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2014 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Last Days of a Storm Chaser

 

About the Project

When celebrated storm chaser Tim Samaras died in pursuit of the violent, unpredictable El Reno tornado on May 31, 2013, the people who knew him best—meteorologists, scientists, fellow storm chasers—were stunned. Samaras was a man who didn’t take chances, didn’t court danger: a pro with well-honed instincts and experience. The loss was profoundly felt, and the details of why and how he met his end were murky. Veteran journalist Robert Draper knew there was a dramatic story waiting to be told. The reporting would be difficult to conduct so soon after the tragedy, but Draper reasoned that to wait would diminish his chances of capturing the precise and visceral details.

A few days after Samaras’s funeral, when the grief of his family, his friends, and his TWISTEX team members was still raw, Draper was on a plane to Oklahoma to begin several weeks of interviews with family members, friends, law enforcement officers, storm chasers, scientists, and meteorologists.

Draper was out to re-create Samaras as a man. As he reported the particulars with forensic care, he realized his written narrative would necessarily include other characters: the storm itself, monstrous and huge at 2.6 miles wide with multiple vortices, and the subculture of dedicated, obsessive, thrill-seeking storm chasers.

Those characters came to life in the November 2013 story’s ambitious multimedia package, which brought an immediacy, drama, and poignancy to the desktop, mobile, and tablet platforms, distinguishing the digital presentation from the material that appeared in the pages of the magazine.

Our multimedia storytellers—Shannon Sanders, Spencer Millsap, Martin Gamache, Lawson Parker, and Vitomir Zarkovic—were on the same page as Draper. One video begins with Samaras’s voice and face, both animated, happy, playful. “I enjoy the hell out of it,” the storm chaser says. “You never know exactly what you’re gonna find.”

That phrase turns sadly ironic as the video switches gears to focus on the monstrous Oklahoma storm that would take his life. Area weather forecasters on camera speak about the “giant wall of cloud to the ground” and, later, of the unpredictable turns of the vortex. Fear and agitation seep into the meteorologists’ voices. At the same time, the video is filled with testimonials about Samaras’s huge contributions to the nascent field of tornado science.

Another video tells the story of Samaras’s final minutes through the eyes of the tornado. The screen is split into four to simultaneously show meteorologists and storm chasers narrating the tornado’s advance; video revealing the storm’s gathering strength; weather radar tracking the storm closing in on El Reno; and an animated map tracing the path of Samaras’s car until it’s sucked up by the tornado.

We distributed the videos through social channels like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where they were shared by thousands and elicited hundreds of comments. “An amazing story of amazing people trying to help mankind understand nature a little better,” wrote one YouTube commenter.

Our Samaras package also included an animation charting each of the thousands of tornadoes to strike the United States since 1950, with orange flashes—too many to count—streaking across the screen as the month and year of those tornadoes appear in the lower right-hand corner. The Midwest and Deep South are rendered as a mosaic of Mother Nature’s fury.

Another animation details how twisters form, using the example of the El Reno tornado. Simple, artful graphics split into four chapters illustrate how warm, moist air rises until it hits warm, dry air, then gets tilted, giving birth to a tornado that keeps growing as warm air is sucked into the storm away from the cool downdraft. The presentation makes complex tornado science accessible to grade-schoolers and grown-ups alike, instilling a sense of how exceptional and forceful these storms are. Tim Samaras would have liked that.