Finding Addyson – One family's struggle in the Moore tornado

BY KYLE FREDRICKSON For The Oklahoman Modified: May 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm •  Published: May 24, 2013
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Michael Roberts drove 100 mph north on Interstate-35, past police barricades, and into Moore, Okla., where he jumped his one-ton truck over sidewalks, curbs and residential intersections two blocks away from Plaza Towers Elementary. He sprinted in steel-toed boots through mud like quicksand until he saw it. A school reduced to a pile of trash.

The tornado passed an hour ago. His daughter might be dead.

Seven-year-old Addyson Roberts was days away from graduating Ms. Veach's first grade class. Where was Addyson?

As rescue teams poured over the broken remains, Michael grabbed the closest person in uniform. The officer told him first grade students were evacuated following the F-5 twister that ripped through the hallways of Plaza Towers at upwards of 300 miles per hour. Ms. Veach's class was transported to Abundant Life Church, a mile south.

So Michael kept running.

“Haul ass and pray,” he said. “That's all you can do.”

***

Summer Roberts planned on three stops while running errands on Monday afternoon. Three of her six children were getting out of school in Moore. All three at different times. All three at different locations.

But she only stopped once.

After picking up her son, Caden, 13, from Brink Junior High at about 2:30 p.m., Summer saw the rain clouds roll in and the wail of the sirens. Texts from school administrators said her other son, Brian, and her daughter, Addyson, were in lockdown.

Caden, Summer's son from a previous marriage, got a phone call in the car from his dad, an Oklahoma City Police officer. It was time to take cover.

Brian was safe at Highland West Junior High. The storm's path wouldn't reach that far north. But Addyson wasn't so lucky. The tornado was headed straight for her.

“I was torn,” Summer said. “Do I run in there and find her, or am I risking my other son's life?”

Earlier that day, Addyson attended a school ceremony honoring her academic achievements. She wanted to go home after its completion. Summer said no. Finish out the school day.

Summer had a busy day ahead. She never could have predicted what happened next.

“All I kept thinking was, ‘I should have taken her,'” she said. “And I didn't.”

Summer and Caden rushed to their ranch-style home on SW 7th Street to ride out the storm in the boys' closet. But as the storm grew closer, the game plan changed. Freddy Roberts, Summer's father-in-law, would drive them south to Norman, completely avoiding the storm.

Michael was installing power lines 60 miles north in Carney, Okla. when tornadic activity forced his crew into a storm shelter. Only Michael didn't join them. He hopped in his truck and headed home. He called his dad to relay the news. Moore was on the destruction path.

Summer, Caden and Freddy watched the tornado pass from a hospital parking lot. Radio reports confirmed Summer's worst fear. Plaza Towers. Gone.

Freddy couldn't drive back to Moore fast enough. Traffic came to a near stop.

“My skin was literally crawling, because I couldn't get out, we were standing still,” Summer said. “I looked at Freddy and said, ‘I don't know what you're going to do, but you're going to have to get off this highway.”

***

Michael had trekked more than a mile through the slush of mud and debris left by the tornado. He wouldn't believe his daughter was alive and well until he could hold her himself, run his fingers through her thick brown hair and wipe away her tears.

And he wanted Addyson to wipe away his, too.

When the church came into view, the adrenaline that kept Michael going began to run out. Steps grew heavier. Breaths grew shorter. By now, the estimated death toll of students at Plaza Towers had reached 24.

Said Michael: “I didn't know if they were going to have her under a sheet.”

***

Summer's cell phone ran out of battery. She hadn't heard any updates on the situation at Plaza Towers. And she had no idea if her house was still standing. But for the first time since the tornado hit, she was hopeful.

If Addyson was alive, Summer would find her.

Freddy weaved through northbound traffic until he reached an electronics store parking lot roughly one mile from Plaza Towers. Summer and Caden went on foot, sprinting east toward the school.

“I'm not an athlete,” Summer said. “I cheered in high school 30 years ago, you know what I mean? It had to be adrenaline. It had to be.”

But when they arrived, the smiling face of her 7-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found. Summer panicked. She rushed to the nearest officer. Officials told her Addyson was picked up by her father and was back home.

But that wasn't enough. Like Michael, Summer had to know for sure. So she and Caden ran again – this time through the swampy mess that used to be a neighborhood.

It's a route Caden knows well. He's walked that path hundreds of times. But the shortcut he usually takes was impassable, filled with deep water. The only other way was to cross a small river, a large tree stretched across both banks.

They had no other choice. They had to crawl across to the other side. Caden went first, testing the trunk's strength and stability. Summer followed behind on hands and knees, wallowing in the stench of gas and mud that hung the air.

***

When Michael finally arrived at the church, the parking lot was packed. Teachers and volunteers darted from child to child – comforting children whose parents had yet to show up, celebrating with those who found loved ones.

But Michael didn't need any help finding his daughter. The moment he reached the parking lot was the moment he found Addyson.

“I ran through the crowd and grabbed a hold of her,” Michael said. “She said, ‘Daddy, I'm fine! I'm fine!”

***

When Summer finally made the long walk to SW 7th street, there was Addyson, sitting on the tailgate of her father's truck, her pink shoes swinging back and forth in the air.

The mad dash to meet each other in the middle of the barren street was the second tear-filled embrace Addyson shared that day.

“My dad said you would do this,” Addyson told Summer. “He cried, too.”

***

Addyson's class had been shuffled into a girls' bathroom where students and teachers rode out the tornado.

“There was water in the bathroom and everywhere,” she said. “Some people lost their shoes. Someone got hit with a light from the ceiling.

“Whoever had injuries, they got a towel or whatever they could find. I had one to wipe off my eyes, because I was crying a little. Everyone else was crying. It was making me cry.”

***

The Roberts' home wasn't completely demolished in the tornado, but it might as well have been. Michael could flex a brick wall on the south side of the house with a simple push. The house seems destined for demolition.

Inside, water runs from flat-screen TVs. Glass mixes with dirt and leaves covering the floor. Addyson's favorite toy, a Jessie doll from Toy Story, is water-logged and stained.

“It's all material stuff,” Michael said. “It can all be bought again.”

Windows that were blown out are now covered with plywood and a leaky roof is patched with giant McDonalds advertising tarps Michael borrowed from a friend. He's hoping a television helicopter catches it. Maybe someone will cut him a check.

For the time being, the Roberts will stay with Michael's brother in Oklahoma City. On the first night after the storm hit, Addyson shared her parents' bed.

“She was kicking the crap out of me all night, rolling over me and stuff,” Michael said. “Any other time, I'd get mad and kick her out of the room or something.”

But this time was different.

“Those kicks in the middle of the night,” Michael said. “I just loved them.”




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