MOORE — Principal Kathy Knowles's voice echoed over the intercom and through her school as the tornado sirens sounded.
“You need to take cover immediately,” she said. “We are out of time.”
She huddled under a table in the office with a father and daughter who were crying and praying.
“Then our lights went out,” she said, “and I started praying over and over and over that God would please protect those kids.”
After the storm passed, she ran through the halls shouting, “Everybody OK?” Yes. All 600 students and 75 employees were OK. Then her physical education teacher came over the radio: she was trapped with students inside the gym.
Students poured out of the building, parents came running and teachers began shuffling kids into order. But the tornado that had spared so many twisted the gymnasium behind the school into a roller coaster of metal, insulation and bricks.
How could anyone survive? How could everyone survive?
A few teachers and their students were huddled into locker rooms and utility closets.
“I start running toward the gym and I'll never forget what I saw then,” Knowles said. “When those kids were coming out of the gym, they were all emotionally traumatized but they were safe. I was so thankful — drop-on-your-knees thankful.”
Surviving the storm
On the morning of May 20, Knowles put on her jeans and tennis shoes just in case the weather turned ugly.
“I didn't want to deal with a storm in high heels,” she said.
She emailed her staff that morning and told them to be ready. That afternoon, she made announcements over the intercom that a storm may be coming. Everyone should be ready.
About 100 students had checked out early, leaving Knowles and her staff with 600 more children to protect. Parents were rushing in to get their children, but the storm was too close.
Knowles was a principal, but in that moment she was also a mother.
She thought of her son — a seventh-grader who attends school in Newcastle, which was also in the path of the storm. She got on the intercom and told parents to find their children and take shelter with them.
They had to be together.
Highland East Junior High was one of three schools directly hit by the storm. Briarwood Elementary was demolished, as was Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven third-graders died.
In the gym, reading teacher Michelle Fields couldn't hear the storm over the students' screaming. She rubbed their backs and lied; she said the storm wouldn't hit them.
“It was our job to take care of those kids in the gym as it was coming down around them,” Fields said.
Her colleague, reading teacher Cynthia Garten, was trying to calm students as well.
“All I could focus on was right that second,” Garten said. “I kept saying, ‘We're fine. We're fine.' As I was saying it, I knew in the moment we were fine.”
After the storm moved on, some teachers and students were still trapped inside the gym. Physical Education Debbie Taran radioed for help. She remembers when she heard her colleges respond.
“I could breathe again,” Taran said. “It's like my family. I love them all.”
As children were pulled from the rubble, Knowles choreographed her team and her students. Seventh-graders line up in this hall. Eighth-graders over here. Teachers posted at positions throughout. They had some notepads and roll sheets that had been packed in a bag in case of an emergency like this.
When parents requested their children, teachers called down the halls and students were allowed to go. Everyone cooperated and helped.
Though the circumstances were exceptional, the same process was happening at schools throughout the Moore district, Superintendent Susan Pierce said.
Principals, teachers and staff members stayed with kids until every one was picked up. They moved to reunification sites at churches nearby. Some of students' parents were trapped and couldn't find them until nearly midnight.
That night, Knowles got back to her home in Newcastle. Her son sat in her lap and wrapped his arms around her neck. She broke down.
School to be rebuilt
From the street, Highland East looks almost normal. It's around back where things are frightening.
The school will be rebuilt this summer, Pierce said. Hopefully, classes will resume in August.
Plaza Towers and Briarwood are set to reopen in summer 2014 on the same sites as before, Pierce said.
For now, the Highland East faculty can't get inside, Assistant Principal Jeni Dutton said. The water damage was heavy. There's still no power. So everyone has been based out of Moore High School nearby.
Teachers are still making sure everybody is safe, Dutton said. They're volunteering to call students and their families to check up. Some are stopping by homes. And the student-staff kickball tournament final is still on for next week.
While tough times are ahead for students, staff and the district, the relief is that everyone at Highland East survived, said Knowles, the principal.
“We were fortunate. No doubt,” she said. “We were very fortunate. But we also knew what to do and from the moment those kids walked through our doors in August, they knew we loved them ... So when we told them that morning that we would watch and we would keep them safe ... they were calm and they listened to our voices.”