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Published: Tuesday, 5/13/2008

Several Missouri tornado victims died in vehicles


Sorting through a Tornado's aftermath

SENECA, Mo. - More than a third of the 22 people killed by a tornado that smashed parts of Oklahoma and Missouri over the weekend died in cars, troubling experts who say vehicles are one of the worst places to be during a twister.

"It's like taking a handful of Matchbox cars and rolling them across the kitchen floor," said Sgt. Dan Bracker of the Missouri Highway Patrol, surveying the damage in and around Seneca, near the Oklahoma line, the hardest hit area.

Among those killed were three people in Oklahoma who were rushing to reach a relative's house in their car; a woman whose car was blown off a road near Seneca, and four family members - Rick Rountree, his wife, his 13-year-old son, and his mother-in-law - who were in a van on the way to a friend's wedding when a twister with winds of 170 mph struck the Seneca area on Saturday night.

"They were on the road when the warnings came," said Rountree's brother-in-law, Larry Bilke.

About 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service, and the danger has not passed yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.

This also could prove to be the busiest tornado season on record in the United States.

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

Authorities were still piecing together how some of the other victims died over the weekend. But the Missouri Highway Patrol said one person was killed when her vehicle was blown off the same road where the Rountree family died.

In Picher, Okla., 32 miles away, a man and a woman died when their car was blown into a lagoon. The body of another man from the car wound up in a tree nearby. A girl, 13, who was riding in the car was injured.

Fire Chief Jeff Reeves said they were not trying to outrun the twister. "I think they were actually trying to get to a family member's house on the south side of town to help them, and they just didn't make it over," Mr. Reeves said.

Val Castor, one of the many spotters who bring dramatic video of tornadoes to TV stations in Oklahoma, said the number of people on the road during tornadoes seems to have increased since 1996, when the movie "Twister," which depicts meteorologists chasing tornadoes, came out.

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