Dixie Szymanski and Becky Brown started out as two chatty outfielders in a softball league in Newcastle, visiting when they should have been watching the ball.
They became best friends, and Dixie served as one of Becky's bridesmaids in May 1998.
It was a day almost a year later that strengthened the bond between the two.
Dixie, who lived in Oklahoma City near Moore, survived the F-5 tornado May 3, 1999, but was so seriously injured that she had to undergo 13 surgeries.
What she went through may have saved the lives of Becky's family May 24 last year when an EF5 leveled their story-and-a-half brick home in southeastern Kingfisher County.
Becky, 39, and her husband Chad Brown, 39, said that Dixie's experience is why they had storm shelter, the one 12 people were packed into when the twister hit.
“Without Dixie in my life, we might not be here,” Becky said. “I watched, I heard and I know what she went through. I know how much she struggled.
“Dixie was my blessing.”
Becky told Dixie exactly that, the morning after last year's tornado reduced the Brown's house to a heap of rubble.
“She said the reason they survived is because they had a tornado shelter and that was because she had seen what I went through,” Dixie said. “She went through it with me. I feel like she's gone through two of them now.”
May 3, 1999
After Dixie and John Szymanski married in March 1998, they lived in an apartment while their house was being built in the Country Place addition near SW 138 and Pennsylvania Avenue. Around their first wedding anniversary, the couple moved in. John was off work on May 3, 1999, and spent the day working in the yard. Dixie headed home after work. They fixed dinner and then started watching weather on television.
When the twister got to Newcastle, they realized it was approaching.
“We got in the closet and had the TV as loud as we could, and then all of a sudden the TV went off,” Dixie said. “We had pillows around us and my husband was kind of doing a bear hug on top of me. We felt air at our feet and then I don't remember anything after that.”
Minutes passed before John could find her.
On the other side of the metro, Becky had been on the phone, calling her family around Newcastle. They were fine. And then about 11 p.m., Becky's sister Jennifer Sanders who lived not too far from Dixie called.
“We had to go through Dixie's neighborhood to get home,” she told Becky. “Dixie's neighborhood is demolished, Becky.”
“My neck was broke; my jaw was broke; my nose was broken in like six places,” Dixie said in describing her injuries. “The left side of my face was pretty much crushed, my cheek, my nose, my eye. So it was about a six-month recovery process initially.
“Last October, I hopefully had my last surgery.”
John, who was thrown to the street curb, suffered a broken left ankle and injured right knee. Dixie was tossed into a front yard about three houses down.
Becky was at the hospital by 6 a.m. the day after.
Dixie has three sisters. Of the four, three of them lost their home in the May 3 tornado. While Dixie's family stayed at the hospital, Becky went to the home of Dixie's mother. She took phone calls, donations, answered questions for hours, and then would go sit with Dixie in ICU.
“And then through the six months, we'd talk on the phone for hours,” Dixie said. “I just cannot explain how much I love her and what she did for me, and her husband too, he helped. They went out and dug through the rubble.”
May 24, 2011
About 8:30 a.m. May 24, Chad made a phone call.
“I just had a weird feeling so I called my insurance company,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey my policies are all good aren't they?'”
They were. The Browns had a fire in their home about a year earlier, so he was playing it safe.
But that wasn't the only step they took.
About 4 p.m., Becky went through the house with an iPhone taking pictures of everything. Chad did the same, taking photos of everything outside, including their vehicles.
By about 4:20 p.m., everyone was in the storm shelter except Chad, who stayed in the house watching the weather until the TV went out.
He then went to the shelter, but after a few minutes he got hot in there and decided to go see whether the TV had come back on.
About four steps out of the shelter, Chad received a text from Shane Wagoner, a neighbor who was in McAlester on business, but watching TV.
The text said “It's right on top of you.” Chad retreated.
“I shut the door, set the pins and maybe a minute later, bam, it hits,” he said.
The next morning, Chad and Becky saw Dixie walking up the drive, her face soaked in tears.
“She didn't remember what happened to her, but I think she felt so bad for what happened to us,” Becky said.
Dixie purchased clothes for the Browns, knowing what they'd need.
“I feel terrible because I did nothing compared to what she did for me,” Dixie said. “She's just a miracle.”
Not a loss
Dixie said she never thought about the suffering she went through. She was too busy being thankful that John didn't die and that her sisters didn't die.
“As a matter of fact it made me closer to God,” Dixie said. “When you almost die, I think that's when you realize how short life is. I'm very lucky. We shouldn't be here.
“Just to be here now and have a beautiful family, I'm happy.”
Dixie, 40, and John, 41, have two daughters Mya, 10, and Kai, 7. Becky and Chad have a son Kendon, 12, and daughter Kelsee, 10.
When Becky and Dixie talked on the phone for hours in 1999, it was often about God and faith. That is still strong for both families.
One of Chad's bibles, a King James Version, was recovered from the rubble. The Browns placed it in the foundation of their new home, just inside the front door.
“People say ‘You lost everything,'” Becky said. “No we haven't lost anything. We didn't lose somebody.”
And for that, the two chatty outfielders — Dixie and Becky — are eternally thankful.