June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

The thing Oklahoma City firefighter James Ellzey remembers most vividly about the evening of May 3 is the bathtub beginning to shake. With a howling tornado bearing down on the three-bedroom home he shared with his daughter, his fiancée and her daughter, Ellzey had rushed the girls—Logan, 6, and Haley, 15—into the tub, then thrown a mattress on top and sprawled across it to protect them. “I could hear debris flying, and I knew then that the house was going,” says Ellzey, 40. “And I figured I’d probably be going with it.”

As it turned out, Ellzey and the girls survived, only to see their house leveled, one of some 5,200 Oklahoma City-area homes destroyed by the most powerful twister in U.S. history. The tornado killed 44 people, injured 795—and provoked deep soul-searching among the survivors. “What was really important on May 3 is suddenly not nearly as important today,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. “When times get tough, you find out what your character is like.”

Rarely has a city had its mettle so tested. The twister hit as Oklahoma City was still recovering from the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168 people, including 19 children. Ellzey—who entered that inferno within an hour of the blast and spent a week searching for victims—is among thousands of locals whose lives were forever changed by both tragedies. “I was sure I’d never see destruction of that magnitude again in my lifetime,” says Ellzey of the bombing. “But this is on a far greater scale.”

Ellzey’s fiancée, Jami Mohr, 38, was driving home from work that evening when she heard tornado warnings on the radio and called Ellzey. “I told her to find an underpass and just park there until things blew over,” he says. At home he watched with the girls as giant hailstones pelted the house. Then, with the sky ink-black, the power went out. Rushing the girls into the tub, “I could hear this unbelievable sound—like about 10 freight trains.”

As the twister ripped through the house, Ellzey was flung 40 feet, landing in a pile of debris in a neighbor’s yard, and the girls were thrown from the tub. Ellzey found little Logan under Haley. “For several moments, I thought she was dead,” recalls Ellzey. In fact, Logan was only slightly injured, but Haley was bleeding badly. She had a deep gash in her head and pencil-size wood slivers embedded in her hip and right hand. Ellzey himself, bleeding from cuts all over his body, had a large wood chunk in his right shoulder and a sliver protruding from the back of his left hand.

“Finally, I could hear the sirens, but they never seemed to be getting closer,” he says. “That’s when it dawned on me that they weren’t able to get into the area.”

Swinging into action, Ellzey quickly enlisted a neighbor to help set up a triage area—where rescue workers could assess and begin treating injuries—on the lawn of one of the few houses still standing. “Here he was, badly injured,” says his fire-department supervisor, Deputy Chief Jon Hanson. “Yet he had the presence of mind not only to take care of his children but to organize the neighborhood.”

Searching for a vehicle that would still run, he encountered neighbor Tommy St. Cyr, 37, who drove Ellzey and the girls in his damaged four-wheel-drive SUV, passing over potentially deadly downed electrical lines and through snarled traffic, 12 miles to a hospital in nearby Norman. Aware that his friend was in terrible pain from the jolts of the road, St. Cyr recalls, “I finally said, ‘Jimmy, it’s okay to scream like hell when you’re hurting’ “—which Ellzey did, as Haley slipped in and out of consciousness and Logan sat quietly. It took about 45 agonizing minutes to get to the hospital. (Mohr, who was unharmed, found them there two hours later.) James and Haley both required surgery—Haley’s head wound took 47 staples—and would need weeks of rehabilitation. Logan’s most serious injuries were the deep hand-shaped bruises on her shoulders where Haley had gripped her during the storm.

Discharged after four days, Ellzey returned to his devastated neighborhood, where he could find almost no sign of his home. But a neighbor came by with a few items she thought Ellzey would want. “I guess it’s a little ironic that among the things she found were a couple of photographs I had kept from the Murrah building bombing,” says Ellzey, who had saved the pictures of himself aiding in the historic rescue effort.

On that horrific morning four years ago, Ellzey heard the explosion from the firehouse and sped with his ladder company to help evacuate survivors. “Nothing had ever prepared me to see human bodies that I wasn’t immediately able to recognize as human,” he says. “It’s not the kind of thing you’re ever going to forget.” Sometimes working 24-hour shifts, Ellzey joined the seemingly endless, heartbreaking effort of digging through the rubble for victims. “I just made up my mind going in,” he says, “that I was there to do a job. I kept focusing on that.”

As he has been since 1988, when Ellzey first joined the fire department. Born in London, he has lived in Oklahoma City since 1969. After a 1997 divorce from his wife, Logan’s mother, he began dating Mohr, manager of a small printing company, who is divorced from her husband, with whom she had Haley and another daughter. Last October she moved in with Ellzey to the brick house he built in 1991 in the quiet neighborhood in Oklahoma City’s southwest section. Now “the neighborhood is gone,” says St. Cyr, who also lost his house. “Knowing that crushes my kids—and there’s nothing I can do to make it better.”

Like St. Cyr, Ellzey and Mohr have no plans to rebuild. “Jami’s not having any part of moving back here,” says James, standing near what once was his home. “This has all just been too traumatic.” Determined to stay in the city, for now, the family is renting a two-bedroom apartment. In the weeks before Ellzey returns to his job, probably by early July, they are busy trying to regain their footing. “One of the toughest things,” says Mohr, “is figuring out where to start.”

Psychologist Paul Heath knows that challenge well. He walked out of the rubble of the Murrah building and went on to create a survivors’ support group, then saw both his brother and son lose their homes to the tornado. (Ironically, Heath and his wife, Willetta, both 62, waited out the storm in the safest place he could think of—the still-used subterranean Murrah garage.) Heath is now struggling to comfort his brother Herschel, 64, and son Paul Jr., 41, both of whom lost everything. Eventually he hopes to enlist tornado victims in his Help Fairs, in which survivors of such events reach out to assist one another and thereby speed their own healing. For now “they’re still dealing with the shock and disbelief,” he says. “In time they will absorb what happened and begin finding ways to live with it.”

Ellzey, it seems, already has. “People tell me I’m way too happy for someone who lost as much as we did,” he says. “I’m just thankful my family is alive and well. We can replace the things we lost and move on. There’s no looking back for me.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Carlton Stowers and Michelle McCalope in Oklahoma City

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