A menacing tornado churned behind Mike Eilts as the storm chaser's truck sped away.
It seemed like the perfect escape, until Eilts realized he was barreling toward a dead end.
The team from the National Severe Storms Laboratory had two choices: one bad, and the other worse.
"The decision was either to get out of the car and jump in the farmer's yard," he says, "or to try and beat it."
Driving toward the tornado was the only way out.
The truck shook as the edge of the tornado pushed it, Eilts recalls. But he floored it and somehow made it to safety.
That was more than two decades ago. But even now, the sight of the dirt swirling and the sound of screams that day are memories that remain fresh in Eilts' mind.
It was a close call -- the kind of thing Eilts says you don't forget.
The deaths of three storm chasers in Oklahoma have sparked a surge of questions about people who drive toward tornadoes when others run away.
Who chases storms? Why do they do it? And what makes it worth the risk?
Visiting the 'tornado zoo'
Some say storm chasing provides valuable scientific information that helps increase warning times for people in harm's way. Some argue it's a dangerous hobby for thousands of inexperienced onlookers searching for a thrill. But others stress that there are safe ways to chase tornadoes, a kind of tourism that one company compares to a cruise vacation.
Eilts, who once worked as a government researcher and now is the president and CEO of Oklahoma-based Weather Decision Technologies, says he's seen both sides.
It used to be that the only people going toward tornadoes were trained scientists, he says.
Now, when he's observing storms, a different sort of sight makes Eilts turn around and head home.
Not the ominous funnel clouds.
These days, Eilts says what he fears are car after car, parallel parked on highway shoulders, with droves of people stretching their arms into the air, trying to capture the "money shot."
"I call it 'tornado zoo.' They think they can just drive up like it's a lion on the other side of the cage," he says. "They take a picture or video of it, not thinking that the whole thing can expand in literally seconds, a new suction spot can come out, and you have no time to react to that kind of thing."
Martin Lisius, who's been chasing storms since 1987, calls them the "children of 'Twister.'"
The 1996 film, he says, spawned a generation of storm chasers who search for thrills with no idea of the risks.
"They're acting like they're in a movie," he says.
Some of them seem to be motivated by fame or fortune, he says, or maybe even the hope that their video can land on television.
For years CNN and other national television news networks have purchased tornado videos shot by freelance storm chasers. Traditionally the fees are in the hundreds of dollars, but could be more than $1,000 for editorially important images.
Eilts says he worries that one of these days, a storm will strike while thousands of people are stuck in traffic jams caused by storm gawkers. Already, he says, professionals have a harder time collecting data, and emergency responders struggle to reach areas that are in danger.
"I think it causes a lot of problems for scientists that are trying to do their jobs, for scientists that are trying to get sensors in the right place," he says. "Now they're worried about, 'How do you stay out of the parking lot of storm chasers and stay safe?'"