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Oklahoma tornadoes: Family tells of caring for Kaylee, a kindergartner who survived when her school was destroyed

The family of Kaylee Sanchez talks about caring for the kindergartner, one of the survivors of the tornado that destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore
by Carla Hinton Modified: June 14, 2013 at 5:51 pm •  Published: June 15, 2013

— Eli Sanchez wonders what his little girl is thinking when she looks up at the sky these days.

On May 20, she watched as the roof was torn from her school. Debris swirled in the air as the building's walls crumbled around her. A car landed upside down a few feet from her kindergarten classroom.

The pounding hail and relentless rain that heralded the arrival of an F5 tornado ... The blackness that enveloped the sky ... The unforgettable roar of the twister as it made a deadly path through the Plaza Towers neighborhood and the school that bears its name ...

Sanchez, 29, wonders how 6-year-old Kaylee is processing it all.

“If I could catch a glimpse of what she went through, just to understand what she went through, then I could help her,” he said.

“It must be very scary.”

Faith to find Kaylee

Sanchez and his wife, Maria, 30, said their Christian faith served as an anchor the day the tornado wreaked havoc on their neighborhood and Kaylee's school.

The Sanchezes, along with Maria's brother Miguel Blanco, attend Templo de Alabanza — Temple of Praise — in south Oklahoma City. Eli Sanchez, the church's music minister, said for several days before May 20 he awoke early with an intense urge to pray.

“The Lord, He was waking me up to pray, and now I know why. I was interceding for my daughter,” Eli Sanchez said.

Some things about the day will always stand out for Eli and Maria Sanchez and Blanco, 27. First, the Sanchezes said Kaylee, a typically bubbly child who loved her teacher Erin Baxter, woke up and told her parents she didn't want to go to school.

Eli Sanchez said it was the first thing he thought of when he found her with Baxter amid the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary.

Getting to that moment of joyous reunion felt like “20 years, but it was only 20 or 30 minutes,” he said.

In the span of a half-hour, Kaylee's parents and Blanco raced across the metro, headed for Moore and Kaylee.

Eli Sanchez said he watched initial news broadcasts about a tornado forming in the metro while he was at work at the church. He said it wasn't near his home or Kaylee's school at the time, but when a wall cloud appeared to loom directly over Moore, he left work with the goal of picking his daughter up at the school.

Eli Sanchez said he drove through hail and rain, going about 80 mph until he got stuck in traffic. He said he took back roads to get to the Plaza Towers neighborhood but was forced to park his car at a 7-Eleven when he found traffic blocking the entrance. He said a neighbor picked him up and took him to the school.

He said he felt a sense of relief when he saw Baxter amid the destruction of Plaza Towers Elementary. Eli Sanchez said the teacher gave Kaylee to him, and once he was assured that she was OK, he began trying to help other people trapped in the rubble.

Blanco, Kaylee's uncle, said he was off work from his job at an area department store and working out at a gymnasium in Moore when the storm blew in. He said he was listening to a radio and became alert when an announcer said a tornado in the Newcastle area was heading into Moore. He called his sister to say he would check Kaylee out of school.

Listening to the radio in his car, Blanco became concerned when her heard the Orr Family Farm had been hit by the tornado. “I thought that is really close,” he said.

Blanco said it was raining so hard he had to park his car. He said he heard a radio announcer say Plaza Towers had been hit by a tornado.

“The words that he used was that Plaza Towers got leveled, and I knew I had to get to Kaylee,” Blanco said. “I kept saying ‘Kaylee, don't worry. I'm coming.' I was remembering the last time I saw her was at dinner after church.”

He said made his way to the school on foot from that point, running behind houses and around downed power lines.

Blanco said when he arrived at the school he didn't recognize it because of the destruction.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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The words that he used was that Plaza Towers got leveled, and I knew I had to get to Kaylee. I kept saying ‘Kaylee, don't worry. I'm coming.' I was remembering the last time I saw her was at dinner after church.”

Miguel Blanco, Kaylee's uncle,
Kaylee's uncle


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