MOORE — Katrina Ellerd still chokes up when she thinks about the strangers from a far away land who showed up at her house.
It's been almost nine months since that day. She and her husband, Mark, were standing amid what a massive tornado had left of their home in Moore when the West Virginia baseball team appeared in their driveway. Every player was there. Every coach, too.
They had come to help.
“It was indescribable,” Katrina said, tears welling in her eyes. “Even now, you're still like, ‘People are just amazing.'”
Those people have gone from strangers to friends.
The massive tornado that roared through Moore last May destroyed the house that the Ellerds called home for 23 years. Mementos were sucked out. Lives were upended. But out of the tragedy came an unlikely and unexpected bond, a connection that is so strong that it drew Mark and Katrina all the way to Morgantown last weekend.
The Mountaineers came to Moore.
Now, the Ellerds are Moore Mountaineers.
* * *
Mark was doing work around the house the day it was destroyed.
It was a Monday, one of his regular days off from his job as a service manager for Cox. He was keeping an eye on the weather, but even when the sirens went off, he wasn't all that concerned.
He's a lifelong Oklahoman and a longtime resident of Moore. He'd seen lots of tornadoes come and go.
Then Mark heard the meteorologist say that the storm was heading toward the Warren Theater.
You could see the theater from the Ellerds' front door.
He went outside to look at the ominous sky.
“And then, I could hear the roar,” he said.
Mark grabbed the family dog and went into the closet in the master bedroom. It's where the family went any time there was the threat of a tornado, and there had been lots of those instances.
Never had one hit the house.
Mark figured this one wouldn't either.
But as he lay on the floor of the closet, he began to hear other sounds amid the roar of the storm. Heavy items crashing. Glass breaking.
“Then, the roof just peeled off.”
Insulation rained down on Mark, and he sat up to try to get it out of his eyes and mouth. When he lay back down, he was looking up into a sky filled with swirling, dirty air.
For a minute or so, Mark thought that might be the last thing he would see.
“I'm fixin' to die,” he thought.
When the tornado finally passed, Mark was still alive on the floor of the closet. What he found when he emerged was almost unbelievable. Walls collapsed. Power lines down. He still remembers looking across the street at the Moore Medical Center, another neighbor, and seeing a pile of cars that was five or six cars high.
For the next five days, the Ellerds did what they could to salvage anything inside their house. One snowman from Katrina's massive collection survived, impaled on a stick in what was left of the attic. Pictures of the couple's three children were covered in what they called tornado sludge, a mixture of mud and insulation and who knows what.
By the weekend, they had felt like they'd salvaged everything that they could.
Then, their focus turned to clean up.
They started to haul debris to the curb, but it felt like a never-ending job. Surely, it would take a week or more to get all the debris out of the house.
That's when the Mountaineers showed up.
* * *
Randy Mazey and his baseball team were in Oklahoma City for the Big 12 tournament when the storm hit. The next day, they tried to go to Moore and volunteer, but like all volunteers at that point, they were turned away.
So, Mazey and the Mountaineers bought $4,000 in necessities — clothes, diapers, batteries and the like — and donated them.
Quite an act of generosity.
But even as the Mountaineers turned their attention to the tournament and played their games, Mazey couldn't get Moore out of his mind. When the Mountaineers finished playing on Saturday, the coach addressed his players.
“Guys, it's been a really long season,” he told them.
The team wasn't flying back to West Virginia until Monday, so the players had Sunday to themselves.
“If you guys want to sleep all day long, you have my blessing,” Mazey said. “But I'm going to Moore to see if anybody needs my help.”
He told them that he'd be on the team bus at 4 p.m. and anyone who wanted to go with him was welcome.
“And everybody on the team was on the bus,” Mazey said via telephone from Morgantown.
The Mountaineers ended up at the corner of Telephone Road and Kings Manor in Moore. For three or four hours, they carried splintered wood, broken glass and busted bricks out of the Ellerds' house to the curb.
Except for the parts of the house that were still intact, the Mountaineers hauled out everything.
They even found some family pictures that the Ellerds had missed.
As afternoon turned to evening, Mazey asked Mark if he'd say a few words to the team. Mark is a self-proclaimed behind-the-scenes guy. Not one to make speeches to groups of any size.
But he jumped at the chance to address the team.
Standing outside the bedroom closet where he survived the storm, he told them about that day. Told them how much their work meant to the family. He even said a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving over them.
Then, the Mountaineers boarded the bus and were gone.
The Ellerds thought they'd never see them again.
* * *
The Ellerds started working to get their lives back on track. They lived with friends, then moved into a rental house. They worked with the insurance company. They decided not to rebuild on their old lot and started the search for a new home.
Then one day in June, Mark's phone rang.
It was Mazey.
The coach wanted the Ellerds to come to Morgantown for the team's preseason banquet in February. Honored guests. All expenses paid.
Mazey wanted the players to see that Mark and Katrina weathered that tough time. He also wanted the players to be aware of the impact they had on the Ellerds.
“Twenty years from now, our guys aren't going to remember the scores of the games we played down there” in Oklahoma City, Mazey said, “but they're going to remember Mark and Katrina and what we did for them.”
Mark was blown away by Mazey's invitation and accepted.
Last weekend, Mark and Katrina traveled to Morgantown. There was dinner with Mazey and his wife on Friday night. A visit to the indoor practice facility to see the players on Saturday morning. Then the banquet on Saturday night.
Mark again addressed the group. This time, there were several hundred people in the audience, but Mark's message was much the same as that day last May at the house.
“You know,” Mark said at the end of his remarks, “I will be pulling for the Mountaineers from here on out.”
* * *
The Ellerd already have Easter weekend circled on their calendar.
That's when West Virginia plays Oklahoma in Norman. Mark and Katrina will absolutely be there. And even though they have been Sooner fans for decades, their loyalties will be split that weekend.
“If they're wearing OU colors,” Mazey said, “it would be fine with me.”
But to hear the Ellerds talk — and to see them in their bright yellow shirts with the embroidered WVU logo — they sure seem like West Virginia baseball fans.
“It's amazing what's happening there,” Mark said. “They were picked last in the conference last year, and they finished third. They're building a new stadium. A really nice stadium.
“It seems like everything is really going well for them.”
The same could be said for the Ellerds. Last fall, they moved into a new house in a quiet addition on the extreme southern side of Moore. Even though the house was move-in ready and they've done few upgrades, they will make one next week.
A storm shelter is going into the garage on Friday.
“Happy Valentine's Day to us,” Katrina said.
“It's a new normal,” he acknowledged of lives that go on but will never be the same. “We're very blessed, though. We're very, very happy with the way things have turned out.
“Got a bunch of new friends in another state, too.”
Jenni Carlson can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.