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5 died when Oklahoma family fled to drainage tunnel to escape tornadoes

by Nolan Clay Modified: June 14, 2013 at 6:31 am •  Published: June 14, 2013

Frightened by a TV meteorologist’s warning to get underground, Virginia Shrum fled with her family and a friend to a long drainage tunnel behind their Oklahoma City apartment on May 31 to escape an approaching tornado.

It became a death trap.

In all, 11 people from the apartment sought shelter in the concrete tunnel, which starts at SW 15 just west of Interstate 44 and ends a quarter-mile away at the Oklahoma River.

Five died.

Four of the dead were children, ages 4 and younger. The body of one — a baby girl — has not been recovered.

“What got us was the flash flood,” Virginia Shrum, 24, recalled Wednesday at the apartment along SW 17. “The water rose so quick. No one had time to think. … It was so cold.”

The adults tried to move against the sudden current, trying to get out of the tunnel the way they came in. The children were crying and screaming.

“It rose from my knee to my waist like that,” said Alvin Hennington, 20, snapping his fingers to demonstrate. “At first, I was trying to fight it, going toward the house and then I had to stop … I just let the current take me.”

At least 10 of the group ended up in the Oklahoma River.

Killed were two of Virginia Shrum’s daughters, Destiny Love Shrum, 4, and Terra Shrum, 3; her brother, Timothy Shrum, 21; and her adoptive mother’s two children, Cory Don Johnson Jr., 3, and Alexis Johnson, 5 months.

Destiny’s body was recovered Wednesday on the Oklahoma River. The state medical examiner released her identity Thursday. The search continues for the body of Alexis.

Virginia Shrum’s two other daughters, Tara Shrum, 8, and Rose Shrum, 5 months, survived.

‘I had a bad feeling’

An EF1 tornado touched down north of SW 15, a few miles away from their apartment, and traveled for 10 miles, the National Weather Service later determined.

It did not damage the family’s apartment.

Before fleeing the apartment, there were arguments about what to do. Timothy Shrum urged going to the drainage tunnel.

Hennington said, “I kept telling him, ‘No. No. No. Let’s go into the closet. … I don’t trust that.’”

Virginia Shrum said her brother talked about how he had hidden down in the tunnel from a tornado three years before.

The survivors said they were swayed to flee the apartment by warnings from Mike Morgan, KFOR-TV chief meteorologist.

“I had a bad feeling from the beginning. I didn’t pay attention to what I was feeling and we went down there anyway,” she said.

She recalled seeing a spiraling tornado dropping to the ground as they made their way to the tunnel.

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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