A Weather Channel truck caught up in the EF-5 tornado that swept through the Oklahoma City area on Friday lies crumpled in a field.
Caught in the widest U.S. tornado on record along with a Weather Channel convoy, an NBC News engineer who saw his colleague’s vehicle flipped "like a pancake” shared harrowing details of their near-miss in an email to friends and family.
The monster storm that swept through the Oklahoma City area on Friday killed nineteen people, including six children, according to the state medical examiner. While another group of storm chasers suffered three fatalities during the storm, all six members of the Weather Channel team walked away from their crumpled vehicles.
Bill Waugh / Reuters file
Click to view scenes from the May 31 storms.
Engineer Kevin Parrish, who works for an NBC News field division that provides technical support for the Weather Channel, was in a three-vehicle convoy that included what they called the Bettes Mobile, named for meteorologist Mike Bettes, and the Bloom Mobile, in honor of NBC News correspondent David Bloom, who died on assignment in Iraq in 2003.
With Parrish were Bettes, producer Austin Anderson, cameraman Brad Reynolds, and fellow engineers “JK” Kautz ad Cleve Massey.
May 31 “began as usual” for the Tornado Hunt crew, Parrish wrote. When a tornado initially touched down outside El Reno, Okla., Bettes and the crew took a live shot of the twister before moving to what they thought was a safe distance from the storm that the National Weather Service would later report to be 2.6 miles across.
Parrish recounted in his email message what happened as the crew suddenly found themselves caught up by the storm’s powerful winds:
“It was during the travel from our initial live broadcast location that we took a direct or near-direct hit from the powerful EF-5 tornado while traveling on Highway-81 near the intersection of US Highway-40.
“I was driving solo as the lead vehicle on Highway-81 followed by the Bettes and Bloom Mobiles. We could see a multi-vortex tornado off to the right-hand (passenger) side of the vehicles. We were in constant two-way radio communications with each other when the radio transmission from Mike Bettes came, ‘Go as fast as you can, go as fast as you possibly can.’
“As our three vehicles continued together moving along Highway-81, my vehicle was lifted slightly airborne and then I came back down with all four wheels on the highway. The winds were tremendous and our ‘horizontal’ world quickly became one that was surrounded by flying debris and rain. My truck was still moving forward and then I got caught in a wind gust that forced me into a ditch on the right hand side of the highway about 100 feet down from the main highway.
“After I came to a complete stop in the ditch with my rear windows all blown in, the Bettes Mobile passed by me on my left hand side. I had clear vision enough to see the Bettes Mobile go airborne still in a forward motion and then make a very sharp bank to the left, cross two lanes of the highway, the center median divider, two more lanes of the highway and then completely disappear from my view. I would estimates that the Bettes Mobile was lifted airborne some 20 to 30 feet. The scene was [as] if someone had placed a spatula underneath the Bettes Mobile and was flipping it over like a pancake.
“The NBC Bloom Mobile with engineer ‘JK’ Kautz and Cleve Massey then came to a complete stop on Highway-81 just opposite of where I ended up down in the ditch. The status of everyone riding inside the Bettes Mobile was unknown at this point, our two-way radios remained silent with the only sound in our world being the loud freight-train roar of the tornado. Everyone sheltered in place the best they could inside each vehicle as we waited for the tornado to pass. Then JK’s voice came across the two-way radio, ‘Roll call.’ I responded to the call, ‘KP is OK.’ There was no word from the Bettes Mobile and we had no idea if they made it or not.
“Once the winds had subsided, I was able to back up and drive my truck out of the ditch and back up onto Highway-81. As I ran across the highway, Brad Reynolds came out of nowhere and grabbed me in a bear hug. It was only then that I knew that he wasn’t dead. I could see the Bettes Mobile all crushed and mangled in a field out in the distance. Everyone inside the truck had self-extricated and was walking around.”
Anderson sustained several broken bones as the vehicle he was driving was tossed by the storm. He and Reynolds got into Parrish’s truck, and the three drove off to find a doctor. Parrish kept the two injured men alert by asking them to repeat their names and where they lived.
“I drove towards the local hospital but all roads were completely jammed with traffic. It was a terrible sight and there were no good travel options,” Parrish wrote. “We discussed our situation, conditions, and the available options. I then headed towards the next closest hospital ‘away’ from El Reno, which was nearly 40 miles away in Chickasaw, Okla.”
Anderson is expected to make a full recovery from his injuries, the Weather Channel reported.
Three other veteran storm chasers – Tim Samaras, 55; Paul Samaras, 24; and Carl Young, 45 – were killed after the multiple-vortex tornado took them by surprise on Friday.
The Weather Channel team could have suffered the same fate, Parrish said in his message.
“I fully recall sitting there in the ditch, inside my truck, with the roar of the tornado in full force thinking about my wonderful wife Kathleen and my children James and Grace along with my family and friends, and that I wasn’t going home inside a plastic bag. So long as I was able to protect my head and remain conscious, I felt that I would be able to handle any situation.
“Somehow, I made it.”