Dread filled Kathy Stedman-Troxell about 2 p.m. Monday when she heard from her co-workers that hail was falling about five miles away in Mustang.
Unprotected in the parking lot of the Federal Aviation Administration's Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center sat her pride and joy, her five-month-old white Kia Optima.
She cut her workday short and at 2:25 p.m. headed toward home in Newcastle in hopes of beating the weather.
From the road, she called her husband of six years, Kevin Troxell, who worked in a different building at the Monroney Center and whose shift ended at 2:30 p.m. “I'm coming right behind you,” he told her.
Kathy, 51, drove a circuitous route home, trying to avoid the hail. She looked west toward their home. She saw low churning clouds. It was about 2:40 p.m. She called Kevin again. She told him she was going to keep going south to avoid the storm.
The windshield wipers on Kevin's pickup swished at top speed as he raced toward the couple's dream home. They'd moved into the three-bedroom, three-bath ranch with a three-car garage in the Country Club Estates subdivision the year before. The home sat on a half-acre alongside a creek and boasted large porches, $15,000 hickory wood floors, a gourmet kitchen, stone fireplace and a media room with a large-screen television where Kevin watched OU football, Thunder basketball and his favorite movies.
What it didn't have was a storm shelter. Plans called for one beneath the garage floor, but the contractor hit ground water and the couple postponed the work. They planned to build a shelter right after they put up gutters. The gutters went up two weeks ago.
Kevin stepped out of his truck. He wore jeans, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and a pair of Crocs.
Immediately he sensed the danger. Around him, thousands of leaves swirled in a threatening dark-gray sky. The air felt strange, heavy. He looked west. Just across the creek from his home, no more than two football fields away, he saw a funnel cloud bobbing up and down and headed in his direction. Terrified and aware his home was likely doomed, he got back in his truck. His phone rang. It was Kathy telling him she wasn't coming home.
Kevin told her he was headed toward the house of a niece and nephew, who had a storm shelter. He got to Country Club Road and took a right. Behind him, he could hear the roar of the tornado. It seemed to be gaining on him.
Kevin pulled his truck into his nephew's long driveway. The house was dark. Worse, he didn't know where the storm shelter was. He jumped from the truck. He heard the tornado's full fury but dared not look. A haze of rain, limbs, dirt and debris choked the air. He ran to the back door of the house. He tried the handle. Locked.
Panicked, he looked back across the lawn. He saw the top edge of a retaining wall about a dozen feet away. He sprinted and pressed his body hard against the concrete to take advantage of the 12 inches of protection it offered. He felt his body being battered by wood, rocks and other debris. One blow felt like he'd been struck hard with a baseball bat on the back of the head.
“I knew this was probably going to be it,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”
In Guthrie, Mark Troxell, Kevin's youngest brother, sat on his living room couch, drinking coffee and tracking the storm on television. He watched news helicopter images of the funnel cloud forming and then plowing slowly across Newcastle, where dozens of his relatives lived. He saw the tornado hop the Canadian River and spin toward Moore. He felt sick. The mud-spewing monster had churned a path directly over his brother Kevin's new home.
As he watched the funnel grow bigger and bigger, Mark Troxell, 53, turned to his wife, Lisa.
“It's killing people,” he said. “It's killing people.”
After turning away from the storm, Kathy stopped her car briefly and looked back north. On the radio, announcers were saying the storms were circulating in Bridge Creek and Newcastle. She headed for a friend's house in nearby Blanchard, farther from the storm's path.
By now, the twister had touched down 4.4 miles west of Newcastle and begun a 17-mile northeastward march of destruction that ended 50 minutes later when the funnel lifted 4.8 miles east of Moore. Kathy stayed at her friend's house only about 10 minutes before deciding she needed to find her husband. He wasn't answering his phone.
She drove north again and turned west on NW 16 Street through Newcastle to Country Club Drive. She pulled into a parking lot about a half-mile from her home. First responders blocked access to the neighborhood. She couldn't see her house from the road but could see that others in the neighborhood were flattened. She smelled gas in the air and saw mud-splattered neighbors wrapped in blankets walking up the street. Every time she called Kevin's cellphone she got the same response — call fail.
Kevin heard nothing but quiet and felt nothing but pain. The tornado had pushed him about 50 feet across the lawn where he came to rest entangled in the branches of an uprooted tree. He was in agony. The sun came out.
He saw a stranger in the distance and tried to yell out. He tried to get up on all fours but fell back to the ground in pain.
“We've got somebody over here,” Kevin heard the man yell.
Seconds later the stranger was at his side. He helped Kevin to his feet and inside a garage to escape a gentle mist. Soaked by blood and rain, Kevin lay back on the ground and moaned. He reached for his phone and hit the speed dial for Kathy. The call didn't go through.
Within minutes, an off-duty emergency worker began assessing Kevin's injuries. He cut off his shirt, pants and socks and flipped him over, looking to find the source of his bleeding. About then, Kevin's niece, who'd emerged from the shelter, entered the garage. Seeing her uncle, she burst into tears.
“Oh Kevin,” he remembered her saying. “You're going to be OK. You're going to be OK. You're going to be OK.”
Then he overheard an emergency responder.
“He needs to be airlifted out of here.”
For Kevin, it confirmed he might not be OK. Despite the pain, Kevin said he would rather go by ambulance and that he wanted to go to Norman Regional Hospital. Workers ferried him on a makeshift wood stretcher to a waiting ambulance where an attendant started an IV and gave him something for the pain. The ambulance doors closed.
What seemed like just seconds after the twister roped out and lifted near Lake Stanley Draper, Mark Troxell's phone rang. Another brother, Doug, was on the line.
“Kevin was in the tornado, and he was tore up pretty bad,” Mark recalled his brother saying. They were taking him to OU Medical Center, his brother said.
Mark drove 25 minutes through pouring rain to the Oklahoma City hospital listening to storm coverage on the radio. He knew how violent the tornado had been. He knew his brother was badly hurt. He worried he might be too late.
The family had been close once, six boys and three girls raised by a stay-at-home mom and a truck driver dad who ran a salvage yard in Midwest City before moving the family to south Oklahoma City. But their dad died in 1973, and when his wife followed in 2002, the glue that bound the family was gone.
Grown and with families of their own, the Troxell children saw less and less of each other as the years went by. Mark hadn't seen Kevin in a couple months. Now, he feared he might never see him again.
Mark pulled into the parking lot and saw another brother, Coy, walking toward the hospital doors. They hurried together to the emergency room. A nurse took down Kevin's name. They sat in a crowded waiting room where they watched television coverage of the tornado.
Soon after, Kathy's sister and brother-in-law arrived, then Kathy, in tears. She'd also been contacted by a family member who told her Kevin was taken to the downtown hospital. It was about 5:30 p.m.
Mark Troxell said over a 90-minute span he asked about his brother no less than 10 times.
“They kept saying they didn't know anything,” he said.
Finally, he insisted on talking to a supervisor. Another hospital employee took Kevin's name and said she'd check a list. But she also told them they may want to start checking other hospitals.
“They're going everywhere,” she said of the dozens of tornado victims taken to hospitals that day.
By now the group was growing frantic. They knew how severe the tornado had been and that Kevin was badly injured. They thought he'd been transported here and was receiving treatment. What were they supposed to do? The group huddled. What if Kevin's not even here? What if we don't find him in time? Should we split up and go to different hospitals? They were looking for telephone numbers when the hospital employee returned and told them that Kevin's name was on a list of injured people who had been transported to a hospital, but that she couldn't be certain it was to this hospital.
Just then, Kathy's brother-in-law told the group he'd found Kevin. He was in the Norman Regional Healthplex, off Interstate 35 and Tecumseh Road in Norman. Still uncertain of his condition, they piled into their cars for what they expected to be a 30-minute drive.
In the emergency room, Kevin listened to a doctor do a quick survey of his injuries. A broken left leg, multiple lacerations to the arms, legs, chest, back and face, a gaping wound across the back of his head and a half-dollar-size hole where a tree limb appeared to have pierced completely through his lower leg. He needed surgery.
Stuck in traffic, low on gas, her cellphone battery dying, Kathy was frantic. About 7:30 p.m. her phone rang. A niece told her Kevin's brother, Jeff, was with Kevin. They were not at the Healthplex, but at Norman Regional Medical Center a few miles away. Kathy called Jeff, who handed the phone to Kevin.
He told her he was headed into surgery. He thought his leg was broken. A sense of relief washed over Kathy. He's hurt but alive, she thought.
“I'm trying to get to you as fast as I can,” she told him.
When she reached the hospital about two hours later, a dozen friends and family had gathered. Not long after, Kevin emerged from surgery. As he was being wheeled back to his room, Kathy said their eyes “just locked.”
He was battered and still blood-streaked. His head rested on a dirt-stained pillow. She watched a bug crawl from his hair. She told him she loved him and she thanked God he was alive.
“I tried to call,” he told her.
Mark Troxell arrived not long after. He saw his brother's heavily bandaged leg, swollen face, the scrapes, cuts, bumps and bruises. He gently held his left hand.
“How you doing?” Mark asked.
He stayed an hour. As he left, he again held his brother's hand.
“I love you,” Mark said.
On Thursday, Kevin Troxell sat in his hospital room and reflected.
“I feel like I've lived through something I wasn't supposed to live through,” he said.
He'd had a second surgery to clean bark, dirt and other debris from his leg. He faces what could be a long recovery. His dream home is gone. He doesn't know where he and Kathy will live.
“There's a lot heartache coming down the road,” he acknowledged.
Still, he's heartened by the love he's felt the past few days, the stream of visitors, the emotional moments he's shared with his family. In some ways, he feels the ordeal strengthened his relationship with his brothers and sisters.
“It would be terrible for a person to go through a lot of things and find out there's no one out there that gives a damn,” he said. “It's a real good feeling somebody out there cares about you. It did let me know how much each and every one of these people care about Kevin Troxell.”