As Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., wrapped up a festive day on Monday, May 20, preparing for the end of the school year, the afternoon was interrupted by an announcement over the intercom: “Take cover.” Minutes later a deadly EF5 tornado cutting a 17-mile path with winds clocking in at 200 to 210 mph ripped the roof off the school, knocked down the walls and sent chunks of cinder block and metal flying, breaking trees apart at the roots. Across the Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people, power lines snapped, cars and trucks were tossed like toys into the air, and dozens of homes were flattened to nothing. In the aftermath of the devastation, 24 people at press time were dead, 9 of them children. Moore has battled other twisters in the past, but none like this one: Rescuers rushed to the school site, pulling dazed children from the rubble and down a human chain to a triage center in the school’s parking lot, where hysterical parents frantically waited for news. Strangers, neighbors and first responders in the town reached out to help, working through the night in hopes of finding victims alive. “We’ve been through this before,” says Tiffany Thronesberry, whose mother was saved after her house collapsed. “Everyone just went around, helping each other out.”
Thronesberry, 30, received a call from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, 52, who lives across the street from Plaza Towers Elementary School: “She said, ‘Help me, help me! I can’t breathe! The house is on top of me!’ [In her closet ‘hiding hole’]the side of her head was exposed, and somehow she still had the phone in her hand and that’s how she dialed me, but she couldn’t hear me.” Thronesberry raced to the house, but neighbors had already pulled Jarrell out; she miraculously survived with only scratches and bruises. “She shouldn’t be here. The only thing that saved her was the rafter falling on her and pinning her,” says Thronesberry of her mother.
Kimberly Martinez, 26, a teacher at Plaza Towers: “We were in our classrooms at 2:45, and then the sirens went off. I evacuated my fourth graders in the hallway. Then coworkers started yelling that we had an F4 coming straight for us. I started calling and grabbing students into the girls’ bathroom. I held on to my students and covered our heads. I was praying, and I could hear my student asking God to put us in a protective bubble and save us. Everyone was praying and screaming. You could hear it coming toward us, and when it hit it lasted maybe 10 seconds and then I looked up and the roof was gone.”
Lesley Bell, 52, a supervisor in the Moore school district, said officials made the decision not to evacuate the schools because they thought it would be safer inside. Along with Plaza Towers, Briarwood Elementary School was demolished: “Rebuilding will take time because things are just gone. You have a cement slab where a house once was and nothing else, and this goes on for blocks. It’s a helpless feeling, but we are going to stay put.”
Marcella Corrales, 14, a student at Southmoore High School in Moore: “They made everyone stay at school in little classrooms and got all the people from the second floor down on the bottom floor. Everyone was silent or praying for their lives. I hid under a table with my head down to the floor, grabbing onto one of the legs of the table. I’m pretty devastated that this has happened, but overall I think it has brought this community closer and made us all think never to take our lives for granted because you truly never know when it’s your last day.”
Lanie Wolfe, 14, waited out the storm at Highland East Junior High School with 20 other students from her seventh-grade class: “My English teacher turned on the radio so we could listen to it. The room started shaking. And we heard things crashing into the building. We heard glass shattering. I wasn’t really scared. All the girls were crying and screaming and stuff. My mom was texting me, and my family was asking if I was okay, but I couldn’t respond. They were very worried.”
Robert W. Letton Jr., pediatric trauma medical director at the Children’s Hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, saw about 50 children under the age of 16: “In my mind I sort of had this vision that it would be overwhelming, and it was just bad—yeah, it was intense but not horrific. I was in the Army Reserve Medical Corps in the Middle East in 2003, so I had the experience of dealing with 20 to 30 seriously injured patients at a time. Part of me was relieved we weren’t seeing a huge amount of seriously injured kids, but the other half said that’s because we were too late; they were already too far gone.
Taysha Springer, 34, a nurse at Integris Southwest Medical Center, was at home when she heard the tornado had hit. She headed straight to work: “What is usually a 20-minute drive took me an hour and a half because I had to take alternate routes. It was kind of indescribable. You kind of felt like you were in an episode of a TV show or a movie. There were several head traumas; we had some lacerations on legs and arms and cuts. We got a few of the kids, and they were very scared. You had doctors working out of their comfort zone and taking care of patients they normally wouldn’t be taking care of. A patient couldn’t find his parents, and after several hours they were finally reunited. It was awesome.
Pam Lewis, 56, an elementary school teacher and wife of Moore mayor Glenn Lewis: “Why do we stay here? We’re used to this, just like Californians are used to earthquakes. We take care of each other. After the tornado hit, everyone immediately left the safety of their homes to check on their neighbors and start picking through the rubble. We keep the faith. We always do. We love this place, and we will rebuild. Our whole life is here.”