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Oklahoma tornadoes: Highland East Junior High staffers recount day storm trapped children

Physical education teacher Debbie Taran was trapped inside the school gym with several students
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Modified: May 30, 2013 at 9:13 am •  Published: May 30, 2013

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.

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