By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - Luck was on the side of El Reno, Oklahoma, on Friday as the widest tornado ever measured in the U.S. took a long detour around the city, according to the National Weather Service, which released its findings on the massive twister on Tuesday.
The rare EF5 tornado, 2.6 miles wide and with wind speeds reaching 295 mph, touched down southwest of El Reno at 6:03 p.m., making a semicircle for 40 minutes around the city of 17,200 people, the National Weather Service said.
"It missed," said Doug Speheger, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "It's very fortunate that it happened ... missing El Reno."
The storms and flash flooding that followed on Friday and Saturday claimed the lives of at least 19 people, including three storm chasers, according to the Oklahoma chief medical examiner.
It followed another EF5 tornado on May 20 that flattened whole sections of the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore and killed 24 people. The weather service said it was the first time in Oklahoma history that two such powerful tornadoes struck within such a short period of time.
The storms over most of central Oklahoma on Friday created what Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin called a "nightmare" situation of cars clogging the highways. She said some people got in their cars because they were fearful of a repeat of the devastating Moore tornado.
"An unusual amount of people got in their cars to travel somewhere else to try to get out of the storm's path, which led to tremendous congestion on the highway," she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Fallin said some people were killed because they were sucked from cars or the cars were tossed from the road. A few people remain missing but Fallin said she was not certain of the exact number.
The El Reno tornado reached its maximum width and intensity in a rural area, where few structures stand, southeast of El Reno, Speheger said.
The twister diminished 16.2 miles from where it began along Interstate 40, between El Reno and Oklahoma City, the weather service reported.
If the twister had started to work into the more densely populated western suburbs of Oklahoma City or into the city itself, it "would have been devastating," Speheger said.
The National Weather Service has confirmed five tornadoes touched down on Friday night in the Oklahoma City area. Speheger said the service will be confirming more twisters as meteorologists are able to document and investigate reported tornadoes.
The medical examiner has confirmed at least two of the fatalities were drownings. Seven family members, including four children, from Guatemala perished when flood waters swept them away as they hid in a storm drain, according to Oklahoma City Deputy Fire Chief Marc Woodard.
The medical examiner is yet to release the cause of death for seven of the 19 deceased.
On May 22, 2004, an EF4 tore through Hallam, Nebraska. It was 2.5 miles wide and before El Reno's twister, it was the widest ever measured in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Additional reporting by Greg McCune; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)