“I left the door open on the shelter so we could look. We had the radio down there to follow the path of the tornado,” said 53-year-old Greg Stephens.
Then the winds roared, and Stephens moved to close the door.
“It wouldn’t latch,” he recalled.
He clambered out and struggled with the door, trying to bend it to his will. No luck. Amid the blare of sirens and with time running out, he dragged over some long wooden tables and propped them near the door. He hoped that the furniture might prevent the group from being sucked out of the space in case the door failed to hold.
Stephens returned to his family and shut the broken door.
“It became apparent [the tornado] was going to hit us directly. We could hear ripping metal. You could tell it was extremely strong winds.”
The group hugged each other, their ears burning from the pressure of the winds. The storm door flew open but somehow remained attached to the hinge. The shelter filled with dust.
“I thought, ‘If we’re going to die, this is going to be it,’” Stephens recalled. “That’s when I thought [the tornado] was going to pull us out. Luckily, that was the back end of the tornado.”
The tornado passed, and they climbed out. Nothing remained of the house that the Stephenses had lived in for 15 years.
Stephens said that didn’t matter. His family was safe. “Everything else,” he said, “is just material.” —Phil Bacharach
Adam Johnston had never seen a tornado until May 20. Now, he said he’s ready to move back to California.
“I saw it right before it hit. I grabbed the dogs and headed to the center part of the house, which was a closet,” he said.
That last move saved his life. With the home toppling around him, the 38-year-old and his dogs were spared.
“I felt the ground shake, and then everything came down around me,” he said.
With piles of debris on top of him, Johnston began shouting for anyone within earshot. Finally, rescue workers heard him.
“I was pinned in that hole,” he said, pointing to what remained of the closet area. “I got my head out [from under the debris] and began hollering for help. It seemed like I was in there quite a while when this guy dug me and the dogs out, and then he disappeared. I guess he went off to help someone else.” —Tim Farley
‘Just really scary’
Laura Shao, a physician assistant at Moore Medical Center, was seeing patients in the clinic when the announcement came for everyone to go to the cafeteria to guard against the tornado.
The native Oklahoman wasn’t too worried.
“I thought, ‘It’s probably just a false alarm and we’re doing this to be safe rather than sorry,’” said Shao.
Then the building began to rattle, and she realized this was different.
“We were [in the cafeteria] for about 20 minutes before they started to say it was around us. We just kept following the news and then the power went out . We tried to stay connected on our cell phones,” Shao said.
“The feeling is just … ominous. People are screaming and petrified, you have newborn babies with their moms who have just delivered, you have inpatients, patients you’re seeing that day, your staff, your nurses … it’s just really scary.”
The following day, Shao was at her church in Moore, St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, which the American Red Cross had established as a shelter. The vibe there made her helpful.
“There’s tons of supplies. People are really turning out,” Shao said. “It seems like we’re all pretty hopeful. We’re going to make it through this.” —Louis Fowler
Dewey Williams, a former airman in the U.S. Air Force, used the lifesaving skills he learned in the military to help children trapped inside Plaza Towers Elementary School at 852 S.W. 11th in Moore.
Two young girls he carried outside had died, but one boy he rescued was still alive.
“The one that was moving was shocked and screaming for Mom and Dad,” Williams said.
He carried the boy to a medical station to be treated for injuries. Williams said the experience was harrowing.
“One of the little girls reminded me of my little sister,” he said. “It can be very hard carrying a little kid who is not moving.”
Of the 24 people who died in the tornado, seven were students at Plaza Towers.—TF
Mother and daughter
Claire Sells’ 11th birthday wasn’t what she anticipated, but thankfully, there was a celebration — of sorts.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Claire was among the students at Plaza Towers.
At the same time, her mother, Moore High School teacher Suzanne Sells, was working to comfort her students while furiously trying to connect with her daughter.
“I saw the path and once it hit the river and turned, I knew exactly where it would hit — my house and my daughter’s school,” she said. “After it passed us, one of our custodians said Plaza Towers was leveled and I lost it.”
Sells said she later learned that many of the elementary school students had been ordered into the bathrooms.
“They piled kids on top of each other and told them to squeeze in,” she said. “My daughter was on the bottom and had a mouthful of mud. The bathroom is one part of the school that is still standing.” —TF
Twice a survivor
John Affentranger Jr. considers himself a pretty lucky person. He hasn’t won Powerball or claimed a big casino jackpot, but he is alive to tell how two massive tornadoes — 14 years apart — avoided his home and spared his life.
He lives on S.W. 139th in Oklahoma City, a block from one of the most tornado-ravaged areas.
On May 3, 1999, Affentranger made his way to the bathroom, hunkered down in the bathtub and rode out a vicious EF5 twister that killed more than 40 people and left behind more than a $1 billion in damages.
Fourteen years later, he sought shelter in that same tub.
Again, he survived. But this time, he said, he was ready to meet his creator.
“It missed me by an inch,” Affentranger said. “One time to the east and another time to the west. I was ready to die.”
He doesn’t know if his luck will hold out a third time.
“I’m thinkin’ I’m going to move,” he said. “This is bullshit. I was in that tub, praying. It’s all you can do. I told the Lord, ‘Take me if you want.’”
Equipped with a portable oxygen tank and mask, he then filed up and down Santa Fe, offering his home as a place of refuge for those who now had none. —TF
Not used to this
Chris and Christina Luna are grateful they decided to include a backyard
storm shelter in their homebuilding plans almost a year ago.
“We were in there about five to 10 minutes before it hit,” Chris Luna said. “It got really quiet.”
After the twister had passed, the Lunas — with 5-month-old daughter, Skylar, in tow — emerged from the underground shelter to see the devastation.
“I was more scared after it was over and we came out to look at what happened,” said Christina Luna. “We will try to rebuild. I still like the area.”
Chris Luna hails from New York, while his wife is from Virginia. They said they’re not used to Oklahoma’s tornado season.
“We’re used to hurricanes or blizzards, so that was scary,” she said. —TF
Having lived in Tornado Alley all their lives, Moore residents James and Novieda Johnson didn’t appear upset that their home was wiped out by the twister.
“One way or another, we will manage,” Novieda Johnson said. “We’re all alive and no one is injured. When I look at everybody and see the ambulances, we’re doing fine.”
The couple’s home on S. Brent Drive was directly in the middle of a devastated Moore neighborhood.
“We were talking about needing a storm shelter, and then [we were] running for the bathroom,” James
Johnson said. “We’re in for a whole lot of work, but we’re blessed. We don’t look like we’re blessed, but we are.”
They sat in chairs outside their wrecked home that first evening, watching emergency personnel rush to other crises.—TF
Deidra Osborne wasn’t going to keep anyone out of her backyard storm shelter on S.W. Sixth. In fact, 15 to 20 neighbors crammed inside it on May 20.
While the group weathered the storm, Osborne’s 9-year-old daughter, Hannah, was at Plaza Towers Elementary. The girl survived the tornado with only a scratch, but a number of her classmates weren’t so fortunate.
Losing their home will be difficult, remarked Hannah’s father, Ben, as he surveyed the family’s flattened house the following morning. But the family was safe and healthy.
“This is just stuff,” he said. “Family is irreplaceable.” —TF
Disobedient and thankful
A former U.S. Army soldier, Kevin McElvany is used to following commands, but he said he’s thankful he didn’t obey a superior’s order the afternoon of the tornado. Despite being told to stay put, McElvany — a civilian employee at Tinker Air Force Base — left work just in time to save his wife and 3-year-old daughter from likely death.
“Something in my gut just told me, ‘Kevin, you need to get your butt out of here,’” he recalled.
He sped to his home in Moore.
“As I was driving there, I could see the debris. It was 3:15, and it hit our house at 3:20,” recalled McElvany. “I had about a two-minute window once I got there to get them in the car and head east and then back south.”
McElvany’s wife and daughter had taken shelter in a closet. Shortly after they fled, that closet — along with the rest of the house — was obliterated.
“The whole scene was very surreal,” he said. “You see these tornadoes all the time in Oklahoma, but you never think it’s going to hit you.” —TF
A scary birthday
No one wants to spend a birthday huddled in a hallway as a tornado wreaks havoc over and around their home. But that’s exactly how 8-year-old Adriana Wallace spent hers.
“After the tornado, I had a birthday cupcake and my ice cream,” the girl said at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where she seemed more interested in the giant stuffed panda bear that volunteers had given her.
Her mother, by contrast, was still visibly shaken by the ordeal.
“I could hear the tornado passing us, going whoosh,” Adriana Wallace said. “I’ve been through lots of tornadoes before, but we’re going to need to get a storm shelter, because the tornadoes are getting worser. That’s what my mom said.”—LF
‘A lot of fear’
As soon as Shila Cole heard that Plaza Towers Elementary had been struck by the tornado, she left work and drove to where three of her five boys attend school.
The neighborhoods near Plaza Towers were in shambles. Once Cole got close, she stopped the car and began running to the decimated school. As it turned out, her husband already had retrieved the boys. Her second-grader and sixth-grader were OK, but her kindergartener, Kellen, had lashes covering his back. A teacher later told the Coles that an automobile had landed about two feet away from where the boy had been during the tornado.
The parents took Kellen to a hospital that night. A doctor examined him and said it was possible that tiny speckles of glass might be lodged in his scalp. Cole planned to shave her son’s head to check for certain.
The next day, it became clear to her that the terror was weighing on her child.
“He was talking to me, like, ‘People don’t want to go to Plaza Towers, do they? Why would they want to go to that school? We don’t want to live in our house anymore, do we?’” she said, her voice quavering. “There’s obviously a lot of fear there.”
Cole said she knows she’s fortunate that her sons are alive, but that’s not enough to keep them in Oklahoma.
She said this had strengthened their resolve to move to Florida, where her mother resides.
“At least there, you get a two-week notice,” she said. “Then you get to pack up and move away from there for a while.” —PB
In the bag
Being an EMSA paramedic, Crystal Brown is used to being on the other side of disasters like this. As a responder, she’s used to being the one giving help, not needing it.
All that changed on May 20.
“I was in New York when the tornado hit. My kids were here, though,” Brown said, fighting back tears. “The kids were in my house, but my mother had them. Still, it took about four hours before I located my children. I don’t know … I just couldn’t think. I located all of them but one of my sons [who] was in the path of the tornado. That was frightening, but we found him. When I finally saw them, I hugged them and didn’t let go.”
As she waited in fear all night to catch an early morning flight home, friends texted her photos of what was left of her house. There was “just nothing there.”
“The one thing I kept saying to people I was with is that … everything I own is in the bag I have,” Brown recalled. —LF
Pulling people from the rubble
Eating a sub sandwich as he took a break from helping a friend search for her belongings, Kris Allen Molskness recalled driving into Moore around the same time that the tornado cut its deadly path. It destroyed several of his friends’ houses and roared through the heart of his hometown.
Molskness was among the first to arrive at the 7-Eleven at S.W. Fourth and Telephone Road. For several hours, he and a couple dozen others pulled people from the building’s remains. He was there when the bodies of Megan Futrell and her 4-month-old infant, Case, were recovered from the rubble.
It was as if the building had exploded, turned inside out and then collapsed in on itself, Molskness said.
“It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The first person he found was a store employee facedown on top of the debris.
Molskness is the president of the Moore Disc Golf Club.
His group had worked for more than a year building the Little River Disc Golf Course after getting approval from the city, completing it early this year. It was in the direct path of the tornado.
“That’s the least of my worries now,” he said.—Peter Wright
‘She was so afraid of tornadoes’
When the earth stopped shaking and the freight train sound had faded away, Shannon Quick — a “wonderful mother, daughter and sister-in-law” — lay dead, and her 8-year-old son critically injured.
Quick’s mother, Joy Waldroop, is recovering at Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City from serious wounds suffered in the May 20 twister.
All three — along with Quick’s son, Tanner — were at Waldroop’s house when the EF5 struck.
“It sounded like a big suction noise, and the next thing I know, walls were being pulled out,” recalled Waldroop. “It just kept getting louder and louder. Everything started shaking. I remember laying there and saw the sky and stuff flying around like debris.”
Waldroop said she began asking her daughter questions to determine if she was OK. Shannon Quick died a short time later.
“She was so afraid of tornadoes,” Waldroop remembered, recalling a close encounter her daughter had with the 1999 twister that devastated Moore.
Waldroop’s recovery won’t be easy. She suffered a shattered heel bone, injured her wrist and is bruised and cut from head to toe.
“I can’t even take it all in,” she said from her hospital bed May 22. “You keep thinking you’re going to wake up and this will not have happened.”
Her 8-year-old grandson, Jackson, remains in critical condition at OU Medical Center after suffering a broken femur, pelvis and shin. Half his buttocks were sheared off.
Two days after the tornado, the family talked about Jackson’s favorite activities and his zeal for sports.
“He loves all sports” his grandmother said. “If it’s baseball season, he’s playing baseball. If it’s basketball season, he’s playing basketball. He’s a big Thunder fan, too.” —TF
Giving to the community
Vicki Keen and her husband, Kerry, hopped out of their pickup truck in the Westmoor neighborhood. They had about $4,000 worth of drinks, snacks, gloves, brooms and other items to give away to people.
The Keens weren’t volunteers for a nonprofit. They were simply lucky neighbors with love for their city.
“We just wanted to do it for our community. Our house got saved,” Vicki Keen said. She then turned to the crooked frame of a nearby school, Briarwood Elementary. “That was our grandkid’s school.”
When the tornado sirens had sounded the day before, May 20, Vicki Keen had raced to the school to pick up the child. She arrived minutes before it was destroyed.
“I kept thinking, ‘Oh, god. I don’t have time. I don’t have time,’” she recalled.
As it happened, she did have time to make it home and put her grandchild into the bathtub. When she went to the back door to see what was happening, she heard “that train.” Debris rained down from two blocks away.
The next day, an out-of-town businessman was supposed to meet Kerry Keen, a general contractor, about a new project. But the tornado changed their plans.
“He (the businessman) asked me if I had my truck this morning, and he said, ‘Let’s go to Home Depot,’” Kerry Keen said.
About $4,000 later, the Keens arrived in Westmoor to distribute handfuls of supplies to anyone who asked. —PW
‘Pretty beat up’
Chelsea Ezell combed through the rubble of her grandparents’ house for something that would make her grandmother smile. She didn’t want to make the woman cry.
“I want to find something to save that will make her feel better,” Ezell said.
Her grandmom, Jackie Raper, had been at a neighbor’s house when everything fell down. Ezell rode the storm out a few blocks away. Later, a family member called to tell her that Raper was in the hospital.
“Grandma was pretty beat up. She’s got quite a few broken bones, but she’s alive,” Ezell said.
Her grandfather, a retired high school basketball coach, arrived home after the twister hit.
Someone found a program from the 2010 National High School Coaches Association awards ceremony with his name on it and added it to a stack of his plaques. —PW
U.S. Marshals Craig Hines and Sean Xuereb calmly coaxed two small terriers — tired but not seriously injured — out of the rubble. The dogs had been out for a while, and a volunteer flagged down the marshals.
Xuereb carried the second dog to their SUV, but Hines stopped him so that he could read the tag on the animal’s collar. It was just a rabies vaccination tag, but it had the address of a veterinarian office.
“We’ll probably just take them to the vet if they’re open,” Hines said.
The pair had been helping people dig out, partly on duty and partly as volunteers. It was their second day and their first animal rescue in the Westmoor subdivision.—PW
Sorting out the important stuff
Behind a minivan with a teddy bear placed in a shattered window, Patrick Higgins and his sister, Erin Allen, had a mandate from a homeowner to put anything that looked important into a black plastic tub. That wasn’t so easy to do since they had only just met the homeowner.
The pair, along with Allen’s husband, had come to the tornado-shattered area to help out.
Higgins, a doctor, had been out helping people just an hour or two after the tornado hit. He treated one child who was having an asthma attack, and he took care of a laceration on a woman’s foot, but most of the critical patients already had been transported to hospitals.
“It seemed like the responders got here really fast,” he said.—PW
Eddie Howes didn’t lose his home in the tornado. He didn’t have one to begin with. Post-retirement age and having to rely on a walker to get around, he rode out the storm under the 19th Street bridge.
“I hid under that bridge, thinking, ‘Lord, help me,’” he recalled in between drags on a cigarette. “It was a pretty sharp deal that came down on us, but when it came down on the school, that’s when we got scared.”
The debris proved to be quite the obstacle for Howes to get around, but he said he managed. Trying to maneuver a walker is “just an everyday process” for him.
“Shit just happens here,” Howes said as he stomped on his cigarette.—LF
A saved bell
The sirens sounded just as Carrie Mayhle arrived home from work. She grabbed her two dachshunds and climbed into a shelter in the garage.
“My ears started popping from the pressure, and then some of the debris, the wood debris, started making it into the shelter,” Mayhle said.
The house, where Mayhle lived with her mother, Debbie, collapsed onto the door. She and her dogs were OK, but they were trapped. She yelled for help; neighbors pulled her out. When she climbed back out, everything was rearranged.
Mayhle texted her mother: “It hit the house.”
They had been talking on the phone before it hit. Debbie Mayhle was trying to keep her daughter calm. The text message brought relief in knowing that she was all right — but those four words also meant her home of 11 years was gone.
Debbie Mayhle immediately left work in northeast Oklahoma City.
“I couldn’t get into my own neighborhood because of the traffic stopping to look,” she said.
They found a few salvageable things. The mother held a porcelain bell with red chilies painted on it, the only one in her collection of bells that wasn’t broken. Carrie Mayhle found a ladder, but they decided to leave it.
“It’s hard to walk away and not keep digging,” said Debbie Mayhle.—PW
For many Oklahomans, May 20 was the most helpless day of their lives. Many of us had family and friends who live in Moore, and to see the utter destruction — and know there was nothing we could do — is such a hopeless feeling.
My sister, Christina Fowler, and my 7-year-old niece, Makenzie, live about a block away from the Warren Theatre in Moore. Makenzie attends Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“I was in my house, and I went to the bathroom and put blankets and pillows over me. Makenzie was still in school, at Plaza. I honestly thought that maybe it would be safer for her to be at school. All I could do way pray the whole time,” my sister told me.
“You could hear when the tornado was over. And when I came outside, all I could see was debris everywhere. I walked down the street but didn’t walk down to the school because I didn’t know anything yet — not until I saw a little boy riding his bike and I asked if Plaza was OK, and he said it took a direct hit. At that moment, all I knew I wanted was my daughter.
“I panicked and tried to go to Plaza. They told me I couldn’t go, and they sent me to different places, telling me where they took the Plaza kids. And nobody at those places knew anything. There were so many emotions going through me. All I could think was, ‘Where’s my daughter?’”
Christina wandered around her neighborhood for a couple of hours in a sort of daze. Her boyfriend finally had luck finding the girl. He brought her home.
“I just ran to her, gave her a hug … it was about the happiest moment of my life.”
Makenzie was shaken, with a few cuts and bruises, but she was alive. Since then, my sister has been doing her best to keep my niece distracted, but still cries almost every day for the parents who lost their children, some of whom Makenzie saw every day at school.
“Your heart goes out to them. It just makes you want to hold your child closer than ever before,” Christina told me. “It could have been Kenzie. It could have been any of them.” —LF