The storm won. Tim Samaras, his son, Paul and their long-time friend Carl Young were killed in the EF-3 El Reno tornado on Friday. We will miss them.
He was the great one, the mentor, the careful one, the funny and serious one who always took care of those around him. Tim was always alert. Determined to chase his muse, the storm, wherever it lead him, but always vigilant and concerned for the safety of his team.
Words do not come easily at the moment. Tim was my friend, someone who I had chronicled for Nat Geo and someone who had kept in touch. We talked about doing another show together. He will be missed by all who knew him. A scientist, explorer, adventurer and most of all, a family man. He was a gentleman.
I first met Tim when I was hired to field-direct, shoot and write a television special for National Geographic about chasing lightning. Traveling for three weeks with Tim, photographer, Carsten Peter and his photo assistant, Greg Wilson in late 2010, a wild ride that took us in search of lightning, the occasional tornado and the world’s best beef jerky. We have all stayed in touch since.
Covering over 5,000 miles in two of those weeks, my view of the world was angled on the back of Tim Samaras’ trailer hauling his beloved mega-camera, “The Big Kahuna” in an attempt to document the nearly impossible, that as-of-yet uncaptured moment when the down and up stroke of lightning meet and create a millisecond flash. I chased with them and sometimes shot while driving from the font seat as rain and hail pounded the truck hurtling through the American mid-West, punching the core in search of the perfect lightning.
The fickle storms raised their hackles and we flew in our cars to try to catch them, but in each instance, they dissipated, “phft,” then they were gone. For those few weeks, Tim and Carsten kept working, running, following and…nothing…until one night outside of the Fort Morgan-Limon, Colorado line, an angry storm raised its head up and screamed at the world. Carsten stood in a rain puddle and kept shooting as lightning began striking all around us. Tim was worried about his equipment, but we all stayed to get the shot, including Tim’s wife, Kathy, who was with us this part of the trip. Eagle-eyed as ever, Tim saw the patterns changing and yelled at us, “We gotta go. Now!” It had became too dangerous and we screeched off, a parade of adrenaline-rushed weather worshipers with our images in tow.
A couple of nights later, we all stood in the middle of the nowhere night with dead silence hovering under a heavy, dark black anvil cloud. We were alone together in the universe, looking up at the immensity of Mother Earth. Tim talked about this being one of those moments that defined why he liked doing what he did. Alone with a small group of friends out in nature was a dream come true for him. A dream that had started when he was six years old and watched the Wizard of OZ. We had driven all through Kansas in the previous days. Perhaps Dorothy’s ghost was up above smiling at us. It felt like we were simply tiny human specs in this incomprehensible universe and I will remember that moment forever.
Tim’s only “frightful” days were those when there were no storms. He was fascinated with the weather, humble about his accomplishments and his invention of the tornado probe, obsessed with his beloved Big Kahuna, a rig that he has “rescued” and rebuilt into the world’s fastest camera, but one that was seemed to have a mind of its own and although it weighed many hundreds of pounds, it was delicate and finicky. But Tim was patient and never complained, even when we had to turn back for a brief hiatus while he repaired his equipment from storm damage. Then we were off again, ever optimistic, in search of the perfect storm.
Tim most wanted to be known as a scientist. He told me the last time I saw him, “What some people know about me is, I am very driven and I will get this shot one way or another…because to capture something like this or to make a measurement for science may take a long time and you have to have patience, persistence and a bit of passion to get it done.” Tim I am so sorry that your time ran out.
Tim’s last tweet was on Friday as he told friends, “Be alert…”
Tim, Paul, Carl – good bye and God bless you and your families.