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Driving during Missouri tornado: The worst place at the worst time

Three people caught in their vehicles during Sunday's massive tornado in Joplin, Mo., tell of being rolled, tossed and battered, and having a loved one yanked away.

May 27, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Terry Burns searches the remains of his car for his wallet on Wednesday in Joplin, Mo.
Terry Burns searches the remains of his car for his wallet on Wednesday in… (Keith Myers, Kansas City…)

Relentless rain and wind were making the drive down Main Street in Joplin, Mo., nearly impossible on Sunday, so Herb Jarrett and his wife, Gayla, decided it would be best simply to pull over. They parked their Ford Escape in front of an Arby's restaurant and prepared to wait.

Moments later, they were hanging upside down by their seatbelts inside a squashed heap of steel, themselves battered and bloodied. Their SUV now rested behind the site where the restaurant once stood.

The tornado that would ultimately kill 125 people, according to the latest toll, had swept their vehicle off the ground, heaving it into a terrifying series of somersaults before dropping it back to Earth.

The same tornado pulled 18-year-old Will Norton through the sunroof of a Hummer H3, his family has reported, but left his father inside; as of Thursday afternoon, the teenager had yet to be found.

For people seeking shelter from a tornado, a vehicle should be the refuge of last resort, said Dick Elder, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita, Kan.

"It's a worst-case scenario," Elder said. "I've seen cars mangled up so badly that you wouldn't survive unless you were about the size of an ant."

Staying inside a vehicle leaves occupants vulnerable to flying debris that can shatter windows and windshields. And a tornado's strong winds can easily roll, or even toss, a vehicle, crushing those inside.

In the aftermath of last month's storms in Alabama, Elder heard reports that pieces of a pickup were found on a water tower in Tuscaloosa. And about 20 years ago, a tornado east of Wichita swept up a Chevrolet El Camino and dropped it about a mile away, he said.

The Joplin tornado carved a 6-mile-long, half-mile-wide swath of devastation through the town of 50,000 people. With winds between 200 and 300 mph, the National Weather Service rated it an EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the strongest rating possible.

"That'll take a frame house and wipe it clean," Elder said.

Ideally, those who find themselves staring down a twister would have time to exit the vehicle and take refuge inside a structure (preferably in a basement) or lie down in a ditch, below the strong winds and flying debris, Elder said. But often, short warning times and the volatile nature of a twister's path can leave drivers without recourse.

As the Jarretts now know.

Seconds after the couple from Baxter Springs, Kan., parked, huge pieces of debris began barreling past them. "I knew something was about to happen," Gayla Jarrett said. "I wondered to myself, 'Is this how I am going to leave this world?' "

Their vehicle was hoisted into the air and, as it twirled and flipped, the married couple of 29 years grabbed hold of each other. Then the windows shattered and the sound of suction engulfed them.

"I felt like she was slipping away, so I pulled harder," Herb Jarrett said. "Then we came to a crash. We just laid there holding each other until the storm had passed."

Will Norton and his father, Mark, were racing home through heavy winds and rain after Will's graduation from Joplin High School when they were caught in the tornado, his family told CBS News on Tuesday. Mark Norton was speaking on a cellphone with his daughter, Sara, as the tornado hit.

"He was telling my brother, 'Pull over, pull over,' " Sara Norton said. "I heard the tornado whipping them around. I had a feeling they were flipping around in the air."

Afterward, Will Norton was nowhere to be found.

Ultimately, those stuck inside a vehicle can sometimes do little more than pull over and brace themselves for the worst, said Scott Smith, also a National Weather Service meteorologist in Wichita.

"There is not a whole lot you can do," Smith said. "Buckle up, lie down as flat as you can and hope for the best."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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