James Dock was treating a friend to a movie Monday afternoon to celebrate the friend's 21st birthday.
In the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, Dock, 25, splurged on tickets for "Star Trek Into Darkness" at the Warren Theatre's more expensive balcony seats, for those 21 and older.
The movie had just begun when phones started buzzing with weather alerts, Dock told the Los Angeles Times via text message. He said it was difficult to communicate because cellphone signals and Internet were down.
Outside, a massive tornado wielding 200-mph winds was ripping through Moore. By evening, at least 51 people were dead, including several children, and at least 120 were injured. The death toll was likely to rise, officials said.
"We never heard sirens, but we could hear something bouncing off the roof," Dock told the Times. "I thought it was hail, but I didn't see any afterward."
Dock said the theater manager came in just before 3 p.m. and ushered those in the balcony downstairs, telling them to go into the halls between theaters.
One weather forecaster on KWTV-9 warned the public: "You want to put as many walls between you and the tornado" as possible.
"We were in the hall for about five minutes when the power went off," he said. "The emergency lights started fading and going out, so people started using the lights on their phones."
About 3:15 p.m., a theater employee shouted for everyone to get against the wall and put their heads down, Dock said. The air pressure dropped, he said, and it felt cold.
"There was a great kind of roaring sound, and the ground started shaking, making everything else start shaking," he told The Times.
After about 10 minutes, theatergoers got the all-clear, he said.
"Most people got up and left, but some of us stayed in the dark hall for about 10 more minutes," he said. "We weren't really sure how bad it was until we walked outside. Mud and debris were covering everything. The marquee of the theater had been torn off of the front, and there was broken glass everywhere."
The driver's-side windows of Dock's car were smashed in by an 18-inch chunk of wood, he said. A bowling alley "was completely gone, and the medical center looked torn in half, and there was a car sticking out of it," he said.
"There was a cloud of smoke rising from behind the theater," he said. "The police started showing up immediately," followed by ambulances and fire trucks. The IMAX theater was turned into a triage center, Dock said.
"They started bringing people out of the wreckage and taking them there," he texted. "A couple of people showed up with gloves and helped me get the broken glass off the seats of my car so I could leave."
Dock said he was shaken by the experience, but also relieved.
"Now that I have seen what almost hit us, I feel extremely lucky to be alive," he said. "I feel numb."