'I Said to Myself, You're Dead'

05/14/1999
By Randy Ellis
Staff Writer The Oklahoman

Friends Stuart Earnest Jr. and Keith Webb stood in awe and mortal fear at the top of the Shields Boulevard-Interstate 35 overpass as the "most beautiful, most powerful force" they had ever seen bore down on them with incredible fury.

"It almost had me hypnotized," Earnest said. "This thing was huge and hell-bent. As soon as it rounded the corner, it was like the gates of hell opened."

For the next four minutes, Earnest and Webb experienced hell as it has never been depicted -- even in motion pictures.  Webb recalls flying through the air upside down, a great white light obliterating his vision.

"I saw my life flash before my eyes. It wasn't no longer than a second. I said to myself, 'You're dead,' because I always had heard that if you see your life flash before your eyes, you're dead. That's when I said goodbye to my family and friends because I didn't think I was going to make it."

Earnest remembers squeezing his eyes shut and holding on for dear life on a small ledge under the highway as debris battered his body.

"Something like a rock hit me. I thought, 'My arm's gone. It tore off my arm.' Then, a fraction of a second later, something else hit my forearm, and it felt like it punctured my arm and passed right through. I was grateful for the pain because it meant my arm was still there."

Earnest has vivid recollections of the intense pain, but he also recalls something else -- something out of place.

"I was at the most peace with myself that I have ever been in my life. A sort of an aura came over my body. As the winds lashed my body, I remember saying, 'God, if this is Your will, let's do it.' I was completely at ease with whatever was going to take place. I could still feel the pain, but I still was at peace."

Earnest, 36, of Oklahoma City and Webb, 21, of Midwest City say they were two of about 15 people caught in the carnage under the Shields Boulevard-I-35 overpass May 3 as one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded ripped through the area.  It was at this overpass that a Marlow woman, Tram Thu Bui, 26, was sucked up in the turbulence as she ran toward the overpass seeking shelter. Webb saw it happen.

"She was there one second and gone the next. It sucked her up like a twig," he said.

It took searchers nine days to find her body. And that was just the beginning of the unspeakable horrors as human bodies were tossed around like rag dolls -- flying through the air one second and smashing into concrete pillars the next. Unlike many of the tornado's victims, Earnest and Webb didn't have to be there. They drove to Moore seeking the experience of a lifetime.

"Quite honestly, I've always been fascinated by those creatures (tornadoes)," said Earnest, the son of Oklahoma County Commissioner Stuart Earnest Sr. "My friend and I drove down to Moore to see if we could see one."

Earnest Jr. recalls he couldn't see much of anything as he approached the Shields Boulevard overpass.

"It was hailing, and it got real dark," he said.

It was only after the two men got out of the Earnest's pickup and climbed up the side of the embankment that they were able to see the boiling funnel of fury.

"It was huge," he said.

Other drivers saw it, too.

"Cars were rear-ending each other. People were jumping out of cars before they stopped," Webb said.

Everyone was running toward the overpass. Bui's husband was running with two children.

"He had one kid by the arm and was holding the other one by the leg, upside down," Webb said.

A truck driver was running, as were others. As many as possible scrambled up the embankment and huddled together on a small ledge, immediately beneath the road.

"There was nothing to hold onto," Earnest said. "We could feel the ground shaking as the tornado approached. I told my friend that we would all have to hold on to each other."

And hold on they did, or at least they tried.

"There was this truck driver," Webb said. "I asked him his name and he said, 'John.' I grabbed him by the belt, and he grabbed my leg. I held onto a girl with my other hand.

"As the tornado roared through, I could hear him (John) saying, 'Oh, God. Oh, God. It hurts.' The next thing I knew, it sucked him out. Then it sucked her out."

Boards, gravel and debris pounded Webb like a sandblaster. It ripped his shoes and socks off.

"It hurt so bad. I couldn't hold on anymore. I let go."

Webb remembers spinning and flying, the bright white light and smashing his face into the bottom of the bridge. The next thing he remembers is waking up in a ditch, immersed up to his head in water, with a girl curled up on top of him. He yelled for his friend. Earnest, who somehow managed to hold on until the storm passed, heard his friend's voice. He yelled back. Earnest said he slid down the embankment and ran into Bui's husband. " 'Where's my wife?' he said. I said, 'I don't know, but you and I are the only ones standing, and we need to help some of these people.' It sounds harsh now, but that's what I said."

Earnest said he found his friend in a culvert about 150 feet north of the overpass. "He was up to his neck in water, and his face was so covered with mud that he just seemed to blend in with the surroundings," Earnest said. "Blood was running down his face, and he had a knot on the back of his neck the size of a softball. A girl was laying by him, mumbling, 'Please help me. I'm hurt.' "

Earnest pulled his friend out of the water and helped him get up by the highway.

"I saw a helicopter fly over. At first I thought it was an emergency helicopter and I tried to get its attention," Earnest said. It was only after the chopper had passed over that he realized it was a television news helicopter. Soon the highway patrol arrived, followed by ambulances. Earnest, fighting to remain conscious, told emergency workers to take care of his friend. Webb recalls that Dr. Barbara Yates from Hillcrest Health Center arrived, treated him and rode with him to the hospital. Webb recalls the ambulance attendants repeatedly called out to hospitals on the radio, saying they needed a place to go.

"We got turned down three times," he said.

Finally, Presbyterian Hospital agreed to take him.

"They worked on me for 6 1/2 hours," Webb said. "I had mud packed up under my eyelids, mud packed up my nose and mud packed in my ears. My back looks like someone took a whip and beat me with it for three hours. I'm still pulling splinters out of it. I have a gash in my left shoulder they couldn't sew up because all the meat was gone."

Doctors put 10 staples in the back of his head, seven stitches in his left cheek, nine in his right ring finger and four in his middle finger. Earnest was taken to Integris Southwest Medical Center where he was treated. Both men are out of the hospital.

"I've always been fascinated with tornadoes," Earnest said. "I just wanted to get a view of it."


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