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Year of the tornado

They arrive with devastating force, and in seconds homes, businesses, and even lives are gone. Tornadoes are nature with a bang: awesome, powerful and terrifying.

The river waters coursing through the Midwest in June were higher than they've been in 15 years.

Water is being rationed in the South, where a yearlong drought has cost billions in agricultural losses.

And it seems like every season is fire season in the West as dry hot weather has triggered fires like this.

But the deadliest weather this year?


Tornadoes sent trucks airborne in Alabama, carved a rare path of destruction through downtown Atlanta, flattened towns in Iowa, and killed more than 115. The number dead is 118 people so far this year, as of June 22. That's more than any year since 1998. And the tornadoes are still coming.

Bill Karins: And we've had a lotta strong, violent tornadoes. That's what's made this tornado season special.

NBC Weather Plus Chief Meteorologist, Bill Karins.

Bill Karins: The record year for tornadoes is 2004. Are we gonna top that year? Well, we're on pace for that.

As of June 22, the exact total is 1,369. So far, there have been more than 1,300 tornadoes spotted in 36 states, and many of them have been big -- and deadly. Up until recently, the death toll had been going down.

Bill Karins: So, we were thinking the Doppler radars are better than ever. The warnings are better than ever. We're doing a good job. We're helping to save lives. And all of a sudden, this year, the death toll's way up and now we're scratching our heads once again and wondering: Are our warnings good enough?

So what's going on? Why are tornadoes this year so frequent and so deadly? There's no one answer. And the answers we have don't explain everything.

In part, it could be bad luck -- more tornadoes hitting in places where people live, rather than in the middle of a dusty, deserted plain. But there's more to it than that.

First, you need to understand something about what causes a tornado outbreak.

Bill Karins: This one was in the beginning of June, where 45 tornadoes touched down right in the heart of tornado alley. We had the perfect setup, and this is classic. Hot, humid air from the Gulf; cool, dry air coming out of the Rockies. The warm air rises quickly. The explosive thunderstorms that produce those 45 tornadoes right in the heart of the country.

The heart of tornado season is April to June but this year those conditions came months earlier.

(Cell phone) "It was load and crazy and I was praying"

It was a deadly tornado that you may not even remember unless you were in it, on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. That storm killed more than 50 people.

Bill Karins: Over the past three years, we only averaged 25 tornadoes during the month of February. This year, we had over 230 tornadoes.

One of the reasons? A weather pattern called La Nina, cooling of the waters in the Pacific Ocean.

Bill Karins: The effects of the cooler water are mostly found in the southeast when we talk about tornadoes. It makes the jet stream unusually strong early, February and into March. And we can get a lot of sever weather here in the southeast.

But could there be another reason why the tally of deadly twisters is so high this year? What about global warming?

Bill Karins: The global warming question's the hardest for me and probably every other meteorologist; the science just isn't quite there yet to make the connection to global warming, which is huge, to such a small event as one single tornado.

One last thing you should know about tornadoes--they're rated on a scale of one to five.

Bill Karins: EF-1 means it's a weaker tornado. Probably maybe can knock a roof off or some branches down on a tree. An EF-5 tornado is the strongest, most destructive force that any weather phenomenon can bring.

Jim Gardner: It’s gone, it’s leveled there’s nothing here.

Winds above 200 miles per hour.

We've had two EF-5 tornadoes in the last year--after having only one in the last ten years.

So if this keeps up, will we eventually see killer tornadoes like the one that ravages downtown Los Angeles in the global-warming thriller, "The Day After Tomorrow"?

Bill Karins: The general rule, we've had tornadoes in all 50 states. And tornadoes can pretty much happen with the right conditions anywhere. Are we gonna see an EF-5 heading through a big city like L.A. like you see in the movies sometimes? I'd bet a significant amount of change that that will never happen.

Tonight, you're going to hear about four deadly tornadoes that did happen—and hear some incredible stories from some of the people who survived them.

There was a violent twister that trashed a town in northern Colorado, where they almost never get them.

A killer twister that swooped down on a troop of Boy Scouts in western Iowa.

That category-5 monster storm that blasted through the little town of Parkersburg, Iowa.

And the tornado that cut a 120-mile swath of destruction through Arkansas and Tennessee on Super Tuesday.

Monster tornado hits Colorado
In Northern Colorado, they get thunderstorms all the time -- but tornadoes?

At about 11:30 in the morning on May 22, KUSA reporter Adam Chodak and photographer Gary Wolfe had heard about a tornado.

Gary Wolfe: We’re coming up this hill, and we could see in the distance this dark thing coming down. Like a downpour. And I said, "Is that it?"

Then they took a closer look.

Adam Chodak: That wall of clouds was actually touching the ground. And that's when we realized this is pretty serious.

It was serious. It's called a wedge tornado. Not a classic shape, but inside that cloud of debris were EF-4 winds of up to 200 miles per hour.

Cameraman: This thing is heading right towards us. Holy sh---!

Cameraman Gary Wolfe took pictures from the back of the truck.

Gary Wolfe: The wind started coming in from right behind me. It was sucking the air really hard.

Gary Wolfe: I basically was just hanging onto the tripod so the camera wouldn't call over.

The storm brought with it giant hailstones.

Adam Chodak: Then... bam... the windshield cracked from one of the pieces of hail.

At about 11:45, the edge of the storm passed right over them. By noon, Chodak was on the air.

Adam Chodak: The storm passed right over highway 34...

But the tornado was still on the move. It ripped through a golf community. The hail hit the lake, looking like thousands of bad golfers at a water hazard.

These extraordinary photos from Windsor, Colo., show the storm changing from beautiful to sinister in moments as it approached the Windmill Day Care Center, seen at the left.

More than 100 children and their teachers were inside.

Andrea Machacek was anxiously watching the tornado reports on TV. Her 5-year-old daughter and toddler son were in the Windmill Day Care Center. And her 12-year-old daughter was also at school near by.

Andrea Machacek: I could see it. I could see the map. And thought: that tornado is going for windmill.

And then it hit. A few minutes later, the KUSA news team drove into town.

Adam Chodak: And the first thing I saw was the playground and one of the tarps was just whipping in the wind.

Gary Wolfe: And all the cars in the parking lot were spun around, it was like woah!

Andrea Machacek: And now, I'm thinking I just have go get to my kids.

Andrea was at work in the next town when she heard the news that a school had been hit.

Andrea Machacek: One of my co-workers was crying because she also has a daughter that goes to Windmill. So, I immediately said, "I’m driving, let's go."

Fearing the worst, Machacek drove frantically until she saw the day care center's green roof as she crested the hill.

Andrea Machacek: And as soon as I saw that the roof was intact, I felt relief.

But then she saw the parking lot.

It looked like a bomb had gone off.

Andrea Machacek: I started running towards the daycare and a man jumped in front and said, "They're not there. They’re in the bank.”

But were her children OK? Did everyone survive?

About an hour before, the day center director, Kristi Bernhardt had heard the warnings, too.

Adam Chodak: This is just some of what we had to deal with.

And, as the storm barreled toward her, she had just one thought.

Kristi Bernhardt: I'm responsible for 150 people and how are we going to get them all safely through this.

She quickly told her staff to hunker down with the children in offices and closets.

Teacher Angi Ruiz was in a bathroom.

Angi Ruiz: This is where we brought the kids. We had 21 kids and 4 teachers.

And she was also worried about her own 5-year-old daughter, who was somewhere else in the building.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline NBC: Yeah? What did your teacher do?

Alyshia Ruiz: She started yelling at everybody to put their heads down.

Teacher Chreisha Scheid rushed to this storage closet with four infants crammed into a single crib. Moments later, the tornado hit the building.

Chreisha Scheid: And all I heard was screaming in the background and stuff just shattering, glass breaking, stuff hitting the building. I heard one of the directors say "oh my god, oh my god, oh my god."

And then -- silence.

Angi Ruiz: I then yelled out the door. Where is my daughter? Is Elysi OK?

Miraculously, all the children and their teachers survived with only minor injuries.

Adam Chodak: The wind is still kicking in this area...

Frantic parents arrived to pick up their shaken children.

Among those anxious parents was Andrea Machacek.

Andrea Machacek: And I was crying. And I think I made them cry then, at that point. I was shaking so bad I couldn't--my fingers and toes were shaking. (Laughs) it was unbelievable.

All the cell phone service was down.

Machacek's older daughter, Alexa, was at a school that wasn't hit by the tornado. She didn't find out until hours later that her sister and brother were OK.

Alexa Machacek: It was scary not being able to know where anybody was.

And it all hit her the next day, when she and her family drove through town.

Alexa Machacek: And just seeing all the houses down, and ruined like that (holds back tears).

The damage here is not just in the buildings.

Aleisha Ruiz: I just hope that there’s never another tornado.

It's in the eyes of children who are now scared of the wind.

And in the minds of parents as they realize their lives could have changed in an instant.

Before the tornado, the Machaceks were trying to sell their home to be closer to Denver. Now...

Andrea Machacek: I really don't want to go. I want to stay. And I think I found new friends. It’s odd but, you know, in people that I’ve never even spoken to before. It’s just-- it brought everybody closer together.

Super Tuesday storm
Brian Williams: It is the closest thing we have to a national primary. This is Super Tuesday.

But the news of a storm tearing up the South was hard to ignore.

Meteorologist Bill Karins was in for a long day.

Bill Karins: We knew we were gonna have the big tornadoes on the ground. It was just a matter if they hit populated areas. And of course, they did.

There aren't supposed to be tornadoes in February. But don't tell that to the people in tiny Atkins, Arkansas, about 60 miles Northwest of Little Rock. It was about 5 p.m.

KARK weatherman: If you live in Atkins and you can hear our voice right now, you just need to get down into your basement

The tornado was an EF-4, packing winds of just under 200 miles per hour -- fast enough to make a car fly. KARK's meteorologist Jason Kada.

Jason Kada: Quite frankly, I have never seen anything like it.

KARK's Courtney Collins also reported from Atkins that night.

Courtney Collins: Some of the homes were exposed from the outside. I mean, I could, literally, look right into someone's kitchen and read a cookbook title on the shelf.

The tornado killed four in Atkins. It was now about 5:30, and the storm was moving northeast towards the town of Clinton, about 40 miles away.

Jennifer, 7, and Logan Scott, 9, were playing outside when Logan saw the sky change color.

Logan Scott: Instead of looking blue it was looking green.

Their mom, Tanya, had just gotten home.

Tanya Scott: The sky was really dark and it was actually kind of still...

Logan Scott: And then all the power went out.

Jennifer Scott: So we had to run straight to the bathroom.

Then it hit.

Tanya Scott: Lighting struck outside the bathroom window and I could see the trees shooting past like salad, like they were coming out of a salad shooter. And they were big trees.

Logan Scott: You could hear screaming. From other houses.

The tornado trashed the Scott's neighborhood, and then seconds later demolished a boat factory.

One worker was killed.

Worker: Saw it coming across the hill... and ran to the office and got down and stuff started going everywhere.

Just a quarter mile from the boat factory is the home of Joe Benadetti, the owner and chef of a local Bar-B-Que restaurant.

It was his evening off, and he was inside his mobile home listening to the warnings. Then, in the waning light, he saw the tornado start to come over the hill.

Joe Benedetti: Looked like it was probably three miles wide at the top and the bottom you could-- I couldn't even see...

Benadetti knew he couldn't stay inside his mobile home, so he and his dog ran down to the pond, where he wrapped his body around a large tree.

Joe Benadetti: And it was all right till the tree started to come straight up out of the ground about 18, 24 inches. And about that time the storm was over and the tree just kind of laid over.

But the storm wasn't quite through with Benadetti. As he stood up, something hit him on the back of his head.

Joe Benadetti: And I looked down and it was a buzzard sitting on the ground. And it had a broken leg and a broken wing. And he was looking up at me. And I was looking down at him. And I think I cheated him out of his last meal.

It was now about 5:45. The tornado had killed three in Clinton, and was still heading Northeast like a car on a freeway.

Bill Karins: These storms and these tornadoes were movin' at 50 to 60 miles per hour. So, imagine a tornado goin' down the highway and almost passing you.

And just over the ridge was little Mountain View, Arkansas.

KARK reporter Pete Thompson.

Pete Thompson: This thing went over mountains. You know, it went over foothills. It went in between valleys, crushed homes, and it never left the ground for 120 miles.

And that line led right, straight up to the hospital.

That hospital is the Stone County Medical Center.

Nurses and staff heard the warnings, and moved their patients out into the hallway, away from the windows.

Nursing director Diana Sheldon.

Diana Sheldon: I felt something different in my ear, like some pressure, and I thought, "I have never felt that before, this is different, this cannot be good."

KARK Doppler weatherman: And right there that could be a potential debris cloud...

Right under that cloud was the Stone County Regional Medical Center.

Diana Sheldon: And that glass just exploded and dirt and debris and that glass came up the hall.

Incredibly, no one was seriously hurt in the hospital. The emergency department was trashed, and doctors had to suture tornado injuries by flashlight.

The entire town of Mountainview would be without electrical power for six days.

It was now dark, almost 6 p.m. The storm turned east, and set tornadoes down on Memphis and Jackson, Tenn. That night, the storm would kill 57 people and injure hundreds in four states. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in more than 20 years -- and it would be the deadliest early season tornado in almost 60 years.

What is really unusual about yesterday's Super Tuesday Outbreak is that it occurred in early February. Only one other tornado outbreak in the past century killed so many people so early in the year --the great Jan. 3, 1949, twister, which killed 60 people.

Back in Clinton, Joe Benadetti is still reeling from the storm.

Joe Benadetti: Three people in this area lost their lives that day. And a whole lot of my neighbors lost everything they had.

One of the boats from that factory a half-mile away flew into Tanya Scott's house.

Tanya Scott: We went to the boat factory, though, and we said, "Hey, we got your boat. You want it?" And they're, like, "no, that's OK." (Laughter)

She's rebuilt her house. She also built a storm shelter.

For all she lost, the tornado brought her a new appreciation for what she still has.

Tanya Scott: The time that I have on this earth... And how I use it. I can't think of a better way than to be with them every chance that I can.

Town levelled by storm
It was Sunday, May 25. Dean Everet and his wife, Michelle, who'd been to church earlier that day, knew it was going to rain -- but that wasn't enough to dissuade this fertilizer sale man from golfing with his brother, or Michelle, a housekeeper, from taking their youngest son to visit her parents on the outskirts of town.

Dean Everet: The sun was even shining in the morning. Fairly clear sky, and a beautiful Sunday day.

Parkersburg, where Dean and Michelle both grew up, is a small blue-collar agricultural hamlet with a population of just under 2,000.

Michelle Everet: Our wedding day was a very special day.

And starting from that day, the high school sweethearts eventually saved enough to purchase their own home here.

Michelle Everet: The minute we walked in, we knew this would be our home. First time we looked at it, it was like, yeah, we want this.

Even better. The Everets knew that Parkersburg’s family-friendly atmosphere and high level sports programs made it a great place to raise two athletic sons.

In fact, as the weather worsened around Iowa on that fateful spring Sunday, oldest boy Kyle was 700 miles away in Oklahoma City, playing in a baseball tournament.

Kyle Everet: I talked to my dad that morning and he said that they're predicting bad weather for our area, which I didn't think much of it.

But by mid-afternoon, his father could no longer ignore it. With the rain beating down hard, Dean stopped golfing after the third hole.

Dean Everet: If it wouldn't have been lightning, we would have kept on playing.

From the window of her parents’ home, Michelle saw it first.

Michelle Everet: We could see like two tornadoes coming down and combining into one. It looked like a huge monster.

And indeed, says meteorologist Bill Karins, it was a monster.

Bill Karins: We knew there was a chance for supercell thunderstorms. I mean no one would've predicted an EF-5 train. We've only had two in the last decade. This was as strong as they get, winds over 200 miles an hour, which literally removed items from their foundations and tooks items out of basements and just sucked them up.

Michelle Everet: It looked like it was coming straight for us. And then just like that it turned. And my dad was right beside me and he said, "Oh my goodness, it's going to town -- it's going to take out the whole town."

Michelle, who was at her parents' home on the outskirts of town, wasn't in the tornado's path, but she worried that Dean was, and quickly got through to him.

Michelle Everet: And I said, "Dean take cover, it's coming."

With the afternoon sky to the north darkening and the wind starting to swirl, Dean -- who had not seen the storm coming -- got home not a moment too soon.

Dean Everet: I looked back to my neighbor's front yard and his big tree in the front yard was just swaying back and forth, north to south, and that's when I figured it was probably a good time to go to the basement.

Iowans well know that in the thick of a tornado, the basement is usually safest place to be. But this time Dean wasn't feeling very safe. While he didn't know that the approaching tornado was more than a mile wide and bellowing record winds, the deafening sound it was making was like nothing he'd ever heard before, and causing Dean to scurry for added cover.

Dean Everet: I crawled beneath the bunkbed. It was like like almost a "whoo-whoo-whoo" In my head it was almost like you take a shop vac and put a hose on each one of your ears and turn them on, it was just a vacuum like that. And I felt like everything in my head was going to be pulled out.

Then, suddenly the tornado Michelle had seen was there. Around 5 p.m., this brute force of nature swept into Parkersburg, ripping apart everything within its grasp. A security camera was rolling within the local bank's sturdy walls when the twister hit.

An ATM video camera showing a home a block down from the Everet's also captured its awesome power.

Dean made a frantic attempt to call his wife.

Dean Everet: I thought, you know, if I'm not coming out of here alive, I'm going to talk to my wife one more time.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline NBC: What were you going to say?

Dean Everet: I love you.

But that phone call never took place.

Dean Everet: I was shaken so bad. There's no way I could press the buttons on the phone.

Dean said it felt like 20 minutes in hell. In fact, the tornado lorded over him less than a minute. When finally it passed, the dumbfounded man walked upstairs to a bright sky -- and carnage. The Everet's house was virtually destroyed.

Dean Everet: I dropped to my knees and realized this just tore our community to pieces.

A few miles away, Dean's frantic wife had already jumped in the car to fight her way back into town, or what was left of it.

Michelle Everet: I was crying very hard. And our cell phones weren't working, so I couldn't get a hold of my husband again to make sure he was okay.

When Michelle finally got there, she leant her voice to a kind of collective wail.

Michelle Everet: We were all crying, everybody was crying.

But after spotting Dean amidst the rubble, the former high school sweethearts tearfully held each other for the longest time.

Michelle Everet: We hugged very tightly.

Rescue workers and news crews quickly swooped in, including a team from WHO, the NBC news affiliate from Des Moines.

Michelle Everet: There's the kitchen...

The Everets showed news anchor Sonya Heitshusen around what was their home.

Sonya Heitshusen: It makes you realize that as humans we really aren't in control of very much. Because this can happen to anybody.

In the coming days, the Everets would learn that six local residents, including Michelle’s aunt, had died in the tornado. Dozens more had been injured. Literally, within a span of a minute, more than 200 homes and businesses were destroyed, and 400 others severely damaged.

Kyle Everet: I was praying that mine was going to be there, but when I pulled down the street, and it wasn't.

Kyle Everet: (voice quivering) I’m just glad everyone was alright.

When the Everet's anguished son made it back from his baseball tournament in Oklahoma, he felt only relief when he set eyes on his parents and brother.

Kyle Everet: I said, "I love you guys. I love you guys." (Crying) I thought they were gone...

Michelle Everet: This is donated to us and these are my mom's shoes.

The Everets say they're going to be all right. Relying on the kindness of family and strangers alike, they, like so many others here, are determined to rebuild in Parkersburg.

Dean Everet: This is home. This is home. No matter what happened here, this is home.

One more thing: Dean and Michelle thought they had lost it all. But while scrounging through the endless debris, Michelle happened upon one thing that meant the world to her.

Michelle Everet: I go hey, here's my wedding dress, and it was just twisted in a tree… I'm very happy I found this, because this is a remembrance.

Scouts prepared for tornado
Weather along the Nebraska/Iowa border was bad. Really bad. It was dinnertime, Wednesday, June 11. At their home near Omaha, Charlene and Taylor Willoughby were watching the sky and TV.

Charlene Willoughby: A newscaster broke into the weather and said "This just in. We just had reports of tornados that have destroyed the Boy Scout camp at Little Sioux." And they used the word "destroyed."

Their son, also named Taylor, was a scout at that very camp, less than an hour away just over the border in western Iowa. He was there with 11 adult leaders and 117 other boys.

So on a very stormy evening, the Willoughbys set out on the 45-mile drive to the scout camp, desperate to see their 13-year-old son.

Charlene Willoughby: That ride was one of the most difficult things we've ever been through. We had the radio turned to our local channel -- NBC news station -- and they kept breaking in with reports from Little Sioux. And they used the word "fatalities." (sniffs)

After an emotionally draining drive, the Willoughbys finally reached the camp. But only emergency crews were being allowed in. They were directed to a nearby hall -- along with other parents -- and were anxiously awaiting word about their son when they got a call from an emergency worker.

Charlene Willoughby: He said, "We have your son, he's okay." And that's when that relief just kinda - just washed through me.

They got in their car again -- but this time for a drive to the hospital for their reunion.

Charlene Willoughby: And his hair is just all standing up on end and he was covered in dirt and mud.

Taylor Willoughby Jr.: I was afraid for my life and I was thinking about my parents, that I'd never get to see them again. I was so happy to still be alive.

Taylor had survived the tornado with only minor injuries.

But he had experienced an extremely strong tornado, an EF-3 with winds of 145 miles an hour -- as you can see in this video shot by storm chasers who actually ended up a little too close.

Scout leaders knew bad weather was headed their way, so they kept the scouts indoors that evening. And then the tornado was sighted.

Taylor Willoughby Jr.: As soon as I heard the word "tornado," we were all screaming and we ran. We basically ducked down underneath the tables that were bolted to the ground as fast as we could. You could hear it outside. Sounded like there was like a jet that flew by really close over your head and it was just very loud and very screechy.

Within seconds, that building was no longer standing. Seeking shelter there were 59 people, including a handful of adults -- about half the group attending camp that week. One of the boys was blown on top of Taylor.

Taylor Willoughby Jr.: And then a table was thrown on top of both of us. And it flew by after it hit us and we just kind of huddled underneath his hoodie and we were just holding onto each other until the tornado passed. All the tables that were bolted down were gone and ripped out from the floor. And it was just really bad.

In those 30 seconds or so, four boys died, killed when a truck parked outside was propelled into the tall stone chimney and its rocks crashed down on them. Forty other scouts were injured, including 11 who were hospitalized. Taylor and a few other scouts ran for help, while others stayed and helped those who were hurt.

Taylor Willoughby Jr.: They performed a little bit of triage and they also applied some tourniquets to some horribly bleeding bad wounds. They were basically applying all the first aid skills that we had learned. Some of them were trying to perform CPR on some of the boys that died, but they were trying to revive them and bring them back.

Fred and Laurie Hanna, parents of another scout at that camp, received a call about the tornado while at their home just outside Omaha. They were told the camp was "wiped out" and immediately raced up there. They too were listening to the car radio for the latest news when word came of the four fatalities.

Laurie Hanna: And I can't even describe to you what that feels like, the feeling of almost playing roulette. Like what are the odds, that one of them was my son?

Then she received a call saying that their son Kevin was in an ambulance.

Laurie Hanna: And I just kept yelling, I said, "Is he OK? Is he OK?" And we see an ambulance coming south on the other side. And I said, "That's got to be him. That's got to be him." And at that very moment there --

Fred Hanna: There --

Laurie Hanna: -- was a u-turn spot in the median.

Fred Hanna: And I took it.

Laurie Hanna: And he took it. Zoom. Turned around.

The Hannas followed the ambulance to the hospital.

Laurie Hanna: We pulled in and all I wanted was to see Kevin. And they said, "Come with us." And I said, "Can I just see him?" And they just said, "Come with us." And I thought, "Oh my gosh, there's something else here they're not telling me."

Their son Kevin was seriously injured with a fractured pelvis, in addition to cuts and bruises. His parents were told he had to be transferred to a trauma hospital. As Kevin was taken out to an ambulance, they witnessed a heartwarming scene.

Fred Hanna: Then we saw they brought more boys in and they just had them in their stretchers on the side of the hallway. And the boys started calling out each other's names. "There's Kevin. There's Cory." "This is Alex." "I'm Jacob."

Laurie Hanna: It's like there were roll-calling each other, is what it looked like to me.

Fred Hanna: Just still checking.

Laurie Hanna: Just keeping track of each other still, even at that point.

At the Omaha hospital, the Hannas were finally able to really speak with their son.

Kevin Hanna: I was really happy that I was able to see them again because when the tornado was hitting, I thought that we were all going to die.

And for the first time, Kevin's parents heard what happened to him when the tornado obliterated the building he was in.

Kevin Hanna: I think I passed out for maybe 30 seconds to a minute and when I woke up, I was like, "Whoa, what happened?" And I tried to stand up and I fell flat on my face...

He was in a lot of pain then, but he was able to take in what was happening around him.

Kevin Hanna: I saw a lot of boys. They were yelling, "Help me, help me." And stuff like that. Some of them were praying. Others were crying. I saw one of the boys who was dying. He was covered in rocks. And I looked around at what used to be the campsite and all of the tents and everything was gone. The trees were destroyed on the ground. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before.

Fred Hanna: He said, "Dad, I saw somebody die." And we have to live with that. We struggle to find the answer of why this happened and why those four boys were selected and our son was not. Our faith says that we're all going to die some day and this was just no - not time for Kevin.

A breed apart: Tornado chasers
Jim Gardner: Look at this. Look at this. This is still significantly on the ground. I just hope it doesn't cross H.E. Bailey. But if this thing crosses the nearest people on H.E. Bailey, it's gonna be disastrous.

Jim Gardner (in copter): You have the knowledge to fly it around the storm to where to be and where not to be. We're dealing with a lot of elements. We're delaying with the possibility of hail, lightning, very strong winds, down drafts.

Jim Gardner: I'm Jim Gardner. I'm the helicopter pilot reporter for News Channel 4 in Oklahoma City. I've been here at this particular station since February of 1996.

Jim Gardner: When I first came back here, you know, they asked me-- they said, "Do you have a problem flying in storms?" You know, and I said, "Well, you know, I was in Los Angeles, you know, during the riots, and the floods, and the OJ Simpson chase, and the fires." And I said, "I don't think storms would be too big of a deal."

Jim Gardner: We're starting to get kicked around from the inflow...

Jim Gardner: Well, it is a dangerous profession. But I think we provide a real, true community service to the people of Oklahoma. Because it's a unique state for bad weather.

Jim Gardner: Everything is done on a calculated basis. We just don't fly out there and just, "OK, we're going to go to this storm" and we just fly into it.

Jim Gardner: We sit down with Mike Morgan, the chief meteorologist. We determine where we're going to be, where the storm -- possiblly most sever -- storm is going to be, what position, where they're going to be moving.

Mike: There's a risk involved. And we have to constantly shake hands with each other to make sure that we're all on the same page, we know where the most dangerous weather is, where we are from that dangerous weather, get close to it but not in it.

Mike: Jim, tell us what you see...

Mike: The weather can turn on a dime here. Just when you think perhaps nothing may happen, everything will happen. It's like ingredients to some violent concoction. And you add ingredients, subtract ingredients. They strengthen, they weaken. So it's our challenge to keep track of all those different elements as they change. And see if that concoction is goin' to finally brew together to make this-- this violent outbreak of severe weather possible.

Jim Gardner: Things changed in May 3 of 1999.

Jim Gardner: I don't know if they can see what we're seeing, But this is phenomenal, Mike... This is absolutely incredible - the size.

Jim Gardner: That particular tornado is the largest in recorded history, I think. It had winds of excess of 300 miles and hour. So, there was no way of really recording it. But-- we tracked that storm from the start to the-- to the end. And I made a turn to get some distance on the storm. And to look down and see the destruction that was caused. I mean, there was entire neighborhoods that were just cement slabs.

Jim Gardner: The neighborhood is gone, Mike... There must be 350 homes that are gone...

Jim Gardner: And at that point, I thought thousands of people were dead. I mean, I figured we just lost thousands of people in Oklahoma City. There's no way anybody could live through that carnage.

Jim Gardner: If you're seeing this, Mike, this is incredible damage. I mean the neighborhood is gone.

Jim Gardner: We lost 44 lives, which was still too many. But for a tornado to be that big, and to cause that much damage, and only lose 44 lives, I thought, "Man."

Jim Gardner: You know, if we hadn't really been up there, no telling how many lives we coulda lost. 'Cause the-- like the natural feeling of-- of people is they don't wanna leave their belongings, or leave their house. You know, and when they're-- when they're looking at home, and looking at a radar you see the colors. You can see the cells. They tell you which way it's moving. But you really don't get the true effect until they come to a live picture from a helicopter, and actually see what that tornado is doing. And that's what we're able to show. And I think it-- I think it saved-- thousands of lives. And any time you can help people-- I mean, there's no better feeling than that.