OKLAHOMA CITY, OK. - Three professional "storm chasers" were among the 13 people who died in the tornadoes that ripped through the Oklahoma City area Friday, the research project they ran confirmed Sunday.
Tim Samaras, 55, founder of the tornado research project, called Twistex, based in Lakewood, Colo.; his son Paul, 24; and their chase partner, Carl Young, 45, all died after they were overtaken by a multiple-vortex tornado that sharply changed direction near El Reno, Okla., The Weather Channel first reported.
Twistex confirmed the news Sunday in a statement.
"This is a devastating loss to the meteorological, research and storm chasing communities," Twistex meteorologist Tony Laubach said in the statement. "... There is some comfort in knowing these men passed on doing what they loved."
Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West told NBC News that the men were in a small Chevrolet that was found upright in a ditch about a mile from Interstate 40 southeast of El Reno. Deputies said the vehicle looked as if it had been put through a trash compactor.
One body was found a quarter-mile away, a second was found a quarter-mile away in the opposite direction and the third was found inside the car. The engine was thrown a half-mile away, and the front wheels were ripped off.
The Twistex researchers were prominent members of an odd, close-knit community of meteorologists and storm chasers who race to the locations of major tornadoes, hoping to gather scientific data and record the massive funnel clouds on film and video.
The Samarases were well known to TV viewers, having been prominent subjects of the Discovery Channel series "Storm Chasers" and frequent contributors to The Weather Channel. They weren't working for either channel last week, both networks said.
The Weather Channel - a unit of NBCUniversal - said in a statement Sunday that many of its meteorologists had worked with the Samarases and Young "and have great admiration for their work," which it said "will help to save countless lives."
Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, called Tim Samaras a "pioneer in terms of taking scientific measurements."
While radar is a vital tool, "we need to know what happens right down at ground level," and Samaras was "a groundbreaker in terms of the kind of research he was doing," Forbes said.
"It's a tremendous loss to the community," he said.
A fourth storm chaser in the same area was also seriously injured Friday when the SUV of a crew led by Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes was blown over and flipped several times before coming to rest in a field 200 yards away.
The driver of the SUV, Austin Anderson, suffered several broken bones and is expected to undergo surgery in the next few days, The Weather Channel said.
"As soon as I felt the vehicle tumble, I knew we were in trouble," Bettes said Sunday on TODAY.
"I just saw my wife's face and I thought, 'You know, that's my life; I don't want to give that up just yet,'" he said.
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