MOORE — Dr. Stephanie Barnhart began the scariest day of her life with her usual routine — listening to Christian music on the car radio, thinking about the 12-hour workday ahead and offering a silent prayer for strength to handle whatever she might encounter.
With bad weather in the forecast Monday, Barnhart, 34, expected nothing more than the usual slips and falls and car-accident victims that typically turned up in the Moore Medical Center emergency room after rains.
The morning passed with few patients and nothing exciting. Abdominal pains, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach flu. Meanwhile, televisions in her office and at the nurses’ station gave steady updates on the storms broiling across the state.
Sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m., Barnhart was sitting in her office filling out patient forms, when an announcement came over the hospital intercom announcing a tornado watch.
A Midwest City native and veteran of many Oklahoma tornado seasons, Barnhart took little notice.
“I was like uh, OK, severe weather. OK, it’s a possibility and ... you keep on doing what you gotta do,” she said.
She continued to make her rounds.
A few minutes later, the hospital intercom sounded again, this time announcing a tornado warning.
Now, Barnhart gathered with other hospital staffers around the nurses’ station TV. They watched as the tornado plowed through Newcastle, a dozen miles away. A weatherman described the predicted path — northeast toward the hospital.
Again, the hospital intercom sounded, this time announcing a tornado alert.
“Oh man, this is bad,” Barnhart thought “We’ve got to move.”
Barnhart rushed to her office to grab her purse, a pharmacy book and her prescription pad.
“I was still in doctor mode,” she said. “I was still doing my job.”
Unknown to Barnhart, dozens of other patients, staff and members of the public who came to the hospital seeking shelter were huddling in the cafeteria and another interior hallway.
Barnhart’s group of about a dozen people retreated to another area deeper within the hospital where a single TV tracked the tornado’s relentless progress toward them.
In the meantime, two more emergency room patients had arrived, one by ambulance having suffered a seizure and another, a young girl, who’d suffered an asthma attack.
Staff members handed out blankets and pulled mattresses from gurneys that people used to cover themselves. Barnhart’s group was joined by several other staff members as well as a half-dozen patients in wheelchairs who were staying in rooms on the second floor.
Nobody talked. The only sound came from the television and the girl suffering from asthma and her mother, who both sobbed quietly.
‘Coming for us’
“We knew it was coming for us,” Barnhart said. “I think they were very terrified, which we all were.”
A registered nurse, Frankie Orr, 46, of Little Axe, did his best to reassure everyone.
“Just say a prayer. Everybody be calm. We’re all going to be all right,” Barnhart recalled him saying.
By that time, Orr’s wife, Candice, who was working a rare nursing shift at the hospital, had come down from the second floor with three of her patients. She sat on the floor near her husband, tears in her eyes.
Orr sent a text to his daughter, Charli Swyden, a fifth-grade teacher at Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Norman.
“Me and your mom love you kids,” he wrote in a message also intended for the couple’s sons, Benjamin and Joshua.
The tornado was now just seconds away. It packed 200 mph winds and was destroying whole neighborhoods as it churned across the landscape. Barnhart glanced at the TV screen in time to see the tornado was near 149th Street and May Avenue when the hospital’s lights flickered and then went out, plunging the room into darkness.
Quiet then loud roar
“Please, Jesus,” she said.
The roar grew louder. Their ears began to pop from the air pressure change. They felt the ground shake and their bodies tremble.
“There’s that feeling that comes that there’s nothing you can do, it’s coming,” Orr said. “It’s just that moment where whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
Barnhart said she was terrified, but also at peace that everything would be OK. She never feared for her life.
The rattling sensations seemed to go on forever and then stopped.
“Is that it?’” someone asked. Orr answered that they might just be in the eye of the storm and that it might not be over. Everyone stayed down for another minute, maybe two. Then, they began to stand. They hugged. Some cried. Around them, the building appeared unscathed, a little dust and two dangling ceiling tiles the only visible damage in the room where they’d sought refuge.
It would be another half-hour, after she was sure that everyone else was evacuated to safety, that Barnhart finally emerged to see the damage to the hospital, a total loss. And yet not a single death.
“I don’t know how we survived in that place, she said. “I was praising Jesus. I knew he kept us safe. I knew that we were protected. You feel incredibly blessed.”
Tuesday was Barnhart’s scheduled day off. She used it to gather relief supplies which she dropped off at her church.
The Orrs lost a pickup and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at the hospital. Tuesday, the couple said they still felt “shell shocked.” But that isn’t stopping them from leaving today for a planned New Orleans vacation. If anything, they’re more anxious to go. From the tornado, Frankie Orr said he learned “just how fast everything can change.”
“I mean, dude, in the blink of an eye,” he said.