MOORE — Antonia Candelaria and Emily Conatzer were best friends and neighbors.
The little girls died side by side. Plaza Towers Elementary took a direct hit May 20. The EF5 tornado killed seven third-grade children as they hid from the storm in a hallway. The hallway where they sheltered was buried by a collapsed wall.
The tornado alley school had no safe room or shelter.
Kristi Conatzer, mom to Emily, who would have been 10 next week, doesn’t want other Oklahoma families to suffer like hers has. She wants shelters in Oklahoma schools.
That’s why she and other parents of children who died that day gathered at a church in the town Tuesday evening, the three-month anniversary of the disaster that claimed the lives of the children.
Conatzer wants to see a school shelter mandate and said government inaction upsets her.
“I think there should be a mandate for it,” she said before a news conference at the First Baptist Church, 301 NE 27th St.
“Lawmakers should have assessed the situation back in ’99,” she said, referencing the deadly tornado 14 years ago that claimed lives and destroyed portions of Moore.
Briarwood Elementary School, which, like Plaza Towers, took a direct hit and was reduced to splinters, did not have a shelter, though no students died there.
In late May, Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, pushed for a $500 million bond package to provide funding for storm shelters at schools and communities.
With the legislative session winding down and many Republicans balking at additional state bonds, the proposal didn’t go anywhere.
Gov. Mary Fallin said at the time she would consider supporting a program for school safe rooms and shelters following the initial disaster recovery effort, and an assessment of which schools already have shelters.
Two state representatives, whose districts in south Oklahoma City and Moore were shredded by the twister, started the nonprofit ShelterOklahomaSchools.org to raise private money for the initiative.
The Tuesday evening news conference was scheduled to drum up support for the effort, which began over the summer, State Reps. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said.
Kristi Conatzer’s daughter Luci, 8, who also attends Plaza Elementary, was pulled from the wreckage with a concussion and bruises. Older brother Matthew attends Deer Creek High School. The tornado also destroyed the family’s home; they got out of a hotel and into a new home just last week, she said. Conatzer said she and her husband Christopher left their children at their schools because they thought they would be safest there.
They ran from their destroyed home to the school.
“All you could do was stand in front of the school and cry,” she said.
Her daughter Luci was saved, but the family found out the next day that Emily, a little girl who aspired to be a fashion designer and dreamed of travels to Paris, did not make it through.
The parents have taken grief and turned it to action.
At the news conference, they donned T-shirts featuring a Plaza Towers Panther paw or heart encircled by a lifesaver. Solemn faced, they clutched posters. The posters depicted each family, standing amid wreckage. In every photograph, a family member held a photo of the one who wasn’t there.
Joshua Hornsby, who lost his daughter Ja’Nae at Plaza Towers, said he is driven to try and help other children avoid the same fate.
“My daughter drives me to be able to help other children,” he said. “No family should have to go through this.”