Minnesota storm chaser reflects on tornado deaths

Carl Young and Tim Samaras
This undated photo provided by The Discovery Channel shows Carl Young and Tim Samaras watching the sky. Jim Samaras said Sunday, June 2, 2013, that his brother storm chaser Tim Samaras was killed along with Tim's son, Paul Samaras, and another chaser, Carl Young, on Friday, May 31, 2013 in Oklahoma City. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the men were involved in tornado research.
Marion Cunningham/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A veteran storm chaser killed Friday by the tornado in Oklahoma was known for being one of the more conservative in his profession, Minnesota storm chaser John Wetter said Monday.

Wetter said it isn't clear how Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and colleague Carl Young got caught up in the deadly storm.

"We may not ever know," Wetter told MPR's Morning Edition. "Tim was known as being a conservative chaser, which is why I think there's even more shock in the field and in the community."

Wetter said he is focusing on two circumstances with Friday's storm in El Reno, Okla., that may have caught Samaras off-guard: gridlock on major roadways in the area after some broadcasters advised people to flee the storm, and the tornado making a sharp turn in direction.

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"That surprised quite a few people. That combined with not being able to correct your position may ultimately be what happened here," Wetter said.

Tim Samaras was found buckled into his vehicle, and the tornado pulled Paul Samaras and Carl Young out of a car, according to media coverage of the deaths.

Wetter said he first met Samaras in 2006, when Samaras spoke at a local storm chasing event. He last spoke to Samaras on Monday during a storm chase.

"It's fairly raw," Wetter said of the loss.

Storm chasers know what they're doing is dangerous, he said. "It's unfortunately been thought of in the community that this was a matter of time," he said. "It is a dangerous thing that we're doing, seeking out dangerous storms. The big surprise here is who actually got caught up in this."

Wetter said Samaras and his team, TWISTEX, were tornado researchers who contributed valuable findings to the field. For example, he said, they measured low-level wind fields within a tornado and also contributed to the knowledge of the sinking winds around the back of a tornado that can enhance or diminish its strength.

Wetter said people received bad advice about Friday's storm, which he said was different from another deadly tornado that swept through Moore, Okla., last month. The widespread rain made it impossible to see this twister coming until it was too close, he said.

"That made it very difficult to move away," he said.

Despite his colleagues' deaths, Wetter said he'll continue storm chasing. But the incident has served as an important reminder of how dangerous the work is, he said.

"I think everyone has to give this some pause," he said.