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Oklahoma tornadoes: Bonds at Plaza Tower Elementary stronger than any tornado

On the day that students from the Plaza Towers Elementary gathered for the first time since a monster hit their school Monday, principal Amy Simpson couldn't turn around without someone wanting to hug her and say thanks.
by Jenni Carlson Published: May 23, 2013

Amy Simpson wrapped her arms around a woman in a baseball cap.

For a long moment, they silently held onto each other. Neither woman said anything.

Finally, the woman in the cap spoke.

“Thank you for protecting our babies.”

On the day that students from the Plaza Towers Elementary gathered for the first time since a monster hit their school Monday, Simpson couldn't turn around without someone wanting to hug her and say thanks. The petite blond is the principal of the Moore school that has become the symbol of the deadly destruction wreaked by a massive tornado.

But as much as the world hurts for the little lives that were lost there, no one feels the pain more than Simpson.

Those were her kids.

Every kid who goes to Plaza Towers is.

“She's not someone who sits in her office all day,” said Casey Gray, mother of first grader Myles and sixth grader Trinity. “She knows my kids. She knows my kids' names. She knows our family.

“She's like that with everybody.”

So, when parents started arriving at Plaza Towers on Monday afternoon, Simpson knew them by sight. Storms had started rolling into Moore, and many parents wanted to pick up their kids early.

Eventually, there were so many parents that Simpson told them to go directly to their child's classroom.

“Get your kid, get your kid,” she yelled as parents came through the doors.

But then in the same moment, she thought of those kids. She didn't want the adults scaring the children.

“Stay calm,” she urged the parents.

Roughly half of the school's students had been checked out by parents when word came that a tornado had taken dead aim at the school. Everyone who was still in the building prepared for impact, students, teachers and even some parents hunkering down in hallways and bathrooms.

Simpson walked the halls of the school she's led for three years, checking on as many of her classes as possible.

“The teachers were patting kids on the back and lovin' on 'em,” she said. “It wasn't totally calm, but it was as calm as it could be.

Simpson packed into a small faculty bathroom with four other women and waited.

Then came the roar and the shaking and the debris.

As soon as everything stopped, Simpson started prying open the bathroom door. The women asked her where she was going, what she was doing.

“I have to get out,” Simpson said. “I hear the kids.”

Hundreds of her kids survived inside the school, many being laid on and shielded by their teachers as the storm barreled through, but seven of her third-graders died. Sydney Angle. Antonia Candelaria. Emily Conatzer. Kyle Davis. Ja'Nae Hornsby. Christopher Legg. Nicolas McCabe.

Meeting with their families has been heart wrenching.

“But those parents have been so gracious and thankful,” Simpson said. “Over and over, lots of thank yous.

“They know we did what we could do.”

Even that knowledge hasn't made these past few days any easier. You could see as much in Simpson's eyes, bloodshot and red like her Plaza Towers Panthers T-shirt.

She is soft-spoken with a big heart, much quicker to hug than scold.

“You tend to think of principals sometimes as disciplinarians,” said Gray, an educator herself. “My kids have never looked at her that way.”

That's because Simpson was the one singing silly songs every morning at the all-school assembly. She was the one showing up one evening last week for the first grade program. And earlier this year, she was the one dancing.

Simpson wanted to encourage good attendance during state testing time, so any grade level that had high numbers would receive a reward.

A dance party.

Six of the grade levels met her standard, so one day, Simpson went to six hourlong dance parties.

“I was exhausted after six hours of dancing,” she said, smiling, “but I was at every dance.”

Gray said, “She's one of them. Those are her kids.”

Simpson helped to knit together a school, and as she hugged and talked and loved on students and parents Thursday morning, it was obvious that the bonds are strong. Stronger than any tornado.

by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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