Oklahoma tornadoes: 'I just don't know how to feel. It's just something I had to do'

by Nolan Clay Published: May 23, 2013
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MOORE — Going house to house Monday searching the rubble for tornado survivors, Michael Bond found postal worker Rick Jones — already dead.

So, for the next four hours, the Federal Aviation Administration worker helped the stranger the only way he could.

Bond stayed there — to fulfill a promise to the victim's sister.

“I gave her my word that I wasn't going to leave him until they officially came over and they picked up his body,” he said Thursday.

“I just don't know how to feel. I just don't know how to feel. It's just something I had to do,” he explained between sobs.

Bond is new to the danger of Oklahoma storms. He is working temporarily in Oklahoma though he may move here. But he lived in New York during the terrorist attack there a dozen years ago.

Watching the devastation around the Warren Theatre on TV, he knew he had to help.

“There was nothing there. I shop and I do my … routines of everyday life in that area. I just couldn't sit back and just watch. Being from New York City and going through 9/11, I just felt like I had to do something. It's just a part of me, I guess.”

He got in his car and took back streets from Norman to get close.

“I ran through a … flat area and got right into the neighborhood. House is on fire. You smell gas. I've never witnessed anything like that but … there was no feeling. There was no emotion. It was just like: Who could I help?

“I just joined a band of people. … And we were just pulling out animals, and just whatever we could do. We went from house to house.”

Jones, 54, worked evenings processing mail in Oklahoma City and lived alone in Moore.

He was found curled up, the frame of the blown apart house on top of him, a Bible at his knees.

His sister, Lisa Buffalo, 52, had been trying to reach him. She knew that the hard-hit Plaza Towers Elementary School was near his house at 834 SW 14.

Bond called Jones' mother in Tulsa after finding her phone number in a book and told her about her son but got disconnected. Buffalo called him back.

“I begged him to stay with my brother until he could be picked up,” she said.

She headed from Tulsa to Moore but couldn't get into the suburb. “This man kept calling me and telling me everything that was going on and promised me he wouldn't leave Rick. … He's just the greatest guy and I love him and I don't even know him,” she said.

While he waited, Bond, 31, said he tried to gather up Jones' belongings for the family. He said he came to feel like he knew Jones.

“For all I know, this man could have had different politics and beliefs than me,” Bond said. “He's not even like me for who I am or my skin color. But at the end of the day, we're human beings. I just couldn't sit back.”

While Long died alone, others Monday died next to their closest loved ones.

‘He was my best friend'

One victim, Hemant Bhonde, 65, had been married nearly four decades to his wife, Jerrie Bhonde.

“He'll find me again, after this life,” Jerrie Bhonde said Thursday, her body and face covered in cuts, scrapes and vividly colored bruises. “He always told me that.”

From a hospital bed at Integris Southwest Medical Center, Jerrie Bhonde recounted the couple's final, terrifying moments together. She expressed no sorrow as she talked about the moment her husband escaped her grasp and literally disappeared into the sky above their modest home in Moore.

They had huddled in a bathroom, with only blankets to shield them.

“I don't grieve over my husband because he was a loving man,” she said. “He did the best he could on Earth. He always told me, ‘When I go, don't grieve. You know we've accomplished everything we're going to accomplish in life.'”

Her husband, a retired GM worker who moved to the United States from India decades ago, had fallen ill in recent years. A severe case of osteoporosis left him in need of home care, which Jerrie Bhonde gladly provided.

“I never minded ... I wanted to do more for him,” she said. “He was just a guy I loved. He was my best friend.”

The couple lived across the street from Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were crushed to death.

“My husband, being ill, he loved to sit by the window and watch the children play at the school,” she said. “We knew a lot of the kids and they would come by our house. It's where my daughter went to school.”

When the tornado struck, Jerrie Bhonde said she held onto her husband's hand as long as she could. Eventually, the force of the twister became too much.

“It was like God said, ‘Let go, I'll take care of him,'” she said. “The whole house fell apart, in like a second or two, and I was just swirling around. My husband, well, he just disappeared into the sky.”

Hemant Bhonde was found near his home some time after the tornado struck.

In her hospital room, mixed in with flowers and get-well cards, a heavy glass angel figurine shone in the midafternoon light on Thursday. Somehow, the fragile piece — one of many angels the couple collected over the years — remained in mint condition.

“My daughter found that,” she said. “She said there was just rain pouring all over it. It was the only thing left from our house.”

Hemant Bhonde was a Hindu who didn't yell around the house.

“It was all love,” she said. “Each day was how to make the day better ... how to help somebody.

“His life was devoted to having love in his heart and sharing it with each person he met.”

‘Nothing I could do'

Miles away, a mother, Jeany Neely, 38, gave a simple, final instruction to her 19-year-old son as the tornado ripped apart their house in Moore.

“She told me, ‘Pray, baby,'” Jacob Neely said. “Those were pretty much her last words.”

Jacob Neely and his two dogs survived the tornado's wrath. His mother did not. She died of blunt force trauma to the chest.

“All my windows started shattering and I could hear the foundation being ripped up,” he said of the tornado. “The next thing I know my legs are going up over my head and the house pretty much came apart. My shoes even flew off.”

Jacob Neely said he found his mother buried under a pile of debris. On top of the debris was a mangled car.

“When I got to her, she was pretty much taking her last breath,” he said. “There was really nothing I could do, but I'm glad I got to be there for her in her last moments.”

The young man tried to save his mother, even tried to perform CPR, but it was no use. He started to scream, to nobody in particular, that he loved his mother.

“I don't know why I did it,” he said. “It just seemed like what I should do. What I wanted to do.”

Jacob Neely said his mother was a devoted parent who worked hard so he and his brother could have the things they wanted in life. Jeany Neely was a licensed practical nurse, a job her son said she liked “because it paid a lot and she didn't have to go to college.”

“She was my best friend,” he said. “Me and my brother were her main focus, through and through. She did devote her life to us. She worked really hard ... 14-, 15-, 16-hour days just so we could have the life she wanted us to have.”

Jacob Neely said he will miss many things about his mother. But it was a seemingly unremarkable habit his mother had that he will miss the most.

“No matter where I was, she'd find me, pop in and she'd say, ‘Gimme a kiss,'” he said. “And I would. It was just nice to know that that was always the first thing she did when she got home. To make sure I was OK.”

‘Until the storm passed'

Tawauna Denise Robinson, 45, and her boyfriend, Leslie Johnson, 46, died together in the closet of the rent house where they lived with her son.

“I spoke to them and they said they were going to wait it out until the storm passed over,” the son, Lamarr Robinson, said.

Both victims had lived in St. Louis, but she came to Moore to live with her son last year. Leslie Johnson joined them in January.

Crash details become clearer

One of those identified as dying from Monday's tornado actually died because of a collision after the storm had passed, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

Richard Charles Brown II, 41, was driving home to Moore from Lawton where he had been delivering food for his company. He crashed about 4:45 p.m. Monday on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike at Newcastle.

Brown had been frantically texting his wife, Malissa, who was with his son Ricky Brown III, 19, and her children, Tyler Knight, 20, and Calissa Knight, 18. All were safe in a storm shelter. The tornado spared their home.

“I could not contact him to let him know that we were OK,” Malissa Brown said. “I was getting text messages saying, ‘Are you guys all right?' I tried to respond. But it would not go through.”

Richard Brown was driving his delivery truck west on H.E. Bailey Turnpike when he approached traffic that had been stopped because of tornado damage.

A trooper reported Brown crashed into a tractor-trailer that was legally parked on the shoulder and then hit a pickup.

Contributing: Staff Writers Robert Medley and Zeke Campfield


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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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