Tornadoes Shred State

By Randy Ellis Published: May 4, 1999
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An evening of terror gripped Oklahoma on Monday as tornado after tornado battered the state with a ferocity that stunned even seasoned storm veterans.

The state medical examiner said 31 people were killed in Monday's storms, the largest of which formed about 45 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and cut a path at least a half-mile wide as it moved north and east.

Ray Blakeney of the state medical examiner?s office said the death toll of 40 that had been reported earlier in the day was an estimate.

"Thirty-one is what we have confirmed at the present time," Blakeney said. "This morning I gave an estimate of between 30 and 40. I am fairly certain the number will go up.

"There's no telling how high it will go before we get through," Cleveland County sheriff DeWayne Beggs said today. "The destruction is just so massive, so massive."

"We have whole communities that simply aren't there anymore," Gov. Frank Keating told NBC's 'Today' show.

"It certainly looks like a huge battle has taken place," he said. "There are entire neighborhoods to the south of me that are no longer there."

The National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman said the tornado was the deadliest to strike Oklahoma since April 9, 1947, when a twister killed 113 people in Woodward.

One of the fiercest tornadoes - at least a half-mile wide - roared through Bridge Creek, Moore, southwest Oklahoma City and Midwest City at dusk, annihilating entire subdivisions.

Eight fatalities were reported in Bridge Creek, about 30 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.

Eight more were confirmed dead in Oklahoma City, three in Moore and four in Midwest City.

Sgt. Jody Suit confirmed two dead in Del City; one of those victims died at Norman Regional Hospital. Suit estimated 750 houses were heavily damaged or destroyed in Del City.

"I got lost in a neighborhood I've driven around for 10 years because there's no landmarks anymore," Suit said. "Out of one square mile, I'd say about one-fourth of it is gone."

About 150 miles north, a tornado spawned by the same storm system tossed mobile homes like tin cans, damaged houses and killed at least five people in Wichita, Kan., and its suburb of Haysville. Hospitals reported treating more than 80 people.

Oklahoma officials estimated 1,000 homes were destroyed in and around the Oklahoma City metro area. Electricity was knocked out to 60,000.

President Clinton acted swiftly today to declare 11 Oklahoma counties disaster areas, a move that he said would help in speeding the way for federal aid? to areas damaged by tornadoes.

Keating had requested the federal emergency declaration in a letter delivered to the White House overnight. Kansas was expected to make a similar request, which Clinton would also approve, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

Clinton, also dispatched James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Oklahoma City this morning and released a statement:

"My heart goes out to the people of Oklahoma and Kansas who suffered through a night of terror and devastation. ... Our top priority is to make sure people are safe, that everyone is accounted for and that initial cleanup can begin."

The designated Oklahoma counties are: Caddo, Cleveland, Creek, Grady, McClain, Oklahoma, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, Pottawatomie and Tulsa.

Keating and Witt stepped through mud and over debris to take an up-close look at the destruction.

"I couldn't imagine this devastation. This is unbelievable," Witt said. "The president has followed through on the governor's request. They will rebuild and they will rebuild better and we will help them."

Hundreds of law enforcement personnel returned to the damaged areas today to continue looking for survivors and victims.

Forty-four of Oklahoma?s 77 counties were under a tornado watch until 4 p.m. CDT, and at least 10 tornados warnings had been issued in the north-central part of the state since 6 a.m.

There was plenty of warning about Monday?s tornado, but it was unusually large and powerful.

Local hospitals were jammed with bleeding victims and an instant triage center was set up at the First Baptist Church of Moore, located just north of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. The church choir room was converted to a make-shift morgue.

Jon Hansen, Oklahoma City assistant fire chief, said firefighters were feverishly searching through the rubble for more victims, a search he expected to last all night.

The National Guard and a front-end loader were brought in from Oklahoma City to assist.

"Homes and apartments look like they have been picked up and thrown to the ground," Hansen said. "Cars are twisted and torn like model cars. Cars are sitting inside where houses used to be."

Several apartment complexes in south Oklahoma City were reduced to rubble, and police were pulling injured people out of the debris of what was once the Emerald Springs Apartments in south Oklahoma City.

"We sent dogs in there to see if there was anyone who couldn't call out to us," Oklahoma City police Lt. David Fredrickson said. "We have some bodies (fatalities) and pulled some out alive. ... I've worked 20 years in Oklahoma City and this is the worst tornado I have ever seen."

"It looked like a war zone," said Jim Primble, a resident of the apartment complex. "It was the Oklahoma City bombing all over again."

Said Keating, who toured the affected areas today: "This is the worst storm devastation I have ever heard of."

"This is the most calamitous storm we've ever seen and probably one of the more calamitous that ever hit the interior of the United States," Keating said.

The dead included 11 people in the community of Bridge Creek, about 30 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, said Ben Frizzell, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Management. The other fatalities were reported in Oklahoma City, Midwest City, Del City, Moore and Norman.

"Considering the devastation we've seen so far, we fear that there may be more," Sgt. Nate Tarver said.

Another Oklahoma City police spokesman, Capt. Charles Allen, said hospitals in the metro area had treated 563 people for tornado-related injuries.

The number of houses destroyed approached 2,000. Rows and rows of houses were reduced to rubble. Cars were tossed and crushed like soda cans. Natural gas spewed from ruptured lines. Power poles were reduced to kindling and broken, twisted wires fluttered in the breeze.

Anna Knerr, 73, sat in the Midwest City Senior Center early today, mud-stained and slightly injured.

"I've been through the war in Germany. I've had bombs fall all around me. Now I've been in a tornado," she said. "It's a feeling I can?t describe. Everything was falling on me, two-by-fours and insulation."

She was with her husband doing yard work shortly before the storm hit about 7 p.m. and hid in a hallway closet with her husband in a walk-in closet.

"I had a phone in one hand and the flashlight in the other. Then there just was this creepy feeling," she said. "The thing I know I was covered. The roof just collapsed on me. I yelled for my husband. He was OK but he couldn't get to me. The neighbor?s childrens? playset was on our bed. Somehow we crawled to the garage.?

Keating declared a state of emergency and activated two National Guard units. Witt was to survey the damage today with the governor.

"We're really just getting started on the foot-by-foot search," Clayton Taylor, a Red Cross spokesman, said this morning.

"We live in Oklahoma City and we expect tornados, the kind of tornadoes where a car will ram into a tree," Taylor said. "It's like how California has mudslides, you get used to it. But you don't expect anything like this."

The tornado also destroyed about 100 homes in the Country Place Estates along SW 134 between Pennsylvania and May avenues, said Oklahoma City Fire District Chief Glenn Clark.

The tornado touched off a fire at GFF Foods center at 1219 N Santa Fe in Moore.

At the First Baptist Church of Moore, victims wandered around in stunned disbelief as wounded were brought to the church's triage center in ambulances and the beds of pickups.

It was a surreal scene as another portion of the church was instantly transformed into a shelter for the newly homeless.

People dragged suitcases, strollers, animals and family members into the church. Others arrived carrying the oddest things. One person carried fishing poles and a jacket. Another had a birdcage.

Victims told stories of terror and salvation.

"We said a prayer that God would watch over us," said Sherrie Conley, recalling how she, her husband and two sons had huddled in their hallway linen closet for protection.

When they emerged from the closet, they discovered it was the only thing left standing in their home at 1033 SW 126. In fact, the entire Eastlake housing addition was destroyed.

Linda Kinder, 48, said she hid in a closet of her Moore Highland Park subdivision home when the tornado struck.

"It sounded like something was bulldozing through, and I heard the roof coming off. All I could say was, 'Oh, God!' "

About 275 Oklahoma National Guard troops were activated Monday night to provide security and other assistance.

While the fiercest tornado stayed on the ground more than an hour and devastated Moore and southwest Oklahoma City, several other tornadoes were busy causing damage to Strecker in Caddo County, Stroud in Lincoln County and several towns in between.

Stroud officials reported widespread destruction.

"We have search and rescue teams all over the place. I couldn't tell you what all has happened," said a Lincoln County sheriff's deputy, who added that Davenport was also extensively damaged.

"The (Tanger) Mall and (Stroud) hospital were severely damaged," a Chandler police dispatcher said.

As the storm moved into the metro, the Oklahoma City School District opened all its schools for storm shelters.

Forecasters said the tornado would register as an F-5, the strongest classifications for twisters.

"It's the worse I've ever seen," said Oklahoma City police dispatcher John Zondol. "It's far worse than last summer's," he said, referring to a June tornado that caused extensive damage but no fatalities in northwest Oklahoma City.

"We are getting so many injuries we are just tagging them and bringing them in," said Shara Findley, a spokeswoman for Hillcrest Health Center in Oklahoma City. "We're getting everything you can think of."

She said she had seen no deaths, but about 100 people had been brought in by 8:30 p.m.

The massive twister destroyed homes and other buildings as it moved through southwest Oklahoma City into Moore and then through the Midwest City area, near Tinker Air Force Base.

Twisted and crumpled cars littered Interstate 40 and Interstate 35.

Authorities asked for buses to transport the walking wounded.

Two miles north of Chickasha, a tornado tore a path across U.S. 81, peeling the metal skins off two of three football field-size hangers at the Chickasha airport. Planes inside the hangers were turned upside down.

No injuries were reported, although access to a damaged trailer park nearby was closed by police.

Jim Wustrack's home was 100 yards south of the Chickasha airport, where two football field-sized hangars and their airplanes were crushed by a tornado Monday.

Except for the roof of his indoor pool, Wustrack's home was unscathed. A crop- spraying service to the east and across U.S. 81 was flattened. A trailer park to the south also was damaged.

"It sounded like we were getting pelted by bullets," said Wustrack, who herded his family into a storm shelter minutes before the tornado struck. "We were lucky."

A dispatcher at the Caddo County sheriff's office said a 7-year-old girl was seriously injured when a tornado struck the community of Stecker just before dusk.

There were also reports of several children injured at Verden, west of Chickasha, when a tornado touched down there. A twister also touched down at the Chickasha Municipal Airport, northwest of Chickasha.

Chaos reigned Monday night in the Bridge Creek and Newcastle area.

"Lots of families are not accounted for. Lots of people are missing," said Doug King, former assistant fire chief. "Hundreds of people are walking around and don't know where to go."

One woman rushed in and out of the Newcastle police station yelling, "I am trying to find my son."

"People are finding out that there homes have blown away," said John Quinton of the Newcastle police department.

The tornado destroyed the home of John Canary of the Newcastle street department.

"First thing I need to do is go to Wal- Mart and buy some shoes," he said.

City worker Mike Henshaw said, "It sucked the gravel clean off the road."

Staff writers Bob Doucette, Diana Baldwin, Robert Medley, Paul English, John Greiner, Mick Hinton, Ron Jackson, Charles T. Jones, Mark Hutchison, Bobby Ross, Melissa Nelson, Christy Watson, David Zizzo and Ed Godfrey and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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