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Archive for Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Vehicles and tornadoes a deadly mix

May 13, 2008

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— Trapped in his car on the way to a friend's wedding, Rick Rountree and his family never stood a chance once a tornado packing winds of 170 mph hit southwest Missouri.

"It's like taking a handful of Matchbox cars and rolling them across the kitchen floor," said Sgt. Dan Bracker of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, surveying the damage in Newton County near the Oklahoma border, the hardest hit area. "This is devastating."

Eight of the 22 victims of a weekend tornado that devastated parts of Oklahoma and Missouri died in cars - troubling experts who say vehicles are among the worst places to be when a twister bears down.

According to data from the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, 49 of the 705 deaths attributed to tornadoes from 1997 to 2007 - about 7 percent - were people who were in vehicles when the storm struck.

"They can cover more ground than you can in your car, so unless you know you are moving away from the tornado the best thing you can do is find a strong structure," said Andy Foster, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield, Mo.

Rountree, his wife, Kathy, their 13-year-old son, Clayton, and Ruby Bilke, Kathy Rountree's 76-year-old mother, were driving to a friend's wedding Saturday night when the tornado hit the family's passenger van on a rural highway about eight miles north of Seneca, said Larry Bilke, Ruby's son.

All were killed.

Another driver, Christine Petree of Morrisville, died when her vehicle was hit on the same road as the Rountree family.

Police, meanwhile, corrected the status of a woman believed to have died after she sought shelter in a car that was later blown on top of a destroyed rental home in Seneca. The woman, who was not identified, is in critical condition at a hospital, officials said.

At least 25 people were dead in Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama after severe storms erupted Saturday over the southern plains and swept east. Sixteen people died in Missouri.

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