June 1, 2013 at 8:38 AM ET
Two storm chasers hadn’t anticipated the Oklahoma tornado they were following Friday would change direction, but when it did, the pair feared for their lives.
“Don't turn, no, go south ... If you don’t go south, we’re going to die,” were among the dramatic words caught on tape as storm chasers and best friends Brandon Sullivan and Brent Wright tried to outrun the twister in their Jeep.
The Oklahoma tornadoes left nine people dead, including a mother and her child who were found along Interstate 40, an area that was dealt the brunt of the damage. The tornadoes brought winds between 80 and 100 miles per hour, as well as torrential rain and hail. The rain caused flooding across the state that trapped vehicles and impeded emergency responders.
Sullivan and Wright saw a barn swiftly destroyed by winds right in front of them as their car was whipped by fierce gusts while the tornado passed just half a mile behind them.
“The barn and other farm equipment were being tossed at our car,” Sullivan recounted on Weekend TODAY Saturday. The vehicle was also struck by debris, hay and even another car. When the winds stopped, the Jeep was left with its side view mirror hanging off, a cracked windshield, and a dent in the car’s front panel.
“We got really worried,” said Wright.
Sullivan and Wright are student meteorologists. Sullivan has been chasing storms since he was 14, and the pair have been a team for three years. Sullivan focuses on how the storm is moving, while Wright keeps his eyes on the road. Their Jeep is unarmored, but outfitted with cameras.
“We’re there to document what’s going on,” Sullivan said. The pair submitted reports to the National Weather Service as tornadoes touched down Friday. “A lot of storm chasers that's what they do. They report and they get the word out there,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and Wright weren't the only storm chasers who got too close for comfort on Friday.
Mike Bettes, a meteorologist and storm chaser for The Weather Channel, was in an SUV that was picked up and hurled by the fierce winds. Like White and Sullivan, Bettes went from tracking the tornado to trying to run from it.
But the storm outran them. Bettes and his crew of three vehicles were caught up in the winds. Bettes’ SUV was picked up and thrown 200 yards.
“My life flashed before my eyes,” Bettes said. He called it the most serious moment of his life, and said he hadn't been through anything like it before.
“We were just floating, and then we were tumbling ... I would say at least six to eight times we tumbled. And then we were airborne at one point where we were just floating.”
The SUV came down hard, dropping from the sky into a field, where it was mangled, with the roof smashed and the air bags deployed inside. Bettes described the wheels as just hanging off the car’s frame. Everyone made it out and are now on their way home.
In a message posted to his Facebook page, Bettes said, “Hopefully our mishap will teach us all to respect the weather and be responsible and safe at all costs ... someone was watching over us.”