Veteran storm chasers' deaths should be a warning, locals say

(CBS News) EL RENO, Oklahoma - Storm chaser and researcher Tim Samaras spent decades following tornadoes and developing research tools to help understand them. He starred in a Discovery Channel show, "Storm Chasers", and in National Geographic specials.

Carl Young, Tim Samaras
This undated photo provided by The Discovery Channel shows Carl Young and Tim Samaras watching the sky.
AP Photo/Discovery Channel

On Friday, Samaras, his son Paul, and his longtime chase partner Carl Young were following the tornado outside of El Reno, Oklahoma, when they were killed.

Jim Samaras, Tim's brother, said: "Ultimately his goal was actually saving lives through the technology that he's been able to develop."

Meteorologists tracking the tornado's path say it appears the three men may have been unable to escape when Friday's twister, after cutting a fairly straight path, made a sudden turn north.

KWTV meteorologist and storm chaser David Payne was out following the same tornado Friday from the opposite side.

"That tornado made a swing to north," Payne said. "When that happens sometimes, it can strengthen, it can become a bigger, more violent, much more violent tornado. You don't have time, if roads are jammed up.

If you get caught, Payne said, "you're inside it. You become part of the tornado and if that happens it's a bad, bad deal."

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Samaras tracked tornadoes for several years and was considered highly experienced, and careful. Payne says his death gives everyone pause.

"I think it's kind of an eye-opener, even to veterans like myself. (It) doesn't matter how many - just when you think you understand them exactly - they're unpredictable - and we're all at risk," Payne said.

It can also serve as a reminder to other people, many of whom may need that reminder.

Payne said there are now more and more people basically in two groups who are showing up in Tornado Alley states like Oklahoma because they just want to be part of this.

One of those groups are amateur storm chasers who, for instance, are students at meteorology programs who may have read a lot in their books and think they understand these storms, but don't really know what to do or how to get out of the way when they are out in the field. The second group of people are practically tourists, people who they have seen these videos on YouTube, or another channel, watched the movies. And the videos are not enough for them. They want to be part of it.

Payne said he has seen people even with kids in their cars showing up.

The result is sort of almost rush hour-like traffic jams on two-lane roads in the middle of these rural areas, some of them even dirt roads. And that, of course, can prove to be a very hazardous situation, as Payne puts it, even for experienced people. There is a difference between good storm tracking and dying.

The tornado that killed Samaras was a fairly disorganized tornado, reports CBS Miami meteorologist Jeff Beradelli. It was jumping around from place to place, so it was hard for the stormtrackers to track it.

In addition to that at times, it was wrapped in rain so it was very difficult to see, and therefore a lot of people ended up in the path of this dangerous tornado.