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Oklahoma tornadoes: Moore students can say goodbye

About 2,000 Moore Public Schools employees packed Southern Hills Baptist Church on Wednesday. The meeting was the first time they had gathered since a tornado tore through their district and killed seven of their children.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Modified: May 23, 2013 at 12:17 am •  Published: May 23, 2013

Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce read the names in the soft, sweet voice of a teacher.

Sydney Angle, Antonia Candelaria, Emily Conatzer, Kyle Davis, Ja'Nae Hornsby, Christopher Legg and Nicolas McCabe.

About 2,000 Moore Public Schools employees packed the pews of Southern Hills Baptist Church on Wednesday. The staff meeting was the first time they had gathered since a tornado tore through their district and killed seven of their children.

They cried quietly.

“You protected your students on May 20 just like you would on any other day,” Pierce said.

They hugged with closed eyes. Many wore shirts from their schools — Southmoore, Oakridge, Wayland Bonds. A few wore bandages. It was a safe moment to cry or laugh or talk.

There was some school business to take care of, Pierce told them. Paychecks will probably come out on time. Grades for all students will be final as of Monday. Grief counseling is in the works.

But really, the meeting was a time to pause.

Staff members applauded their co-workers from Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools and Highland East Junior High School, where the storm crumbled walls and stole roofs.

Teachers from those schools buried their faces in their hands and sobbed. They wrapped their arms around each other. They looked up.

“Don't let anybody allow you to second-guess your actions on that day,” Assistant Superintendent Robert Romines said.

Now is the time to lean on one another, Pierce said.

“We're Moore Public Schools,” she said. “We've been here before, and we'll move on from here.”

This is Pierce's last year with the school district. She's spent a lifetime in the district as a student, a teacher and an administrator.

Her last school day was Monday, but it was unlike any of her other days.

Pierce started her day with the regular Monday morning administrative staff meeting, which included talk of the impending bad weather. She emailed her principals and reminded them to be ready. They'd know what to do. They'd practiced so many times.

Calling off school wasn't appropriate. Oklahoma schools can't close for every bad weather day.

“We wouldn't go to school past mid-April,” she said. “We know enough about the weather in Oklahoma that we watch the forecast in Oklahoma and it's meaningful.”

Administrators met again at 1 p.m. to watch the weather and discuss the options. They turned on every live weather broadcast and waited.

“We were looking at the radar and we heard this ping,” Pierce said. “There's this little red dot down around Chickasha.”

Decision time.

Letting school out early is logistically impossible. Getting all 23,000 children in the district safely from school to home on a last-second timetable would be difficult, Pierce said. Some students don't have parents who can pick them up. Others go to after-school programs that aren't open. Letting walkers go in questionable weather can be unsafe.

“We decided to hold our dismissal,” Pierce said.

She sent another email to principals — if the sirens sound, students stay at school until the storms pass. They can leave with their parents, but everybody stays put. The same decision was made in Oklahoma City and Norman.

Then the tornado came down from the sky. The sirens sounded.

School workers throughout the district did what they'd been trained to do, and children got into their “tornado positions.” They crouched down in classrooms and hallways and covered their heads.

An elementary school teacher lined up the desks in her classroom like a train, and the students played music until it was time to hunker down. Teachers held hands. One principal stayed on the intercom through it all.

At the administration building, everyone split up into four rooms lined with lead — a holdover from when the place was a hospital.

The storm rumbled. The building shook. Everyone prayed. Boom. Silence.

They opened the doors and the building was destroyed. When they emerged from the wreckage, they saw the neighborhood behind was gone.

With no cellphone use, a few administrators walked down the road until they could hitch a ride. A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms field agent named Pablo picked them up.

“You're going to have to direct me,” he told them. “We don't come to Moore very often.”

They arrived at the command center and that's when they heard the news from a city worker. Two schools had been destroyed and children may have died.

It was two hours after the storm hit.

Pierce went to Plaza Towers and was asked to help officials communicate with parents and identify bodies.

What did children wear to school that day? What color was his hair? Were her ears pierced?

“We thought that night we had lost seven of our babies and seven families had lost their children,” Pierce said.

After children were pulled from the rubble, teachers sat with them, singing songs and holding their hands. They wrapped little ones in rugs or whatever they could find.

Across the district, employees were still reuniting students with their families. Streets were covered with debris, and windows of all the buses were blown out. Children were stranded. No homes to go to. Trapped parents. Destroyed cars.

Teachers and administrators stayed with them the whole time.

Unwavering. Unsurprising.

“People who say that there's no prayer in public schools,” Pierce said, “weren't around Monday afternoon.”


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Moore students can say goodbye

Students who attend Moore Public Schools can collect their belongings and say goodbye to their teachers from 10 a.m. to noon Thursday.

School was closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which would have been the last day of the school year.

Students can go to the schools they normally attend, except for those who attend the three schools damaged by the tornado Monday:

• Plaza Towers Elementary students can go to Eastlake Elementary, 1301 SW 134.

•  Briarwood Elementary students will go to Wayland Bonds Elementary, 14025 S May.

• Highland East Junior High students will go to Moore High School, 300 N Eastern, from 10 a.m. to noon Friday instead of Thursday.

Graduation

Seniors are asked to go to their respective high schools between 10 a.m. and noon Thursday to meet with principals about graduation.

Graduations for all three high schools are still set for Saturday at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. The times are:

• Westmoore: 9:30 a.m.

• Southmoore: 2 p.m.

• Moore: 6 p.m.

CARRIE COPPERNOLL, STAFF WRITER

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