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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

/articleid/3851702/1/pictures/2132243">Photo - Kaylee Sanchez, 6, her father Eli Sanchez, mother Maria Sanchez, sister Ellie Sanchez, 1, and uncle Miguel Blanco pose for a photo in front of the Sanchez's home in the Plaza Towers housing addtion in Moore. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
Kaylee Sanchez, 6, her father Eli Sanchez, mother Maria Sanchez, sister Ellie Sanchez, 1, and uncle Miguel Blanco pose for a photo in front of the Sanchez's home in the Plaza Towers housing addtion in Moore. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman NATE BILLINGS - NATE BILLINGS

He did not know his brother-in-law was already there. He said he saw Kaylee standing with her teacher, and when he yelled out her name, she began to cry and they hugged. He said the first thing she asked about was her sister Ellie Sophia, 1, apparently worried that the tornado had harmed her younger sibling.

Maria Sanchez said she was at work at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma when tornado sirens went off and she and her co-workers took shelter. She watched television and saw there was an imminent threat of a twister touching down in Moore. She said she knew she had to get to Kaylee.

Maria Sanchez said she got in her car and immediately prayed, asking the Lord to help her, in her distress, to avoid hitting anyone and to keep her from being hit by another motorist. She said by then, she knew her husband and her brother were on their way to the school, but she had to go for herself.

She said she had to cut the car radio off when a radio announcer proclaimed that Plaza Towers had been hit by a tornado and “there were no survivors.”

“I was trying to stay positive but it was hard. I pictured her in so many ways — Was she all right? Was she alone? Was she afraid?”

Maria Sanchez said she got a call from her husband telling her Kaylee was OK, so she never went to the school that day. Three days later, she drove to Plaza Towers and was shocked by what she saw.

“The first thing I said was how did my child survive all this with her being so little? How did she not get sucked up by the tornado?” she said.

Caring for Kaylee

These days, Kaylee clutches her school binder with all of the enthusiasm of a kindergartner who thoroughly enjoyed her first year of school.

Maria said the girl's teacher found it in the school rubble and gave it to her during a gathering the Moore School District had for the students to say farewell for the year.

The binder, frayed and a little waterlogged, is a happy symbol of the school for Kaylee, her mother said.

Maria Sanchez said her daughter had nightmares the night of the storm.

Maria Sanchez said the family slept at a friend's house several nights but went back to their home in the Plaza Towers neighborhood when they learned it was not badly damaged. Maria Sanchez said Kaylee was reluctant to return to the house. She said the child did not want her parents to go to work after the storm and when they did, she called them several times.

She said she has been taking Kaylee to therapy to help her process what happened. The need for this became clear when the family learned that a child they knew died at the school.

“That really hit home for her, for all of us,” Maria Sanchez said.

On one recent evening, Kaylee said she did not want to go to school. She said she does, however, hope to become a baker or a makeup stylist one day. “Maybe a nail tech or a baby sitter, too,” she said, laughing.

Hearing this, Maria Sanchez said she hopes that by the time school resumes in August, her daughter will have changed her mind.

Maria Sanchez said the family decided to forego summer T-ball and softball in the aftermath of the storm.

However, the family is trying to get back to normal by continuing to plan their summer vacation.

“I love the summer because we get to go to White Water and Sea World,” the young girl said, smiling.

Maria said she recently took Kaylee to be fitted for a dress to wear at a relative's quincenara, a celebration of a girl's 15th birthday and her transition from childhood to adulthood. The event, that includes a religious segment and a party, is a Hispanic tradition that Kaylee has enjoyed several times.

Eli Sanchez smiled as he watched Kaylee play with her younger sister in the family's living room. “At her young age, she's courageous trying to make her way out of this,” he said.

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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