Oklahoma tornadoes: Children endured tornado in hall of Plaza Towers Elementary

A teacher described the bravery, prayers and chaos inside the Moore elementary school hallway were seven third-graders lost their lives in Monday's tornado.
by William Crum Published: May 23, 2013

The children were in the gymnasium, for gym and music, when the weather changed from ominous to dangerous. Minutes later, for seven third-graders, it had turned deadly.

When an emergency was declared Monday at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, teachers and aides in the second- and third-grade wing gathered their children in the hall.

Their “specials” teachers “brought the kids over to us,” leading them back from the gym, Shelly Calvert, one of the three second-grade teachers, said Wednesday night.

Parents had begun checking their children out of school as threatening weather closed in, and Calvert said she had around 10 or 12 of her 22 pupils with her in the hall.

“Sirens are blowing. Then the lights went out,” Calvert said. There was a “pounding, pounding” against the brick building “and we had the kids on the floor.”

The children knelt facing the wall, with their hands over their heads, just as they'd been taught.

“They were all screaming and crying and very, very scared,” Calvert said.

Principal Amy Simpson, speaking from the office in a different building, was on the intercom throughout, telling everyone to “get down, take cover and put our hands over our head.”

The six teachers and two aides in the hall knelt over their children, wrapping their arms around all they could reach.

Calvert, 48, said she lifted one little girl who was just out of reach and pulled the child under her.

The door at the south end of the hall blew open. Debris flew in and the roof came off.

“I had my head down and was just praying,” Calvert said. “All the teachers were praying.”

The tornado passed.

“We looked over and the third-graders were buried in the concrete wall,” Calvert said.

Water gushed from a broken sprinkler system pipe in the ceiling.

Once the teachers were able to get up, Calvert said, people already were coming to help.

Children were passed down the hall toward what had been the door leading to the playground.

“We were just handing them to them one at a time,” she said.

Those with the second-graders screamed for the third-graders, who'd been closer to the door.

Calvert said she learned later from a third-grade teacher that those under the concrete were screaming for help.

No one could hear the others in the chaos.

Those in the hall were unable to lift the concrete wall, she said.

“They were completely covered in rubble,” Calvert said.

Outside, parents ran up, trying to find their kids. Paramedics treated the injured.

Calvert's arms are covered with scratches, but she suffered no serious injuries. She said she believed none of the second-graders were sent to the hospital.

“The kids were very, very brave,” she said. They were scared “but they knew what to do.”

by William Crum
Reporter
OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman.
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