Editor's Note: Jim Willis is a former staff writer. He was in Midwest City on Monday to be inducted into the Midwest City High School Wall of Fame and was one of 700 people evacuated to the field house. Willis is a journalism professor at the University of Memphis.
Two signal events provided the drama in Midwest City on Monday night. One was the evacuation of 700 parents, students and other honorees attending an awards ceremony at Midwest City High School.
The other was the tornado.
Left in its wake was a city without power but loaded with debris.
Midwest City had not suffered a serious tornado in the past half- century.
For the 500 at Midwest City High School, the school's jazz band was just finding its groove, old friends were embracing, and the fun was just beginning.
Principal Rick Bachman was at the lectern.
His calm voice belied his concern when he made the announcement.
"The band reminds us of the music on the Titanic, but we don't want to be like the Titanic, so let's quietly and orderly leave this building and walk over to the field house."
At table after table, smiles dissolved into quizzical looks. Bachman went on.
"We have just received word that a tornado has been spotted on the city's west side, so just to be safe, let's move on to the field house."
While some guests could not be deterred from their $8 dinners, most of the 700 did exactly as Bachman asked.
In the field house, some mingled in the hallways, others took seats. A few moments later, the court was lit, and a few hundred spilled out into it. Some students found a basketball and began shooting hoops.
"This is pretty eerie," one student said. "It's like we're in a bomb shelter waiting for the blast."
In a coach's office, many huddled around a television featuring a live account of the approaching tornado.
Tinker Field and Midwest City were in its sights.
"Oh my God," uttered John Solomon who had shown up to see a friend's daughter honored. The sentiment was repeated several times as you passed through the huddled masses.
"Fifty years and no real tornados; now this," another woman whispered to her husband.
Cecelia Powell, who came to see her brother inducted to the school's Wall of Fame, appeared in the locker room with a chunk of hail the size of a tennis ball.
"Just for your information," she said, "this is what it's doing outside."
At that moment, a portable radio blurted out the news.
"Residents of Midwest City should take cover immediately. This tornado is headed straight for the downtown area."
Out on the basketball court, school officials made the announcement.
"Everyone must leave the court and move to the hallways or locker rooms. The storm is on its way."
But there was no panic among the hundreds huddled together. Only the dread of what was coming.
Some embraced loved ones; others held hands; many just waited and stared into the blackness.
"Downtown Midwest City, take cover. Tinker Field, take cover," the radio said again.
Then, miraculously, another message.
"Wait a minute ... . The funnel seems to be making a left turn. It is missing Tinker."
In the darkness, hearts were buoyed.
"It now seems headed north between Air Depot and Sooner Road," the radio voice continued.
"Pray for Del City," one voice said in the dark.
Midwest City and Del City caught the funnel's fury.
As word of the storm's new path filtered through the crowd, a new worry began. A strong odor of natural gas began to fill the field house so, once again, the hundreds were evacuated to the main school building. But once outside, the feeling of relief spread through the crowd as the danger seemed over. Most headed not back to the school but to their cars for a trip home to assess wind and hail damage.
A drive through the city's traffic- congested west side showed downed power lines, especially along Air Depot Boulevard, downed power across most of the city, and limited or no phone service. Debris, probably blown from the west and the funnel track, littered the city's west side. Many cars were showing the hailstone damage.
Rose State College, west of Air Depot, was being evacuated because of downed power lines and minor damage.
But through it all, the 500 people
at Midwest City High School were