Oklahoma tornadoes: ‘All I could do was sit there and hold her'

by Nolan Clay Published: May 23, 2013

Huddled together in a bathtub, Laurinda Vargyas held her baby girl and 4-year-old girl tight as the tornado began shaking apart their south Oklahoma City home Monday.

“We ducked for cover. And the next thing you know, we got whooshed away,” she said.

Her baby, Sydnee, and daughter, Karrina, were pulled from her. They did not survive.

“I don't think I was knocked out because I pretty much remember being flopped around,” Laurinda Vargyas, 30, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

She and her mother, who was with her in the bathroom, are recovering at a south Oklahoma City hospital.

“When I landed, I tried to get up even though debris was still flying at my head. I looked over to my right at my mom. She had the biggest gash. I thought she was dead. … And then I heard her breathing and trying to talk so I just covered her up and went looking for my babies.”

She found Sydnee in a driveway.

“She was just laying there helpless. All I could do was sit there and hold her. She was already gone. They say she didn't suffer. So I've got to find peace with that,” Laurinda Vargyas said.

She did not find Karrina that night. She and her husband, Phillip Vargyas, found out later Karrina's body had been recovered from the rubble of what had been a neighbor's house.

“She was something else,” Phillip Vargyas said Wednesday of Karrina. “She wanted to figure skate. That was her dream in life. … She had a smile that would light up the room.”

Sydnee was 7 months old. She crawled for the first time on Sunday, her father said.

The Vargyas family rented the house at 312 SW 147 in Oklahoma City.

Phillip Vargyas, 32, said they will find another one — in Oklahoma — to provide stability for his two other children: Damon, 11, and Aria, 8.

On Wednesday, though, he went to a funeral home to arrange for services for his two youngest.

“My wife is strong and I'm strong and we understand we have two other beautiful kids that we cannot check out for. We have to be here and love them just that much more … and move forward knowing that my baby girls are right there with us every step of the way,” Phillip Vargyas said.

“Any time we feel that pain or that missing hurt, we like to think that they give us a little hug, whether they're here or not.”

Young lives cut short

Damon and Aria were at the nearby Briarwood Elementary School when the tornado struck there.

“They came out fairly unscathed. Damon … actually hid underneath a urinal in one of the bathrooms. The urinal held but the roof caved in. Aria … hid in the library with an encyclopedia over the top of her head. … She had some stuff fall on her,” their father said.

In all, 10 children were among the 24 dead from Monday's storm.

Seven of the children were in the same third-grade class at the flattened Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.

Their parents are remembering them for the things they loved — like soccer, video games, Monster Jam trucks and drawing.

Mikki Davis described her son, Kyle Steven Davis, 8, as a true “mama's boy” who was always asking for food — like most boys his age.

“He's not going to be sitting at the dinner table next time I sit down to eat,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “That's going to be hard, not hearing him say, ‘Mom, when are we going to eat? I'm hungry.'”

Antonia Lee Candelaria, 9, her sisters and her best friends from next door loved to play together, said mother, Brandie Candelaria. They used their imaginations and sometimes came up with their own games.

Christopher Andrew Lloyd Legg, 9, was remembered for his love of sports. On Sunday, his grandfather had predicted that Christopher was going to play center for the University of Oklahoma someday.

On Facebook, Kristi Conatzer wrote of her 8-year-old daughter, Emily, “I hope I wake up and she is jumping around on me giggling ... but I know that she is in heaven smiling down. My baby, I know you are with the unicorns tonight. Sleep well my angel.”

‘The last thing I heard'

At least three died taking cover at a 7-Eleven in Moore.

One of those victims, Terri Long, 49, sought shelter there after leaving her job at the Federal Aviation Administration.

She had checked her youngest daughter out of high school early by phone and told the daughter to drive south. They talked by phone after she got to the convenience store.

“That was the last thing I heard from her. … She didn't really sound scared. She sounded like she thought she was going to be OK. She told me she was in the 7-Eleven with a whole bunch of people,” Alyson Costilla, 18, said.

Their home was destroyed.

“We think that she was trying to make it to me because I was home alone and she was scared for me,” the daughter said. “People at her work tried to make her stay but she was just adamant about leaving.”

Long had been anticipating her daughter's graduation from Southmoore High School this Saturday. “She was so excited,” Costilla said.

Cindy Plumley, 49, a licensed practical nurse at the Norman Veterans Center, died protecting her grandchildren.

“That was one of the things that the administrator down in Norman told me. She was with the things she loved the most in the world — her two grandkids. It's sad but at least the children are OK,” said Shane Faulkner, the public information officer for the state Veterans Affairs Department.

Some of the victims died inside their homes.

The oldest victim, Deanna Ward, 70, died holding hands with her son, Mark Stephens, in the closet of her home just a block east of Plaza Towers Elementary School.

She suffered blunt force trauma to her torso, the chief medical examiner reported.

The retired nurse was sick and frail, and her son did not have enough time to get his mother into the car to take her away, said her daughter, Shelley Irvin.

“She was the best mom in the world,” Irvin said. “My brother and I have been through a lot of struggles and she never gave up on us. She was always there.”

Contributing: Staff Writers Bryan Painter, Zeke Campfield, Carrie Coppernoll, Juliana Keeping and Diana Baldwin


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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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