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These 2 EMTs drove their ambulance into an EF3 tornado and survived -- and they have the video to prove it

By John Roach, AccuWeather staff writer
April 24, 2019, 8:41:36 AM EDT

Billy Akers and Bryan Ferguson are part-time EMTs for Franklin County’s Department of Public Safety in Rocky Mount, Virginia. Longtime veterans of emergency work, they’re not rattled by much.

Except when it’s the full force of an EF3 tornado rocking their ambulance and pelting it with debris.

“Man, that was crazy,” Ferguson told AccuWeather, recalling the event. “It’s like, ‘Should we be here right now?’ We had somebody watching over us.”

Their shift was just starting last Friday morning, and they were on a routine return trip on Route 220 northbound near Sydnorsville, Va., after dropping off a patient at a nearby hospital. Akers, with nearly 30 years in fire and EMT service, was driving in an increasing downpour, part of a deadly multi-day severe weather outbreak across the southern and eastern U.S.

Ferguson, in the passenger’s seat, had an idea, since the ambulance’s dash cam was broken: He pulled out his cellphone and turned on the camera. “Something told me to start recording,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson was also tracking the storm and noted that they might be heading into more severe weather. “We’ll know if we get hail in a minute,” Ferguson said.

Soon after, an announcement came over their radio.

“Attention all units: be advised we are currently in a tornado warning until 11 for this area. Again, tornado warning until 11 o’clock.”

Virginia EMTs

Billy Akers (left) and Bryan Ferguson drove their ambulance into a rain-wrapped tornado. (Photos courtesy of Billy Akers and Bryan Ferguson)

“We are in it,” Ferguson said to Akers.

“It happened so quick,” Ferguson told AccuWeather.

“And as fast as it hit us was as fast as it was past us,” Akers added.

“It looks like he drove right into the heart of the tornado,” said AccuWeather meteorologist Jesse Ferrell. “Rain-wrapped tornadoes like this one are dangerous because you can’t see them coming.”

As Ferguson’s video shows, Akers and Ferguson went from driving through a powerful downpour to having their ambulance rocked by what was an EF3 tornado, according to a preliminary report by the National Weather Service, in less than three minutes. According to the Enhanced Fujita Scale, EF3 tornadoes pack wind speeds of between 136 mph and 165 mph. Akers pulled over and the tornado overwhelmed the vehicle.

“It was kinda crazy,” Akers said. “I said, ‘Hey bud, just watch your eyes because I don’t know if it’s going to hit glass.’

“And I just sat there, tucked my head down and protected my eyes,” Akers said. “The truck started shaking back and forth and we could hear the debris hitting us.”

Their ambulance’s back two windows were broken and debris flew throughout the back and whipped forward toward the cabin.

Ambulance tree

This tree fell just in front of the ambulance during the F3 tornado. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Anderson Durham)

Still, as disturbing as the tornado’s power and the feeling of uncertainty were, even that didn’t shake them for long.

“You guys OK, 10-4?” the radio operator asked, to which Ferguson coolly replied, “We are, 10-4. The unit not so much. We’re going to be out checking other vehicles.”

And just like that, the two tornado survivors switched into rescuers.

“We just went to work -- that’s what's ingrained in us,” Akers told AccuWeather.

“That’s just a mindset we’ve got,” Ferguson added.

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Two toppled trees bracketed their ambulance, missing them in front and back by about 10-15 feet. A tree in-between those two trees fell the other way and landed on a pulled-over pickup truck in the southbound lane on route 220. Luck clearly favored the pair.

Akers and Ferguson exited the ambulance and went to rescue the trapped driver, whom they helped remove from the truck.

“It was really quiet, but with eerie popping sounds -- was it electricity popping or trees still snapping?” Akers said he wondered, cautiously on the lookout for downed wires. “We just kept looking back and forth with our heads on a swivel.”

The pair continued their emergency work, radioing in details and helping other motorists as needed, with Akers knowing others would be shaken by the experience.

“I’ve never been in a situation like that as a driver,” Akers said.

“In hindsight we could have stopped and waited or maybe went around it,” Ferguson said. “I think we were more focused on wow, this is rough, and then all of a sudden we were in it.”

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