Chasers’ deaths a sobering reminder

Published 11:00 pm Friday, June 7, 2013

The very term — storm chaser — suggests thrill and adventure. It conjures images of swashbuckling weather junkies who tempt fate in pursuit of dramatic video or close encounters with killer cyclones.

Our video-obsessed culture can’t get enough of their harrowing tales. Now add the grimmest of chapters — the obituaries of three tornado chasers among the 13 dead from last week’s second round of lethal storms in the Oklahoma City area.

There is a lesson to be learned in how they died. It’s about the respect everyone in Tornado Alley should have for our volatile springtime weather.

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The chase team was headed by a veteran engineer and inventor whose former show, Storm Chasers, aired on the Discovery Channel and who had several science grants from the National Geographic Society. Known for attention to safety, Tim Samaras was in the field for the science, not the rush of excitement, say those who knew him. His goal was collecting data to help understand twisters better and save lives in the long run.

It’s a cruel irony that his death — and those of his son, Paul, and crew mate Carl Young — illustrate the wisdom of what experts tell us about tornadoes. They drop from the sky with little warning and disappear just as fast. They are capricious, defying explanation about why they will obliterate a line of houses but spare one or two. They change course in a heartbeat.

That adds up to advice we often hear but don’t often heed. A tornado warning means seek shelter. Do the best you can. Get off the road, since a vehicle is a poor option. Do not try to outrun a tornado.

The chasers in Oklahoma staked out what their experience told them would be a safe vantage point for tracking a tornado near El Reno. But then it took a sharp turn and went right at them.

The popularity of tornado videos might lull us into thinking that storm hunting is a thrill-a-minute spectator sport. The casualty list from El Reno says otherwise. Violent springtime weather is lethal, even to the pros.

– Dallas Morning News