Storm chaser: 'I don't know' if I'll go back after ordeal
As Mike Bettes chased a tornado in Oklahoma Friday, the twister was hot on the heels of his SUV. He realized he wasn't going to make it as his truck was lifted up into the air.
“It really felt like at that moment I was going to heaven," he said Sunday on TODAY.
Bettes is an experienced meteorologist with The Weather Channel, but his credentials were no match for the ferocity of the storm. His harrowing experience has led him to reconsider whether he will continue chasing.
"I don't know,'' he told Al Roker on TODAY Monday. "It's given me perspective on what's important in my life. It may not be up to me. I'll talk to my family about it. If they don't want me to go, I won't go, simple as that. I have to keep them in mind. It was an eye-opener, it truly was."
Others were not as lucky as Bettes and his two-man crew. Among those who died in the storms were three storm chasers who had done work with The Weather Channel. Father and son team Tim and Paul Samaras, as well as fellow crew member Carl Young, were killed as a result of a twister in El Reno, Okla., a town hit especially hard by the storms.
"I know Tim pretty well and he has a very good reputation of being a great scientist and being a very, very careful driver, a very careful navigator, so it's very surprising to me that this happened,'' Bettes told Roker. "We don't know the circumstances, but it's shocking to me."
The truck carrying Bettes and two others tumbled as it was picked up by the winds.
"As soon as I felt the vehicle tumble, I knew we were in trouble,” Bettes said.
In that moment, he thought of his family. “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.”
The crew had ended up on the wrong side of the tornado that day. They’d gotten caught on the north side, which is typically the side that has a lot of rain, wind and hail. Had they been thirty seconds faster, Bettes guessed, they would've made it to the safer side of the tornado in time and been able to observe it without danger.
The entire crew made it out alive, albeit with a few bumps, scratches and shaken nerves. One producer is in the hospital with broken bones.
Many people weren't as lucky as Bettes. The tornadoes that raged through the Midwest Friday killed eight adults and two children in Oklahoma and caused three deaths in Missouri due to the floods.
“When I saw our lead vehicle get pulled off the road and into a ditch that was the moment I realized we were not going to get past it,” Bettes told TODAY’s Lester Holt on Weekend TODAY.
Though all three of the convoy’s vehicles ran into trouble, it was Bettes' truck that saw the most damage, flying 200 yards across a field and landing with its body smashed and the airbags deployed.
“You could hear Mike basically yelling into the radio, ‘Faster, faster, faster!,’” said J.K. Kautz, one of the crew members, who was able to listen in to Bettes as he tried to shout directions to his crew.
Kevin Parrish, another crew member, added, “The last thing that I remember is looking over my left shoulder and seeing the Bettes' mobile pass me and go airborne.”
Despite the harrowing ordeal, Bettes said he and other tornado chasers provide a valuable service.
“Storm spotters can give that advance warning that you wouldn't otherwise get,” he said, though he admitted storm chasing has become more extreme and there's a lesson to be learned in his experience. “Safety comes first. There’s always another tornado to chase.”