Mississippi Couple Took Shelter in a Car Wash During Deadly Tornado: 'Everything was Flying'

When Linda Newell and her fiancé discovered they had mere minutes to leave their home in Rolling Fork and find shelter from the storm, "we just started praying," she says

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rogelio Solis/AP/Shutterstock (13845382b) Law-enforcement officers climb through debris on a diner looking for survivors early in Rolling Fork, Miss. No one was found. Emergency officials in Mississippi say several people have been killed by tornadoes that tore through the state on Friday night, destroying buildings and knocking out power as severe weather produced hail the size of golf balls moved through several southern states Severe Weather Mississippi, Rolling Fork, United States - 25 Mar 2023
Tornado damage in Mississippi. Photo: Rogelio Solis/AP/Shutterstock

Linda Newell had only minutes to find a safe place to shelter from the deadly tornadoes that struck Mississippi Friday evening. She and her fiancé got into their truck and took shelter under a car wash.

"Everything was flying," she told PEOPLE, recalling her harrowing tale of survival. "That six minutes felt like hours."

As of Sunday, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) reports 25 fatalities and dozens of injuries in the wave of deadly tornadoes that tore through the state, as search and rescue efforts continue. The storms claimed at least one other life in Alabama.

The most impacted areas have been rural towns like Silver City and Newell's home town, Rolling Fork.

"The town of Rolling Fork is destroyed. It will take years and years to rebuild," she said.

"We waited for the [emergency] siren to go off, but no siren went off," she recalled.

But she could hear the tornado winds outside – and then, her favorite TV news meteorologist announced everyone had five to 10 minutes to take cover.

"We just started praying," she explained. "When the storm got loud, we prayed louder."

Newell lives in a four-bedroom manufactured home. It wouldn't be safe to shelter in during a tornado, she says. The couple grabbed their two German Shepherds, Sasha and Remi; then jumped into their gray GMC Sierra truck and started driving, looking for a safe place.

Their neighbors were out of town. They pulled into a car wash.

"We thought it would be safe and secure," noted Newell, a clinical healthcare worker who does outreach services in the community.

Looking out the window, she saw cars rolling and manufactured homes flying – there was furniture and storage bins hurling through the air.

The front and back windshields of their truck collapsed, and the driver's side windows shattered. Newell pulled her fiancé, 60-year-old Percy Johnson Sr., toward her and told him to get low.

"It was terrifying. I just started screaming," she said. "I grabbed Percy and we got down as far as we could in the truck and we just started praying."

A seven-foot beam fell inches from Johnson Sr.'s head. "It missed him by three inches, it was stuck in the dashboard. It pinned him in. He could not move. And I was pinned in from the walls on my side."

When the tornado passed, neither could open their car door. The dogs were both "in panic mode" because they couldn't reach their owners. Debris poured into the windows, hitting the couple hard.

"I can still feel glass in my skin," Newell told PEOPLE. "My face is burning."

An hour and a half later, first responders cut the couple out of their truck – they were wrapped in bricks and tin, "like a sardine can," she said.

Luckily, the dogs and the owners all survived the harrowing ordeal with minor injuries. One dog has a small cut on its leg.

Newell's head was cut and bleeding, and she has sand in her eyes that she's trying not to rub and cause further damage. Her hair is full of sand, too. "I've washed my hair three times – I still have it," she noted. "But I'm so grateful, so thankful to our Heavenly Father for shielding and protecting us."

She said she didn't even know she could pray that loud.

"I prayed as loud as that wind was. I was screaming. I was loud to make sure God heard me over that wind."

Their home, it turns out, was fine. "[The tornado] didn't touch our house," she said, noting that only a trashcan was knocked over.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

Still, she said she thinks it was a smart idea to evacuate.

Newell's son also survived the storm, she reported. He was coming to check on his mother when the wind lifted his car up and spun it around in the air before landing upside down about 500 feet from where he started.

"He ran right into the tail of it, lifted him up. He said, 'Mom, I could see the eye of the storm,' she said. "It twisted him around."

When her son's car landed in a ditch, "He could feel the car crushing him," she explained. "He's 6 foot 2, so he's pretty strong. He was able to use his body and push himself out."

However, he ended up needing 40 stitches in his face.

"I'm so thankful he's alive," Newell said. "We had people we knew that didn't make it, that didn't survive it."

She and Johnson Sr. are planning to wed on Sept. 23 of this year, and the ordeal has brought them even closer: "My fiancé, he was just so grateful and so happy. All we could do was hug each other. His sister called to check on him. He told her, "I love this woman even more now."

Related Articles