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.
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.
Leading to the tunnel is a small creek. The tunnel itself is tall enough and wide enough for most of its length that three semi trucks likely could fit in it side by side. It bends slightly underneath the parking lot of the Dell Inc. facility and empties into the Oklahoma River, where on Thursday, rowers glided by the exit.
‘I lost Terra’
Inside the dark tunnel May 31, Virginia Shrum held tight to her baby, Rose. She had a Spider-Man blanket over the baby to protect her from the wind but dropped it as it became soaked and heavy.
Terra clung to her.
The rushing water took them one by one.
“After I went down, Terra let go of me,” she said. “I kept hold of Rose. When I came back up, I was screaming, ‘I lost Terra.’ And, as I was going down that tunnel, I hit something on my left side … I hit it full force … It was some kind of wall.”
She said she was pushed out of the tunnel and into the Oklahoma River.
She said she then climbed up the rocks out of the river with Rose and collapsed on the interstate. The water had ripped her skirt, underwear and shoes off.
She said she did CPR on Rose, who had turned blue. A pickup driver stopped and took them to the hospital, where Rose spent days recovering.
“No one thought she was going to make it,” she said of her baby.
Tara, the 8-year-old, and Destiny were with Hennington but were swept away. A driver found Tara and took her to an Oklahoma City police sergeant stopped along Interstate 40.
“Tara … was soaking wet and very cold,” Police Sgt. Robert Atkins reported. “I had her sit in my police car and turned on the heater. I asked her what had happened and she told me she had fallen in the river and just gotten out.”
Hanging on to Cory in the tunnel was Betty Yeatman, who is Virginia Shrum’s biological mother.
“I never lost grip of him, never. The current pulled me down. It pulled him down with me. He drowned in the river,” Yeatman, 45, said.
Alexis had been placed in a concrete square in the tunnel wall. She was the first to be swept away.
Virginia Shrum described the daughters she lost as sweet.
“They loved to play. They loved being monkeys,” she said. She gestured to Hennington, her fiance. “They would climb on him like he was a jungle gym,” she said.
Others have criticized KFOR’s coverage. On June 3, KFOR said in a statement, “Many viewers have thanked us for providing hours of continuous coverage to keep their families safe. After every major storm, we review our coverage and the many things that make each weather event unique for the purpose of improving our coverage and our ability to forecast.”