For the Thursday Oklahoman, I wrote about the remarkable photo that Paul Hellstern shot in the moments after the Monday tornado ripped through Briarwood Elementary School. Hellstern captured the moment when Jim Routon and his 6-year-old neighbor, Hezekiah Darbon, reunited among the chaos. You can read the column here.
It’s one of the favorite things I’ve written in awhile. It was long, about 1,110 words, but I didn’t tell all of Routon’s story. Just ran out of space. Here is a little more of the story:
* The Routons actually are moving. Lived in that same house 19 years, in that neighborhood even longer. But Routon has taken a job in Woodward so that his wife can be nearer her parents in Mooreland. This, of course, was all planned before the tornado. So you can’t’ say the Routons are fleeing Tornado Alley. Especially since they’re moving to Woodward, which ranks with Moore as the most tragedy-stricken towns in Oklahoma.
“I’m going to miss it,” Routon said of the Stone Meadows neighborhood just southeast of the corner of Western Avenue and SW 149th. “I know my daughter’s going to miss it. My wife’s going to miss it. We’re looking at it as a new chapter in life. We’re moving on to an unknown, which is always scary. But everything’s worked out so far.”
But Routon said he would always maintain a bond with Hezekiah.
* It’s remarkable how many people watch Gary England or Mike Morgan on television during a storm, then go outside and watch the storm literally bearing down. That’s what Jim Routon did. Unfortunately, that’s the product of too many false alarms. But the truth is, the weather guys know that when conditions are ripe for tornadic activity, sometimes it develops and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it does — apparently with record-setting quickness Monday — you’ve got to be prepared. Sort of like insurance. You don’t need it until you need it.
Routon saw the tornado develop, “probably 8-10 miles away” and said, “oh my gosh. This is a big one.” So he finally descended into his neighbor’s storm shelter.
* The Routons and the Darbons have not been pleased with the media. They’ve gotten a ton of media inquiries and have done a few but don’t plan to do anymore. Routon said Joe Darbon was not pleased with “Good Morning America,” which staged an interview with Routon and Hezekiah on Wednesday morning. Joe Darbon has tried to protect his son from news of the tragedy. Routon said they were told the Good Morning America interview would be on the corner of an intersection near the school. Instead, they were placed right in front of rubble.
* I had sort of a wild day to find my way to Jim Routon. My sports editor, Mike Sherman, asked me on Tuesday night to pursue the story. All I had was Routon’s name. So I emailed my sister-in-law, who is a speech pathologist in Moore, if she could help find out if Routon was a school official. Then I went to bed.
Wednesday morning, I got the word that Routon was not a school employee. I couldn’t find him on basic Internet searches, so I did a couple of things. I asked Jenni Carlson, who is much more social-media savvy than I, to see if she could locate him on Facebook. He wasn’t there. So I paid 95 cents for one of those information searches on the web, and they at least got me a home phone (which does you no good when all the phone service is out), age and address. So I had his address.
I found a Jim Routon in our newspaper archives who was a good football player at Southeast High School. So I found the names of some of his Spartan teammates and his coach, Jeff Welborn, and started trying to find their phone numbers. Nothing really developed.
Finally, about noon, I just decided to take a chance on getting to Routon’s house. Law enforcement were really securing the areas Wednesday. Only residents were allowed in. But I didn’t know what else to do.
So I got dressed, but I didn’t put on my normal attire. I wore holey jeans, a pullover and old shoes that I use to paint in. I went west on Tecumseh Road in Norman to NW 48th Avenue, which becomes Santa Fe in Moore. I went north on Santa Fe until the traffic backed up — if you haven’t driven around Moore this week, the traffic always backs up. I wanted to get to Southmoore High School and try to park there, but it’s a staging area for work trucks, and I figured that was a longshot. I didn’t make it to Southmoore, which is on the north side of Moore’s 34th Street. I just pulled into Talavera, a neighborhood just south of 34th Street and decided to walk. I parked a few blocks off of Santa Fe and decided to cut through the field. I figured if the cops were setting up road blocks at the intersection, I could save the hassle of trying to talk my past them.
I took out across the field and immediately came to a deep ravine. Probably 10 feet down. Little bit of water in it. So I shimmied down, jumped the tiny stream and shimmied up. Did it all the time when I was 14. Not all that much at 52. Then I walked across 30-inch tall grass, hopped a barb-wire fence and crossed 34th.
During my walk, I made one last effort to reach out to Routon. I called our former web editor, Lindsay Houts (I call her Azusa; she graduated from Azusa Pacific), a social-media fiend if ever there was one. I asked her for any advice on reaching out to Routon. She asked if she could have access to my Twitter account, and I said sure. My Twitter account is used only to send out the stuff I write, which is usually 3-4 things a day, so it’s not dormant.
So I kept trucking. Then I made an error. I was in Routon’s square mile of housing, but it’s really two separate neighborhoods, without street access from one to the other. And I didn’t enter Stone Meadows. I walked around, trying to avoid backtracking, and finally some friendly fellow let me cut across his backyard and out a temporary fence into Southmoore’s campus. I traipsed across the athletic fields and walked across an opening into the Stone Meadow addition. I thought I was free.
But no. I walked a few blocks, then the one street that connects the north and south parts of the neighborhood was guarded by an OKC police officer. (Oklahoma City starts in the middle of that neighborhood.) She turned me away. So I walked back around and out the west side of the neighborhood and headed up Western. I got to the next entry, and a county sheriff was guarding the street. When I arrived, he was talking with a person in a vehicle headed out. And a truck pulled up to enter, just as I approached. The truck stopped, I guess to gain admittance, and I just walked behind the truck and kept walking like I belonged there. My appearance didn’t hurt.
So I walked a few blocks straight to Jim Routon’s house, knocked on the door and his wife, Diana, answered. They were skeptical at first but warmed up to me. Jim said he felt like he knew me from reading me all these years and listening on the Sports Animal, else he probably would have denied any more interviews. So I felt grateful.
A few minutes into our visit, my phone rang. It was Azusa, giving me the name and number of Jim Routon’s brother-in-law. Then Jim started getting calls from people telling him that Berry Tramel was looking for him. So I don’t know whether was a victory for social media or old-fashioned gum-shoe effort. You decide.
We had a great chat, he shared his fabulous story and then I started the journey back. I went back through the middle of the neighborhood, past the cop who wouldn’t let me in the first time, and repeated my steps across Southmoore’s practice field. I stopped and chatted with a football coach who was using a lawnmower to blow debris off the artificial-turf field. I figured I had had enough of the prairie, so I just walked from Southmoore’s long drive down to Santa Fe and south on Santa Fe back to my truck. My body ached but my spirit soared.