Oklahoma City police Sgt. Cody Koelsch didn't have far to run to begin rescue efforts following the devastating May 20 tornado. He pushed open the door of his backyard shelter and instantly encountered the chaos of a post-apocalyptic world.
“I knew my first job was to get my wife and baby to safety,” said Koelsch, the father of a 5-week-old baby girl named Saylor. First mission accomplished, he kicked into “police mode” and rushed to assist neighbors.
Miles away, urgent calls for ambulances were lighting up the 911 switchboard at the Emergency Medical Services Authority.
One paramedic dispatcher was a father who thought his house had been struck and feared for the lives of his children, said EMSA spokeswoman Lara O'Leary. The dispatcher asked for permission to leave, which was quickly granted. Someone else filled his slot.
Another dispatcher was a grandmother who was concerned about the safety of her grandchildren. That dispatcher continued fielding emergency calls — all the while hoping to receive word that they had weathered the storm.
Ultimately, the first dispatcher discovered his house was fine and the other dispatcher learned her grandchildren were safe, O'Leary said.
“It was just a very tense filled 45 minutes,” she said, adding that both dispatchers did what they needed to do.
Rescuers turn victims
Oklahoma's May 19 and 20 tornadoes ravaged several working class neighborhoods, hitting many first responders where they lived.
Koelsch is one of more than 30 police officers, firefighters, sheriffs' deputies and ambulance workers whose homes were obliterated by the tornadoes. Many others had homes damaged.
A partial list of emergency responders whose homes were destroyed includes at least nine Oklahoma City police officers, four Moore police officers, 11 Oklahoma County sheriff's employees, two Oklahoma City firefighters, three EMSA paramedics, a Newcastle police officer and a Shawnee police officer and animal control officer.
Moore Police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis estimates 90 percent of the city's police fleet of 50 or so vehicles sustained at least some damage from pounding hail and flying debris.
The stress the current situation is placing on police officers and other emergency workers in storm damaged areas is unbelievable, said Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Mark Nelson, vice president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police.
“We deal with tragedy on somewhat of a nightly basis, but not to that extent,” he said.
Nelson said it is imperative that police officers and others not hesitate to ask for assistance from counselors, chaplains and other clergy.
By all accounts, Koelsch and other emergency responders performed well during the initial crises.
Koelsch, 30, happened to be home the day of the tornado because he had scheduled time off to attend his nephew's Tuttle kindergarten graduation, which ended up being canceled. Koelsch had put on his uniform, anyway, because with Oklahoma storm clouds brewing, he knew he might be needed.
After riding out the storm in a backyard shelter with his wife, daughter and family cat, Koelsch emerged to a foreign world of splintered boards, crumbled bricks and battered vehicles.
“I knew my neighbors next door had a cellar in their garage, so I told my wife to wait here with the baby while I went over to check on them,” Koelsch said, pointing to a pile of rubble next door to his home at 14701 block of S Harvey.
The garage shelter was buried in debris, so he started digging — simultaneously calling for help on his police radio.
“I got down to their door and I couldn't get it opened, but I was able to pull my police baton out and snap the hinge,” he said.
Out climbed the couple and their young daughter.
Going out to help
Koelsch said his police patrol partner arrived about that time, so he loaded his wife and baby in the police car, along with his male neighbor and his child.
Koelsch said his female neighbor has medical training, so she joined him as they headed toward Briarwood Elementary School, where they had heard on the police radio that rescuers were needed.
Koelsch said they hadn't made it far when a woman carrying a baby ran up to them shouting, “Help me! Help me!”
The baby looked to be less than 6 months old and was obviously deceased, he said.
“We just had to tell her right there that there was nothing we could do,” he said.
Koelsch and his neighbor then turned their attention to a woman lying on the ground.
Told that the baby's 4-year-old sister also was missing, Koelsch and several other rescuers climbed into the home's rubble and began digging.
That search ended tragically, as well, when an officer found the child's body about four houses away.
About that time, Koelsch said he heard another neighbor was trapped, so he and another officer ran back to his house to grab shovels, a pry bar and other useful items.
“I finally could kind of look at my house, and I just lost it and started crying,” he said.
Tragedy gets personal
Koelsch said his supervisor had arrived by that time, and after hearing that the rubble was Koelsch's home, the supervisor directed him to go home and be with his family.
“I argued with him a little bit, but he finally told my partner just to get me out of there,” Koelsch said. By that time, rescue workers had arrived from throughout the metro area.
So Koelsch and his partner drove and picked up Koelsch's wife, Amanda, and daughter, Saylor, at the Santa Fe Police Station and headed for his mother-in-law's house.
“It didn't really strike me until then,” he said. “I had taken a shower and got out to brush my teeth, and that's when I realized I didn't have a toothbrush. I had one pair of clothes. It was what I was wearing and it was a uniform.”
Koelsch said his mother-in-law drove to Norman to buy him some clothes that night and people have been helping ever since.
“I've received diapers and formula from officers all over the department and all over the country,” he said. “I think we've received enough formula and diapers to last her until she's 16.”
Koelsch said the city manager of Oklahoma City gave all employees whose homes were destroyed 10 days off, a gesture he said is deeply appreciated.
“It's been unreal, the support. It has just been amazing,” he said.
Koelsch said he scoffed at his father-in-law when he insisted on putting in the tornado shelter — telling him they didn't need it and would never use it.
“I think I need to buy him a steak dinner,” he said, grinning.