In Memoriam: Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, Carl Young

As most readers know by now, Tim Samaras, his adult son Paul, and their storm-observing partner Carl Young were killed by the El Reno tornado on the afternoon of 31 May 2013. This is mostly about Tim since he was the one I knew best of the three; but that doesn’t diminish in any way the contributions and life of Paul and Carl.

Tim was a friend, someone I’ve known for nearly 20 years, a highly respected colleague in field work, a safe and conscientious storm observer, and deeply devoted to improving our understanding of tornadoes and lightning.

A born tinkerer and explorer with boundless curiosity and an insatiable thirst for understanding, Tim was an engineer by profession who designed and refurbished some amazing data- and image-gathering instruments. His electronics skills were put to use not just inside tornadoes, but for high-speed documentation of lightning behavior. His observational accomplishments were amazing, and were just beginning to be analyzed and published.

Unlike many chasers who claim to “do it for science”, Tim was the real deal–a bonafide published scientist. Here’s a bibliography of Tim’s scientific publications, with links where possible (if any are missing, please tell me…I’ll gladly add them):

    Lyons, W.A., T.E. Nelson, S.A. Cummer, T.J. Lang, S. Miller, N. Beavis, J. Yue, T. Warner, T. Ashcraft, and T. Samaras, 2013: High speed intensified video observations of TLEs in support of PhOCAL, Amer. Geophys. Union, San Francisco, CA.

    Lyons, W. A., T. A. Warner, S. A. Cummer, S. A. Rutledge, T. J. Lang, T. C. Meyer, G. Lu, T.E. Nelson, and T. Samaras, 2012: Different strokes: Researching the unusual lightning discharges associated with sprites and jets and atypical meteorological regimes. 22nd International Lightning Detection Conf., Broomfield, CO, Vaisala, Inc., 19 pp.

    Lyons, W. A., S. A. Cummer, S. A. Rutledge, T. J. Lang, T. Meyer, T. A. Warner and T.A. Samaras, 2011: TLEs and their parent lightning discharges. 14th International Conf. on Atmospheric Electricity, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 4 pp.

    Lee, B. D., C. A. Finley, and T. M. Samaras, 2011: Surface analysis near and within the Tipton, Kansas, tornado on 29 May 2008. Mon. Wea. Rev., 139, 370-386.

    Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, B. D. Lee, W. A. Gallus, and C. A. Finley, 2010: Near-ground pressure and wind measurements in tornadoes. Mon. Wea. Rev., 138, 2570-2588.

    Finley, C. A., B. D. Lee, M. Grzych, C. D. Karstens, and T. M. Samaras, 2010: Mobile mesonet observations of the rear-flank downdraft evolution associated with a violent tornado near Bowdle, SD on 22 May 2010. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 8A.2.

    Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, W. A. Gallus, C. A. Finley, B. D. Lee 2010: Analysis of near-surface wind flow in close proximity to tornadoes. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P10.11.

    Lee, B. D., C. A. Finley, C. D. Karstens, and T. M. Samaras, 2010: Surface observations of the rear-flank downdraft evolution associated with the Aurora, NE tornado of 17 June 2009. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P8.27.

    Lee, B.D., C. A. Finley, and T. M. Samaras, 2008: Thermodynamic and kinematic analysis near and within the Tipton, KS tornado on May 29 during TWISTEX 2008. Preprints, 24th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Savannah, GA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P3.13.

    Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, A. Laubach, B. D. Lee, C. A. Finley, W. A. Gallus, F. L. Hann, 2008. TWISTEX 2008: In situ and mobile mesonet observations of tornadoes. Preprints, 24th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Savannah, GA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P3.11.

    Samaras, T.M., 2006: Dynamic measurements of the lowest 10 meters of tornadoes. Preprints, 23rd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, St. Louis, MO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 14.3.

    Samaras, T.M., 2006: In-situ photogrammetric analysis of the June 11, 2004 tornado near Storm Lake, Iowa. Preprints, 23rd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, St. Louis, MO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P9.7.

    Samaras, T. M., and J. J. Lee, 2006: Measuring tornado dynamics with in-situ instrumentation. Proc. 2006 Structures Congress: 2006 Structural Engineering and Public Safety, St. Louis, MO, 1-10, (doi 10.1061/40889(201)12).

    Lee, J. J., T. M. Samaras, and C. R. Young, 2004: Pressure measurements at the ground in an F-4 tornado. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Hyannis, MA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 15.3.

    Samaras, T. M., 2004: A historical perspective of in-situ observations within tornado cores. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Hyannis, MA, Amer, Meteor. Soc., CD_ROM, P11.4.

    Samaras, T.M., and J. J. Lee, 2004. Pressure measurements within a large tornado. Proc. Eighth Symp. on Integrated Observing and Assimilation Systems for Atmosphere, Oceans, and Land Surface, Seattle, WA., Amer. Meteor. Soc., P4.9.

    Wurman, J., and T. Samaras, 2004: Comparison of in-situ pressure and DOW Doppler winds in a tornado and RHI vertical slices through 4 tornadoes during 1996-2004. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Amer. Meteor. Soc., Hyannis, MA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 15.4.

More importantly, Tim was a genuine gentleman, approachable and generous with a smile and a laugh, a devoted family man, and as authentic of a person as I’ve known. No pretensions, no agendas…just a passion-driven desire to channel his keen intellect into better measuring and understanding of the storms he observed. Tim was one of the most highly regarded class acts in this realm, by me and just about everyone else, regardless of our backgrounds. He dealt with the crazy variety of personalities and demands in the worlds of media and storm observing with extraordinary grace, diplomacy and patience. At dealing with people, he was as much of a natural as in tangling with the violent skies.

Tim and I first exchanged e-mails when he was in his formative chase years in the early ’90s. We finally met on 23 May 1996 at Last Chance, CO, hanging out in a parking lot by the northeast corner of the crossroads, just before the development of this supercell. [I've recalled that encounter every time I've passed by that spot since.] Immediately, I was impressed not only by his technical wizardry and almost magical collection of onboard gizmos, but by his affable demeanor and willingness to chat about our shared passion for storms. We hit it off right away, and would keep in touch ever since at severe-storms conferences and on some chases. I participated in the field with him and the T.W.I.S.T.EX. project crew a few years back, and gladly wrote several supportive recommendation letters to National Geographic since the late ’90s to help him get funded. It was an honor to do those things, the only regret being that I didn’t spend more time with Tim and crew.

Meanwhile Elke, whom I didn’t know yet, became friends with Tim in the late ’90s, attended some of his talks in Colorado, chased with the early National Geographic-sponsored projects out there, met Paul while the latter was a teen, and attended chaser gatherings at his house. She also designed and built the website for his field project. Paul was a budding and talented photographer; and we admired his storm and landscape shots from afar. Soon after Elke and I got married, we met Carl–fittingly, after the end of a storm intercept with Tim in northern Kansas. Though we didn’t know him well, we liked him…our hearts are heavy for his family and friends as well.

Tim, Paul and Carl were about the last people I’d guess would perish in a tornado. It still seems impossible, surreal, unimaginable. This hurts, and will for a long time. Even as we grieve over this awful event, thoughts turn to the future, the legacy of these fine men, what this means for storm observing.

We can’t control how others (officials, media, etc.) react, but we can control our own actions. In particular, how can we as storm enthusiasts best honor Tim, Paul and Carl in our chase activities?

    Humility in the field. We must humble ourselves before the forces of nature. Storms are far, far, far more powerful than you and I. It doesn’t matter how smart, experienced, or macho we think we are. A deliberate and actively practiced attitude of self-smallness and minimalism in the midst of a storm will set the foundation for each of the following…

    Safety, courtesy and responsibility in and around storms. I can vouch, first-hand, that Tim and his crew chased responsibly! They didn’t run people off the road, leave doors open into highway lanes, block traffic, pass others uphill at 90 mph, lose their cool in frantic panic fits, or otherwise endanger those around them as many yahoo chasers have done. That is because Tim understood, better than most, that chasing is not about “me, myself and I”. It’s about the storms–and also, about others. Others matter. None of us are the only one on the road. We have to look out not just for ourselves, but for those around us. We owe it to our families, friends and loved ones, as well as to the legacy and memory of Tim, Paul and Carl, to do what it takes to get back home safely–which definitely includes…

    Self-restraint. Even as uncomfortably close as Tim and his colleagues (including Elke and me, when each of us chased with him many years apart) got to the circulation center on a few occasions, we were well-drilled on awareness–keeping one’s head on a swivel, understanding storm behavior. Despite the enhanced proximity to danger inherent to his tornado-sampling mission, that is what kept him safe for over 20 years…until whatever horrifying predicament befell him on May 31st. Losing these respected friends and colleagues, who were as aware and conscientious about the behavior of violent storms as anybody, should teach us self-restraint. If that means backing off a few miles, so be it. Not even a scientific mission is worth one’s life. I’d rather have those guys here today than any of the data they ever collected–however meaningful and valuable it was. As for other chasers’ motives: the “money shot” video footage that many seek absolutely isn’t worth dying for. Zoom lenses exist for a reason. There will be more storm days; but we each have only one life here on Earth.

    Give back! If there’s anything Tim was about, above all else, this was it. He gave his time and knowledge every year through school talks, providing data to researchers, participating in a few scientific publications himself, and organizing a conference to educate the entire community of storm observers, among other things. Just give back. Pay forward. It doesn’t matter how, big or small. Whether it’s real-time storm reports, publishing scientific results, giving educational seminars and talks, helping facilities to be better prepared in your community, recycling field-derived meteorological understanding back into your forecasting skills…whatever best fits your talents. This ingrained passion we have for severe storms is a God-given gift, a blessing, and numerous scientists and observers that came before us have allowed us the understanding we have of these storms. As such, we absolutely owe it to our Creator and society to use that gift to return the favor.

I wish and pray for the well-being of the Samaras and Young families as they grieve the loss of these outstanding men, and as we join them in mourning.

Rest in peace, friends and comrades…you’ve got the best view of the storms now.

Tim Samaras
Paul Samaras
Carl Young

“It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you; it’s what you leave behind you when you go.”

      “Three Wooden Crosses” (Randy Travis)


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.