Gina Janzen was standing outside of her second-grade classroom at Briarwood Elementary School on May 20 when she saw the EF5 tornado approaching.
She ran inside and told the three teachers she was with that she was going to move her children into the bathroom. Most students already had checked out for the day, but Janzen still had 10 students and her own two children with her. The other teachers followed suit and rushed their kids to the bathroom.
Once inside, they had the children put dictionaries over their heads to protect against debris and desperately tried to keep them calm. As the roar grew louder, the group began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and other songs. The distraction calmed the kids right up until the behemoth reached the school.
“Once it started hitting, the kids kind of freaked out a bit, and we just kept saying, ‘It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK. That’s the tornado. It’s going to be OK. It’s almost over,’” Janzen said.
“And it wasn’t long after that, the walls just caved in on us and buried us.”
Buried under support beams and walls, Janzen couldn’t move. The smell of gas was overwhelming. Tammy Glasgow, another second-grade teacher, led many of the children away from the rubble. Once the kids were at a safe distance, Glasgow guided first responders to where Janzen and others were buried.
Searching through the rubble, rescuers unknowingly stood on some of the kids buried toward the top of the debris.
“I was screaming, ‘You’re standing on the kids! You’re standing on the kids!’” Janzen said. “They stepped off the kids, off the debris, and they started digging down.”
They dug out all the children but were unable to rescue Janzen and teacher Annette Brown because they were pinned down by the beams. After about 40 minutes, rescuers finally freed Janzen and Brown.
The first thing Janzen saw as she was being pulled out of the destruction was a sea of people trying to help.
“Everywhere you look, there were people,” she said. “It was very overwhelming to see so many people helping without hesitation.”
None of the children with Janzen suffered serious injuries. She and some of the other teachers only came away with concussions, which she considers a blessing. She believes the walls that covered the group may have saved their lives by shielding them from flying debris.
Briarwood, 14901 South Hudson Ave. in Oklahoma City, was one of two Moore elementary schools destroyed by the tornado. No one was killed at Briarwood, but seven children died at Plaza Towers, about 1 1/2 miles east of Briarwood.
BY KYLE HINCHEY
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