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May 26, 2013

Tornado leaves Moore in shambles, but not broken

Walking the path of devastation

MOORE — The crying starts nearly every hour. There is no warning or preamble. Just an overall flow of tears and emotions.

That was the routine of 11-year-old Brady McKay for two days after he and his classmates were trapped inside at Briarwood Elementary School on Monday during the most devastating tornado to ever hit the state.

With his school directly in the path of the EF-5 event, even at a young age, McKay knows he was precariously close to death.

“The tornado’s path was supposed to be at Westmoore (High), but it curved and it hit us,” McKay said. “I heard it was on top of the school for about three minutes. They said it went slower than the May 3rd (1999). I don’t believe that or else we would be dead.”

The tornado that changed McKay’s life — and those of 33,000 others — first touched down at 2:45 p.m. Monday in neighboring Newcastle.

It crossed into Moore less than 15 minutes later.

Over the next 50 minutes, the tornado would create a 14-mile path of destruction through this community, which had prided itself on its resilience in coming back from the monster tornado that hit in 1999.

“Always try to keep a smile on your face,” said Ron Meyer, who was in Moore during the 1999 tornado also. “You can cry over spilt milk I guess, but there is nothing you can do about it. Just call State Farm and get back to it.”

Monday’s twister would swell to 1.3 miles at its widest point. At its strongest, it would blast the community with winds reaching 210 mph. It would take two dozen lives — 20 of them in Moore, including 10 of the community’s children — and injure more than 350 others.

The tornado would destroy two elementary schools, make a direct hit on Moore Medical Center and take a solid shot at one of the community’s most popular destinations, the Warren Theatre.

The tornado finished its devastation at 3:35 p.m. over Lake Draper. By then it had been on the ground less than an hour.

 

Scene of raw emotion

 

Three days later, the tornado’s 14-mile path through Moore was the scene of raw emotion — of those picking through rubble to salvage personal effects, mourning the loss of friends and loved ones, struggling to understand what happened; and vowing, once again, to rebuild and move on.

“It’s fantastic to see that there are thousands of people out here helping,” University of Oklahoma student Carrisa Hoescher said after volunteering to clean around Moore. “I’ve never been so proud of humans. It’s just amazing how people are just coming together like this.”

The first visible signs of the storm can be seen near Interstate 44 in Oklahoma City. An old metal bridge, which had long been out of use, split down the middle with half of it toppled over onto the interstate.

The tornado slowly moved its way through Oklahoma City and Newcastle, tumbling trees and telephone poles.

On the corner of 149th Street and Western Avenue, the ground was littered with household cleaning supplies, clothes and an abundance of children’s toys.  A makeshift sign had been made out of plywood with the message “Trenz Knows God is Good” scrawled on it. It was all that was left of Blessings Children’s Consignment Boutique.

The boutique stood 0.7 miles from Briarwood Elementary School. Staff knew the storm was approaching, but it wasn’t until it was nearly on top of them that they found out how unyielding it had become.

“They announced over the intercom and told us to take tornado precautions,” said Leesa Kniffen, a Briarwood first-grade teacher. “But I had no indication of how big or how bad it was.”

 

No Red Reader books

 

Kniffen had to think quick. Her life and the lives of the 15 students and teacher’s assistant in her classroom were in jeopardy. She had been taught to have the students get low and place “Red Reader” books on top of their heads. But because school was four days from being let out for the summer, those books already were packed away in boxes.

Kniffen came up with a different plan on the spot.

“My kids were crouched down on their knees with their heads down,” Kniffen said. “I thought about getting backpacks and putting them on their head.  But something told me don’t worry with the backpacks. I pushed the table and I went and got desks. I lined the desks the up over the kids against the wall.”

As soon as the class had gotten under their desks, the tornado was on top of them.

“It was unbelievable,” Kniffen said. “We could hear it. I could hear that whooshing sound. I’ve lived in Oklahoma my whole life and never experienced anything like that.

“Then we started hearing things hit, then the children started screaming and crying. That was the absolute worst. Trying to tell them it’s going to be OK. And really not knowing if we are going to be OK. You felt like you were being sucked up.

“Things kept falling. Kids kept screaming. I just kept praying. ‘God, let it pass, let it pass.’”

The ceiling and walls of Kniffen’s classroom collapsed on top of them. Had it not been for the desks, she believes none of them would have survived. The desk formed a tunnel in which they were able to crawl to safety.

The only injury in her group was to the teacher’s aide, Susan Hailey, who had a leg of a desk impaled through her own leg.

“It’s very stunning,” Kniffen said. “It’s not even real. How in the world did we get out? We’ve had parents today tell us you are a hero. I tell them we just survived.”

 

Student and his mother

 

At the exact same time, McKay was down the hall at Briarwood, in one of the school’s bathroom, But he was not alone.

His mother, Melissa McKay, is a sixth-grade teacher at Briarwood and somehow was able to find her son in the commotion lay on top of him and another student as the tornado bombarded the school.

“Me and my mom were in the corner,” Brady McKay said. “My mom was on top of me, squeezing me as tight as she could. I felt a little bit safer. I was very scared. But I felt a little bit safer that my mom was here.”

While Melissa McKay did her best to keep a brave face for the students, she was not as optimistic as her son.

“Once we got into the bathrooms, I just kept telling them it was going to be OK,” Melissa McKay said. “But going through it was pretty tough. I know God’s hands were on us. All I could think was, if I am going to heaven, I’m going to heaven with my baby in my arms.”

Despite the destructive force of the tornado, every Briarwood student, teacher and staff member made it out alive. But after escaping the rubble and seeing the catastrophic damage that took place, it was like a foreign land.

“This is not Briarwood Elementary,” Brady McKay said. “I didn’t look behind me. I didn’t look around. I looked straight forward.”

 

Tornado moved east

 

The tornado continued east, growing bigger and stronger as it moved. It destroyed houses, business and vehicles in its path. It picked up debris, which made it even more dangerous. Its 200 mph-plus winds threw debris for miles; debris was reportedly found as far away as Missouri.

Southmoore High School, which sits on Santa Fe Avenue, is the next main street the tornado reached. Even though the school was a few blocks south of the outer edge of the twister, the students and staff who were still in school when the storm rolled in had to stay locked inside the building not knowing how harsh the tornado was.

“We weren’t allowed to leave until 5 p.m.,” Southmoore teacher Spencer Braggs said. “When we got out, it was a disaster area. People say it’s a war zone. I don’t think of it as a war zone. I think of it as a bomb just dropped on us. Just a solid bomb.”

The tornado crossed Santa Fe and tore through two banks and several small businesses such as Moore Gold & Jewelry, Cheese Wine and Spirits and Dan McGuinness Pub.

On the other side of the shopping center is a large field with no structures. It’s now filled with debris, photos and toys. The field led to the back entrance of a neighborhood, where Oklahoma assistant football coach Rodney Rideaux was waiting with his daughter. He had planned for them to just ride out the storm in the closet of his house off of 14th Street and Ridgeway Drive.

“I was listening to Mike Morgan do his broadcast,” Rideaux said. “He told the Moore residents, if they didn’t have a storm shelter, they should get out right now because obviously it’s going to be a deadly tornado.

“At that moment I woke her up, grabbed her and put her in the car and we rolled out. Once I got to 19th Street, I could see the tornado in my rearview mirror. We were going so fast, we forgot the dog in the backyard.”

While Rideaux and his daughter were able to get out of the neighborhood safely, a block from his house, Sharon Reid told the story of her son’s next-door neighbor, 70-year-old Deanna Ward, also a Ridgeway Drive resident. Reid’s son and his fiancee were able to jump into his car when they saw the tornado coming and drove to Blanchard before stopping. However, Ward was not so lucky, as she was trapped in her house when the storm arrived. She was with her son, who wouldn’t leave her side. The two went into a closet, where he held her hand as the house crumbled on top of them.

“He ended up going to the hospital with some broken bones,” Reid said. “She didn’t make it. She died. The shelter is right next door. She would have just had to go through her back gate, but she couldn’t get to it.”

 

Plaza Towers scene

 

Less than a block from Ward’s house stood Plaza Towers Elementary School on Eagle Drive. It’s where teachers shepherded students into a central hallway and bathrooms as the tornado bore down on the building.

The building was destroyed, and seven 8- and 9-year-old students were killed. They were hiding in the basement of the school when the storm struck and the building collapsed on top of them. The official cause of death was asphyxia. They suffocated beneath the debris.

“Not one parent blamed us. Not one of them blamed us,” an emotional Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson said. “Because they are Oklahomans, and they know what a tornado means. Yesterday, we buried one of our seven. Today we buried two. Tomorrow we will bury one more. The families want everybody to know Plaza Towers did everything they could do.”

Prior to the storm, all around Plaza Towers stood nothing but houses for almost a mile. The tornado destroyed many houses while leaving others standing, including the home of Southmoore football player Brandon Dicks. He said the thing that amazed him the most was seeing a single house standing while all the houses surrounding it were leveled.

After traveling a mile and half, the storm reached Telephone Road, where it tore through the Warren Theatre. It also took the top off the Moore Medical Center, but that didn’t stop Shayla Taylor from going into labor.

When the tornado hit the hospital, her husband, who had been in the cafeteria, ran up the stairs to check on his wife. He found the expecting mother in bed, worried, but still in good condition.

Taylor was able to hold off a couple of more hours before bringing baby Braiden into the world. His May 20 birthday will now go down in Moore lore as the day of the most ferocious tornado in the state’s history.

A few hours before Braiden was born, the youngest person to die in the storm, 3-month-old Case Futrell, was right across the street at 600 W. 4th Street.

Case was picked up by his mother, 29-year-old Megan, as the storm approached Moore. Megan and Case took shelter at the 7-Eleven convenience store. They ran into the walk-in freezer after E.H. Pittman reportedly got three other people to crowd into the store bathroom.

Pittman, an Oklahoma national guardsman, attempted to save the Futrells when he covered their bodies with his. But it wasn’t enough. Both mother and daughter died of blunt force trauma as the building was destroyed with them inside.

The other customers were found alive. Pittman is in Norman Regional Hospital with spinal cord injuries, lacerations on his liver, broken shoulder blades and collapsed lungs.

 

The end of destruction

 

The tornado continued over I-35 and headed 1.7 miles toward Moore High School. It avoided doing any significant damage to the school, but the neighborhoods to the south were demolished.

Shawn Wilson was at his home on the corner of 8th and Eastern streets when it all came down.

“I was just in the shower when it hit,” Wilson said. “Everything came down on top of me. Rubble was just on top of me. I was yelling for my mom and my handicapped little brother. He was right next to her. Once I pulled myself out, I found them lying in the middle of the kitchen. My mom was holding onto my brother’s hand.”

The storm push on eastward and didn’t stop until it reached Lake Draper 7.4 miles away in Oklahoma City. The damage was done.

Yet, despite these horrific moments and uncertain future, residents have found things to smile about.

As Reid combed through the rubble of her son’s house on Ridgeway Drive, she found his graduation ring, as well as the adoption papers she had been searching for.

John Sacotte searched for two days for his lost wallet that had his credit cards and identification. His sister-in-law, Micki Adams of Blackwell, is the one who finally found it while searching the debris. When she found it, the entire group let out a cheer that could be heard over the demolition taking place on SW 6th Street.

“Right now, I could walk out of here and I’m good,” Sacotte said. “Travelers write me a check and I’m gone. If I didn’t dig for another thing, I’m good. She is the hero. I married well.”

Curt Garrison had to endure knowing his fiancee, Wei Lu, was home alone on Eagle Drive when the tornado destroyed the house he rented from Greg Kidd. Lu wasn’t able to make it to the shelter in time, so he told her to go directly into the closet.

As soon as Lu said “OK”, the phone went dead.

Garrison had no idea if Lu was alive or dead until he arrived home and saw her standing in the driveway with only a small cut.

Everything they owned was destroyed. The house was nothing but a mound of brick, wood and plaster.

As they searched for Lu’s visa papers and other mementos, an American Flag hung from pieces of debris at the top of the rubble flowing in the wind. Residents throughout this city had the same idea -- lot after lot, Old Glory flew where houses once stood.

“One of my mates found that and he stuck it up there,” said Garrison. “You can’t break America. Mother Nature can’t even beat us down.”

 

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