WOODWARD — Most of Woodward went to bed late Saturday thinking the worst of the weekend's storms were over. But a sudden, deadly tornado embedded in a squall line ripped through the city early Sunday, leaving dozens of families homeless.
Five people died when the tornado blitzed the west side of the northwestern Oklahoma city. It touched down about 12:20 a.m. as the last of several severe thunderstorms in several hours traversed that part of the state.
Two men killed in the storm have been identified as Frank Hobbie and Derrin Juul, said Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the medical examiner. Two girls, ages 5 and 7, were found with Hobbie in a mobile home park, and a 10-year-old girl was found dead with Juul, Elliot said.
The tornado destroyed 89 homes and 13 businesses, Woodward County Emergency Manager Matt Lehenbauer said. At least 31 people were hurt.
Father, daughter killed
Derrin Juul died as he was trying to save his family.
“I had a lot of respect for him,” his father-in-law, Rial Allen, said Sunday afternoon.
“He worked hard and provided for his family.”
Juul was an oil field worker employed by Trican. Allen said his granddaughter, Rosa Marie, 10, who also died, was a happy-go-lucky child.
Allen and his wife, Mary Francis, lived next door to Juul, his wife and Allen's daughter, Michelle, and the couple's three daughters, ages 8, 10 and 15.
Sunday afternoon, Allen stood in the middle of what remained of his home, searching for his wife's eyeglasses, which she can't see without.
Allen said Juul was sitting on his back porch when the winds started picking up. He went inside to get his family to take them into their storm shelter. He stepped back out of their home with his 8-year-old and 10-year-old daughters, but it was too late.
The tornado was bearing down.
Allen said he and his other family members found Derrin Juul under debris, his arms wrapped around the two girls.
Allen's 8-year-old granddaughter, is at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. He wasn't sure of her status Sunday but said she had at one time been in critical condition. He said the 15-year-old girl had been staying with friends when the storm came.
For 45 minutes, no one came to help, Allen said. The family members' phones wouldn't work to call 911, Allen said. And all of their vehicles were crushed beneath the rubble of their homes.
They didn't have electricity, and Allen's wife, Mary, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needs an oxygen machine to assist her breathing.
Neighbors came to check on them, and soon the family was able to get to an ambulance at a nearby oil-field services company.
The singlewide manufactured home, sitting in a green field with wind turbines all around it, was Rial and Mary Allen's retirement home. Their children and grandchildren lived close, and Allen spent his days either working on his home or fishing at Fort Supply Lake. Life was good.
“We're not what you would call real rich people, but we did get by, and we were doing quite well,” Allen said.
In less than three minutes, everything changed.
Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, sent a message on Twitter as he was leaving Woodward after surveying the damage that the tornado now is preliminarily rated an EF3, which has sustained winds from 136 to 165 mph. Smith said there is still more analysis to do.
Forecasters had predicted for days that Saturday could be especially dangerous, but a series of supercell thunderstorms produced only slight damage in northwestern Oklahoma before slipping into Kansas. The tornado was part of a squall line that National Weather Service radar imagery showed stretched from Texas to Iowa overnight Saturday.
Though it ripped through Woodward in the dark, the tornado revealed itself in light created by its own destructive assault. Residents and storm chasers reported seeing its angry silhouette as breaking power lines sent arcs of electric light flashing into the night sky.
A signal tower for Woodward's tornado sirens was struck by lightning and hit by the tornado. Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the tower that was supposed to send a repeating signal to the town's tornado siren system was knocked out.
Considering the tornado struck at night and the sirens were damaged, it was remarkable that there wasn't a greater loss of life, Rutherford said.
Mostly, people in Woodward on Sunday recalled the tornado's sound.
“I've always heard people say that, that you hear this roaring freight train,” said Carole Beckett, 70, who was unhurt but whose house was destroyed by the tornado. “I don't think I'll ever forget that noise. It's just … it's just crazy. Unbelievable.”
Beckett stood Sunday in the morning sunshine on upper story of her split-level home near 34th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, pieces of dirty insulation clinging to her clothes. The tornado threw the roof and much of the rest of her top floor into the backyard below.
She was awakened by a storm alarm warning the tornado was closing in on Woodward. Beckett and her husband, Gordon, 76, didn't make it to their safe room by the time the tornado rumbled through, but they and their dog escaped injury as their house loudly crashed down around them.
The Becketts' house typified the seemingly random pattern of the tornado's destruction. Collapsed interior walls had unscathed framed pictures on them, and a sizable flat-screen TV had only a bit of dust while other parts of the house were obliterated.
“My clothes are hanging up in the closet. I mean my clothes are actually hanging up,” Beckett said. “Gordon's aren't.”
Woodward High School Assistant Principal Kyle Reynolds, 43, was helping clean up after the school's prom when the tornado hit. It missed the gymnasium where he and others took shelter, but not his house.
Reynolds wore coveralls Sunday morning that he was able to salvage from the house, which was destroyed by the tornado. His daughter, home from college for the weekend, was home alone when it hit but sheltered in a safe room and was unhurt.
A neighbor called Reynolds to ask about her before Reynolds made it back to his neighborhood.
“He said ‘I'm going to go get her. Your house is gone,'” Reynolds said. “It makes you weak in the knees. You just don't know how to react to that.”
Woodward School District Superintendent Tim Merchant said classes will be canceled Monday because of damage in the area.
“We still have so many families without electricity, and a lot of the roads aren't open for our routes,” he said.
Merchant said Highland Park Elementary School near Webster Avenue and 28 Street sustained minor damage to the roof. He said the main concern for staff will be attending to students' needs and providing counseling.
All schools will reopen Tuesday. Merchant said this upcoming Friday was originally scheduled for a professional day for staff only but will become a regular school day because of the storms.
Some of the bleakest outcomes in Woodward had roots in the Hide-A-Way Mobile Home Park along 22nd Street north of Oklahoma Avenue. Two of the children killed by the tornado lived in the park, officials and neighbors said.
A pile of rubble with a destroyed sport utility vehicle and overturned car marked the home where the children lived, neighbors said. The storm plundered the park, ripping gaping holes in some homes, reducing others to piles of rubble, stripping a few away to leave only cinder blocks behind, and leaving some untouched.
Martina Mora, 43, was with her 2-year-old son in a mobile home next door when the tornado rampaged through the park. She grabbed him and hugged him tightly to her body.
“He's OK, thank God,” she said in Spanish.
Theresa Pettet, 45, rocked gently Sunday morning as she sat on her porch recalling the storm. Her toddler son played next to her, and two puppies wrestled at his feet. Their home was mostly undamaged, and Pettet's eyes welled with tears as she considered her good fortune as compared to some of her neighbors.
Pettet's hands quivered while she recounted trying to get from her home to the park's storm shelter with her family. The storm was too violent for them to make it, yet it spared their house as it barged through only yards away.
“We had to sit right here and ride it out,” Pettet said. “It's not but 50 feet. We couldn't get there.”
By dawn Sunday, emergency crews had already finished the grim task of counting Woodward's dead and started to administer care to the injured. Codes in fluorescent paint marked driveways, propped-up plywood and other surfaces in front of damaged and destroyed houses that had been searched for survivors and bodies.
Swarms of law officers, firefighters, utility crews and other officials combed Woodward through the morning. Heavy construction equipment cleared streets, and state troopers blocked off streets leading to damaged areas as they warded off rubber-neckers who drove by slowly on open portions of Oklahoma Avenue.
State of emergency
Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency Sunday afternoon for Woodward and 11 other counties affected by tornadoes, severe storms, straight line winds and flooding that began Friday.
Fallin took an aerial tour of the city of about 12,000 by helicopter Sunday afternoon. She said afterward that emergency responders in the area were “remarkable” in their response.
“It's been encouraging to me to be here in Woodward to see just the immediate response by so many great Oklahomans and just how people help their fellow neighbors, their families and it was such a shock, I think, to the community to have a second storm come through right after people had gone to bed and a little bit unexpected from that stance, so it's remarkable that we didn't have more loss of life,” Fallin said during a news conference following the tour.
“We haven't seen any looting in this community. We've just seen people coming to help others and that's what makes Oklahoma very special is the great people that we have in our state,” she said.
“We're going to do everything we can to get Woodward back on its feet,” she said.
Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill said during a live TV broadcast that many people joined in search-and-rescue efforts Sunday morning to help storm victims.
“It's really a devastating thing to our city,” he said. “I think the main thing is all you can do is pray for us.”
Twelve people stayed overnight at a shelter at the Living Word Fellowship Church, 1310 Oklahoma Ave., said Rusty Surette, spokesman for the American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma. More people came to the shelter Sunday looking for assistance, and others came looking to help.
Dan Rister, 27, his family and his home survived the storm unscathed. The Hide-A-Way resident spent much of Sunday trying to help neighbors sift through clothes, dishes, pictures, shampoo bottles, toys, wood, bricks and everything else while marveling at the scale of destruction a stone's throw from his own house.
“Somebody's roof almost became my roof,” Rister said.
American Red Cross crews and other relief workers patrolled affected neighborhoods, providing information, water and food to emergency workers and residents taking stock of what they had left.
Irma Sanchez, 43, clutched a crucifix and antique Bible on Sunday, pausing between sobs when carting what remained of her brother's possessions from a crumbling mobile home at Hide-A-Way.
She gestured at charring marks left on the Bible from a fire at a previous family home.
“It's always survived,” she said.
Sheet metal wrapped around trees like gum wrappers Sunday in Woodward, and crushed cars caked with mud lined the streets next to splintered wood and rusty nails on the ground.
But Sanchez and others searched for what could be saved.
“We're just going to try to salvage the clothes and see what we can do to get his stuff out of here,” she said.
Contributing: Staff writers Tiffany Gibson and Matt Dinger and The Associated Press.