Monster Tornado Caught Parkersburg by Surprise

Click here to watch his eyewitness video of the tornado as it formed.

At 4:51 p.m., the town's sirens began to wail, a signal for everyone to take cover. Local news warned residents to head to their basements, and weather radios all over town blared the alert.

The message was clear: A tornado had stuck ground and was heading straight for Parkersburg, straight for highway 57 and straight for all of the homes and businesses in its path.

Tyann Lester was safe at home, having just sent her son off to work at the Pizza Ranch. Her cell phone rang. It was the restaurant's assistant manager, Jessie Farley.

"And he called to say, Tyann, there's a tornado coming, where do we go? And I was like, you go to the men's bathroom," Lester said. The men's bathroom, built to fit just one person, was the only room at Pizza Ranch that was not against an outside wall.

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While she listened to Jessie hurry the customers inside, Tyann was sure that her son, Damion, could not possibly have made it back to Pizza Ranch in the few minutes since he had dropped her off at home.

"And I make a comment about Damion being late and [Jessie]'s like no, Damion's here, he just got here."

Around town, the citizens of Parkersburg quickly realized that this was not a typical tornado warning. Nor was it a typical tornado that was heading straight for them.

More than a half mile wide, with winds over 200 mph, this was an EF5, the strongest, most dangerous type of tornado on the planet. Storms this strong are extremely rare, but when they do occur, they destroy everything in their path, tearing houses down to the foundation, and sending cars flying hundreds of feet into the air.

Click here to track tornado activity in your region.

As the sirens wailed, John Simon and his family walked outside to see if they could get a better look at the storm, not thinking much of the warning. "They've gone off before, but we just kinda ignore 'em, really," said John.

It was just before 5 p.m., and about 30 people had gathered at Matt's Bar and Grill, ready to start the celebration.

Suddenly, they saw it.

"I looked up in the sky and the clouds went from gray to black, and they're just circling," remembered John. In the chaos, the desperate partygoers split into two groups and ran to take cover. One group, including John's mother, headed for the restaurant's walk-in cooler.

The other group, including John, ran to the car wash next door and frantically tried to get inside. Unable to push in the locked steel doors, they huddled in a walkway between the two car wash bays.

Within moments, the tornado was overhead.

John was terrified. "The whole time I was thinking, Wow, this is really happening. … We're going through a tornado. This is what it's like to die. … I kind of closed my eyes and put my head down, and I was just kind of wishing and praying just, it would just get over with."

In the panic, no one realized that John's younger brother Jordan was neither hiding at the car wash, nor taking cover inside the walk-in cooler.

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Meanwhile, at Pizza Ranch, Tyann Lester's son, Damion, and assistant manager Jessie were frantically trying to get the customers to safety, but time was running out.

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