NewsChannel 5 producer recounts serious crash on way to cover storms

Posted at 11:44 AM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-04 12:50:51-05

Editors Note: Whitt Laxson is a morning news producer for NewsChannel 5. On the morning the tornadoes hit Middle Tennessee, he, like many of us, raced to work to cover the storms. Unfortunately, Whitt was involved in a serious crash on his way in. He went to the ER and was released, and shared his story on his Facebook page. We wanted to share his story as a first-person perspective from the heart of the storm.

While Chris Conte was out covering damage overnight, he happened to see Whitt, who was standing next to his damaged car. That interview is in the video above.

Miracles happen, once in awhile... And it’s a miracle from God that I am alive right now. Somehow I survived being in an EF-2 tornado with 125mph winds. This happened as I was driving to work my overnight shift at NewsChannel 5. We were in a Storm 5 Alert throughout the day, and I had been keeping up with the weather before leaving my apartment. Moments before I walked out the door, I saw that Davidson County was now under a severe thunderstorm warning. Clearly, I should have stayed put.

It takes me about 20 minutes to get into downtown Nashville, and as I was driving, an alert went off on my phone. A tornado warning had been issued in the area. I could already feel heavy winds hitting my car on the interstate, and the skies looked purple and ominous. That’s when I called my longtime friend and co-worker Annie Hobbs, who was already at the station. We were both terrified, and she continued to stay on the phone with me.

After getting off I-40 and onto Rosa L. Parks Blvd., I was in a panic trying to get to NewsChannel 5. This was not the right thing to do in a tornado warning, but I kept going. I was about 3 or 4 minutes from arriving to the station when it hit. I saw a police car zoom by in the opposite direction. Then pouring rain and flying debris came out of nowhere. I saw one piece of debris in rotation, and suddenly my car was covered. I couldn’t see anything, but it never felt like I was lifted off the ground. My car was quickly blown across the street, and I hit a tall, vertical sign for AutoZone.

It happened so fast I didn’t know what was going on. I just kept yelling “Annie” over and over. All the airbags went off. Every window was shattered. The windshield stayed intact, but pictures show that a piece of wood cracked it open on the passenger side. I was alive, and I didn’t feel any injuries. Thankfully my phone only fell into the floorboard, and my glasses fell off into my lap. I grabbed my phone and told Annie that I had crashed but was okay. She said I had just been in a tornado. Even though I knew where I was, I had a hard time forming the words to tell her. “Rosa Parks and Jefferson.”

Next it was fight or flight. I climbed out the backseat window and ran over to a Rite Aid. This felt like a scene out of a disaster movie. There was a couple in a car who yelled for me to get in. I got in the backseat and sat next their baby. We parked under the drive-thru awning at Rite Aid. We were completely in shock. Annie assured me that someone from the station was coming to get me. I was trying to find out if another tornado was coming. Police cars and fire trucks were showing up everywhere. My repeated calls to 911 went to a voice message.

Aside from my nerves, things eventually calmed down a bit. My co-workers came to rescue me as we were going live on the air for breaking news. Of course, my natural response was to start taking pictures, thinking we might need them for the morning show. People started walking up and down Rosa Parks. I went back to check on my car, which was definitely totaled. Chris Conte interviewed me at this point, which has since aired on national news.

Somewhere in all of this I did call my parents and told them what was going on. I spoke to them more at length once I got back to NewsChannel 5. Walking into the station was a huge relief even though everything I was experiencing was surreal. The newsroom was busy, but I was well taken care of. I also got to hug Annie, which makes me emotional to think about.

Instead of working I went to the emergency room. My shoulder was bruised from the seatbelt, and I had a piece of glass removed from my arm. While waiting, I watched my NewsChannel 5 family deliver incredible breaking news coverage. I’ve continued to watch it since, and wow, I am so proud of our team.

By morning my parents came to get me in Nashville. Physically, I am sore and recovering in my hometown. I am ready to get back to Nashville though. It’s a city I’ve grown to love over the past 2 years. A city that is healing after tragedy. A tragedy I was directly hit by. I’m sure this will be something that continues to play out in my head for awhile. I will always remember being in the 2020 Nashville tornado. Only one of three to ever hit downtown.

Looking at the photos it is really hard to believe things didn’t turn out worse for me. The AutoZone store collapsed. Almost dying isn’t something I’ve processed. I definitely had a guardian angel protecting me. Yes, it puts a lot of things into perspective. I sweat trivial stuff all the time that truly doesn’t matter.

I grew up being weather aware, and I’ve always taken precautions to stay safe. I can’t think of another time where I’ve actually been out in weather that severe. So this was a first and hopefully a last. It was the first tornado I’ve ever experienced. Who knows if it will happen again, but if so, I will definitely be smarter about protecting myself.

I know the main thing right now is that I’m okay. I’m extremely blessed and thankful to be alive. I am thankful to my NewsChannel 5 family for coming to my rescue and taking great care of me. I am thankful to everyone who has reached out. I really appreciate it.