped with a dashboard camera he uses to provide live footage to TV networks to issue alerts about storms; a laptop to provide weather radar; and a ham radio to communicate with other researchers and the National Weather Service when phone service is knocked out.
Samaras usually drove a three-quarter ton truck with a reinforced lining, but Grubb said he only had a smaller truck with him last week because he was on a three-week research trip focused mostly on lightning after getting partial funding for the season.
Grubb, who was returning to Colorado for his daughter's graduation when the tornado hit, wondered whether the three men might have survived if they were in a bigger truck.
Grubb and McMillan hope more information about what went wrong will emerge from the tools and data probes the team used to gather information about storms.
Both said they would keep chasing storms. Grubb acknowledged the thrill was part of the attraction, remembering how he was mesmerized after seeing a tornado pull up small trees.
"It's like a magic show watching the clouds do this," said Grubb, a retired school facilities manager who started chasing storms in college in 1974. While working, he went back to college part-time to study meteorology.
McMillan, who watched Friday's storm from a spot about two miles away from Samaras' team, said skilled storm chasers can provide valuable on-the-ground information to help inform people about where storms are headed.
In addition, he said research involving why some storms produce twisters and others don't could eventually help forecasters give residents more advance notice.