Tim Samaras was an anomaly in the field of science that would ultimately take his life. Where others had PhDs, he had a high school diploma and a passionate autodidact’s wealth of knowledge. Through his boyhood hobbies and various jobs in young adulthood, he acquired a seemingly indiscriminate set of skills and areas of expertise that included ham radios, explosive force measurement, and, above all, storms.
Samaras was the first to place a probe inside a tornado, a breakthrough so many previous researchers had attempted and failed to achieve that it seemed impossible. His daring feats and passion for storm chasing made him a celebrity in the meteorological world and earned him a reality television role. But on May 31, 2013, he, along with his 24-year-old photographer son, Paul, and a meteorologist chase partner, Carl Young, got too close to a storm — the largest tornado ever recorded.
Dallas author Brantley Hargrove spent more than three years getting to know the late Samaras’ surviving family members and colleagues in TWISTEX, the research organization he cofounded. He also got inside the mind of a chaser, logging thousands of miles with Samaras’ colleagues on their own chases — and in so doing witnessed a historic storm of his own.
The resulting book is The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. It’s a vivid, beautifully written, and incredibly reported page-turning tale of a man’s obsession with one of the most powerful forces in nature.
“The Man Who Caught the Storm is the story of the greatest storm chaser who ever lived,” Hargrove says in a recent interview with C&I. “He’s this middle-class guy from the suburbs of Denver who had a random-sounding set of skills. He was an explosives expert who worked for a defense research contractor, he was an inventor, and he was a storm chaser. He parlayed all these disparate-sounding skills into one thing, which was to take measurements from inside the core of a violent tornado, something he’d been told was incredibly dangerous and probably impossible. Well, he proved the meteorological world wrong.”
Samaras reached that goal in 2003, but his story is far from over after the monumental achievement. The feat brought him even greater stature among his colleagues and fame outside the world of weather, and he was a lead personality on Storm Chasers from Season 3 in 2009 until the show’s 2012 cancelation. Though no one since his death has duplicated his measurements, Samaras proved that sampling the tornado core was possible. His research yielded precise wind speeds for engineers trying to build safer homes, as well as a crucial baseline for scientists studying tornado structure. Samaras’ personal life also took an interesting turn when, in 2006, Matt Winter, a young man who was obsessed with weather and idolized Samaras, learned there was a good chance his hero was also his father and reached out to Samaras. When a DNA test confirmed his hunch, Samaras welcomed him into the family.
In researching the book, Hargrove hit the road with members of Samaras’ team. Long hours putting in thousands of miles disabused him of any notion that the exhausting, often boring pursuit had much semblance to the thrill-packed movie Twister — until it did. In June 2014, Hargrove and former TWISTEX researchers Ed Grubb and Tony Laubach holed up at a Super 8 in Grand Island, Nebraska, in the northeastern part of the state where weather conditions showed great potential for tornados. The best, most dedicated chasers usually end up at the same storms, Hargrove says, and on June 16, this proved true once again when they ran into Ben McMillan, another former TWISTEX researcher, at a Wendy’s in Columbus. The four men saw four EF4 tornados that day.
“That first kind of probing cloud came down out of the sky and gradually sharpened, and then touched down,” he says. “It was really surreal to watch, kind of otherworldly and eerie.”
The TWISTEX alums and Hargrove followed the twister until it died, and then witnessed what Hargrove describes as a once-in-a-lifetime event: twin simultaneous tornados on the highway ahead of them, each some 500 yards in width. They briefly considered trying to “field goal” themselves but decided not to. One of the twins “roped out,” dissipating into a narrowing tube until it disappeared, and the fourth tornado of the day replaced it.
The thrill was dampened by the report that the storms caused two deaths. Hargrove was curious about how chasers confront this moral conundrum — the sense that they’re exulting in a force of nature that kills. He found no easy answers, and he isn’t sure they’re necessary anyway. Chasers don’t cause the storms, of course, and sometimes they’re among the first to help victims, showing up even before emergency responders. In some cases, they provide visual confirmation of an ongoing tornado to weather-service forecasters.
Hargrove’s eloquent description of tornados — both in the book and in conversation — makes it easy to understand how Samaras became so fixated.
“It’s one of the strangest things that the natural world does,” he says. “Just out of nowhere, there are these swirling winds that could blow a house off its foundation or toss a railcar a few hundred feet.”
Hargrove describes The Man Who Caught the Storm as “an old-as-time type story about man facing off against the natural world, a story of obsession and bravery, and tragedy.” It’s also a fantastic read that has garnered excellent reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and praise from acclaimed journalists including Skip Hollandsworth, Susan Casey, Michael J. Mooney, and Hampton Sides.
Order The Man Who Caught the Storm (April 3, Simon & Schuster) here, and pick up the April 2018 issue of C&I for Hargrove’s story “Riders on the Storm,” about another man who shows true grit in the face of havoc unleashed by a violent storm. Visit hbrantleyhargrove.com for more information and author appearances, and check out the video trailer for the book, above.