MOORE — Eli Sanchez wonders what his little girl is thinking when she looks up at the sky these days.
On May 20, she watched as the roof was torn from her school. Debris swirled in the air as the building's walls crumbled around her. A car landed upside down a few feet from her kindergarten classroom.
The pounding hail and relentless rain that heralded the arrival of an F5 tornado ... The blackness that enveloped the sky ... The unforgettable roar of the twister as it made a deadly path through the Plaza Towers neighborhood and the school that bears its name ...
Sanchez, 29, wonders how 6-year-old Kaylee is processing it all.
“If I could catch a glimpse of what she went through, just to understand what she went through, then I could help her,” he said.
“It must be very scary.”
Faith to find Kaylee
Sanchez and his wife, Maria, 30, said their Christian faith served as an anchor the day the tornado wreaked havoc on their neighborhood and Kaylee's school.
The Sanchezes, along with Maria's brother Miguel Blanco, attend Templo de Alabanza — Temple of Praise — in south Oklahoma City. Eli Sanchez, the church's music minister, said for several days before May 20 he awoke early with an intense urge to pray.
“The Lord, He was waking me up to pray, and now I know why. I was interceding for my daughter,” Eli Sanchez said.
Some things about the day will always stand out for Eli and Maria Sanchez and Blanco, 27. First, the Sanchezes said Kaylee, a typically bubbly child who loved her teacher Erin Baxter, woke up and told her parents she didn't want to go to school.
Eli Sanchez said it was the first thing he thought of when he found her with Baxter amid the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary.
Getting to that moment of joyous reunion felt like “20 years, but it was only 20 or 30 minutes,” he said.
In the span of a half-hour, Kaylee's parents and Blanco raced across the metro, headed for Moore and Kaylee.
Eli Sanchez said he watched initial news broadcasts about a tornado forming in the metro while he was at work at the church. He said it wasn't near his home or Kaylee's school at the time, but when a wall cloud appeared to loom directly over Moore, he left work with the goal of picking his daughter up at the school.
Eli Sanchez said he drove through hail and rain, going about 80 mph until he got stuck in traffic. He said he took back roads to get to the Plaza Towers neighborhood but was forced to park his car at a 7-Eleven when he found traffic blocking the entrance. He said a neighbor picked him up and took him to the school.
He said he felt a sense of relief when he saw Baxter amid the destruction of Plaza Towers Elementary. Eli Sanchez said the teacher gave Kaylee to him, and once he was assured that she was OK, he began trying to help other people trapped in the rubble.
Blanco, Kaylee's uncle, said he was off work from his job at an area department store and working out at a gymnasium in Moore when the storm blew in. He said he was listening to a radio and became alert when an announcer said a tornado in the Newcastle area was heading into Moore. He called his sister to say he would check Kaylee out of school.
Listening to the radio in his car, Blanco became concerned when her heard the Orr Family Farm had been hit by the tornado. “I thought that is really close,” he said.
Blanco said it was raining so hard he had to park his car. He said he heard a radio announcer say Plaza Towers had been hit by a tornado.
“The words that he used was that Plaza Towers got leveled, and I knew I had to get to Kaylee,” Blanco said. “I kept saying ‘Kaylee, don't worry. I'm coming.' I was remembering the last time I saw her was at dinner after church.”
He said made his way to the school on foot from that point, running behind houses and around downed power lines.
Blanco said when he arrived at the school he didn't recognize it because of the destruction.
He did not know his brother-in-law was already there. He said he saw Kaylee standing with her teacher, and when he yelled out her name, she began to cry and they hugged. He said the first thing she asked about was her sister Ellie Sophia, 1, apparently worried that the tornado had harmed her younger sibling.
Maria Sanchez said she was at work at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma when tornado sirens went off and she and her co-workers took shelter. She watched television and saw there was an imminent threat of a twister touching down in Moore. She said she knew she had to get to Kaylee.
Maria Sanchez said she got in her car and immediately prayed, asking the Lord to help her, in her distress, to avoid hitting anyone and to keep her from being hit by another motorist. She said by then, she knew her husband and her brother were on their way to the school, but she had to go for herself.
She said she had to cut the car radio off when a radio announcer proclaimed that Plaza Towers had been hit by a tornado and “there were no survivors.”
“I was trying to stay positive but it was hard. I pictured her in so many ways — Was she all right? Was she alone? Was she afraid?”
Maria Sanchez said she got a call from her husband telling her Kaylee was OK, so she never went to the school that day. Three days later, she drove to Plaza Towers and was shocked by what she saw.
“The first thing I said was how did my child survive all this with her being so little? How did she not get sucked up by the tornado?” she said.
Caring for Kaylee
These days, Kaylee clutches her school binder with all of the enthusiasm of a kindergartner who thoroughly enjoyed her first year of school.
Maria said the girl's teacher found it in the school rubble and gave it to her during a gathering the Moore School District had for the students to say farewell for the year.
The binder, frayed and a little waterlogged, is a happy symbol of the school for Kaylee, her mother said.
Maria Sanchez said her daughter had nightmares the night of the storm.
Maria Sanchez said the family slept at a friend's house several nights but went back to their home in the Plaza Towers neighborhood when they learned it was not badly damaged. Maria Sanchez said Kaylee was reluctant to return to the house. She said the child did not want her parents to go to work after the storm and when they did, she called them several times.
She said she has been taking Kaylee to therapy to help her process what happened. The need for this became clear when the family learned that a child they knew died at the school.
“That really hit home for her, for all of us,” Maria Sanchez said.
On one recent evening, Kaylee said she did not want to go to school. She said she does, however, hope to become a baker or a makeup stylist one day. “Maybe a nail tech or a baby sitter, too,” she said, laughing.
Hearing this, Maria Sanchez said she hopes that by the time school resumes in August, her daughter will have changed her mind.
Maria Sanchez said the family decided to forego summer T-ball and softball in the aftermath of the storm.
However, the family is trying to get back to normal by continuing to plan their summer vacation.
“I love the summer because we get to go to White Water and Sea World,” the young girl said, smiling.
Maria said she recently took Kaylee to be fitted for a dress to wear at a relative's quincenara, a celebration of a girl's 15th birthday and her transition from childhood to adulthood. The event, that includes a religious segment and a party, is a Hispanic tradition that Kaylee has enjoyed several times.
Eli Sanchez smiled as he watched Kaylee play with her younger sister in the family's living room. “At her young age, she's courageous trying to make her way out of this,” he said.
The words that he used was that Plaza Towers got leveled, and I knew I had to get to Kaylee. I kept saying ‘Kaylee, don't worry. I'm coming.' I was remembering the last time I saw her was at dinner after church.”