Oklahoma tornadoes: Destruction reunites Oklahoma family

by Phillip O'Connor Published: May 26, 2013
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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.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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