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Oklahoma tornadoes: Tornado turns Woodward residents' lives upside down

Five people died when a tornado blitzed the west side of Woodward, Oklahoma. It touched down about 12:20 a.m. as the last of several severe thunderstorms in several hours traversed that part of the state.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: April 16, 2012

— Most of Woodward went to bed late Saturday thinking the worst of the weekend's storms were over. But a sudden, deadly tornado embedded in a squall line ripped through the city early Sunday, leaving dozens of families homeless.

Five people died when the tornado blitzed the west side of the northwestern Oklahoma city. It touched down about 12:20 a.m. as the last of several severe thunderstorms in several hours traversed that part of the state.

Two men killed in the storm have been identified as Frank Hobbie and Derrin Juul, said Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the medical examiner. Two girls, ages 5 and 7, were found with Hobbie in a mobile home park, and a 10-year-old girl was found dead with Juul, Elliot said.

The tornado destroyed 89 homes and 13 businesses, Woodward County Emergency Manager Matt Lehenbauer said. At least 31 people were hurt.

Father, daughter killed

Derrin Juul died as he was trying to save his family.

“I had a lot of respect for him,” his father-in-law, Rial Allen, said Sunday afternoon.

“He worked hard and provided for his family.”

Juul was an oil field worker employed by Trican. Allen said his granddaughter, Rosa Marie, 10, who also died, was a happy-go-lucky child.

Allen and his wife, Mary Francis, lived next door to Juul, his wife and Allen's daughter, Michelle, and the couple's three daughters, ages 8, 10 and 15.

Sunday afternoon, Allen stood in the middle of what remained of his home, searching for his wife's eyeglasses, which she can't see without.

Allen said Juul was sitting on his back porch when the winds started picking up. He went inside to get his family to take them into their storm shelter. He stepped back out of their home with his 8-year-old and 10-year-old daughters, but it was too late.

The tornado was bearing down.

Allen said he and his other family members found Derrin Juul under debris, his arms wrapped around the two girls.

Allen's 8-year-old granddaughter, is at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. He wasn't sure of her status Sunday but said she had at one time been in critical condition. He said the 15-year-old girl had been staying with friends when the storm came.

For 45 minutes, no one came to help, Allen said. The family members' phones wouldn't work to call 911, Allen said. And all of their vehicles were crushed beneath the rubble of their homes.

They didn't have electricity, and Allen's wife, Mary, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needs an oxygen machine to assist her breathing.

Neighbors came to check on them, and soon the family was able to get to an ambulance at a nearby oil-field services company.

The singlewide manufactured home, sitting in a green field with wind turbines all around it, was Rial and Mary Allen's retirement home. Their children and grandchildren lived close, and Allen spent his days either working on his home or fishing at Fort Supply Lake. Life was good.

“We're not what you would call real rich people, but we did get by, and we were doing quite well,” Allen said.

In less than three minutes, everything changed.

Preliminary rating

Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, sent a message on Twitter as he was leaving Woodward after surveying the damage that the tornado now is preliminarily rated an EF3, which has sustained winds from 136 to 165 mph. Smith said there is still more analysis to do.

Forecasters had predicted for days that Saturday could be especially dangerous, but a series of supercell thunderstorms produced only slight damage in northwestern Oklahoma before slipping into Kansas. The tornado was part of a squall line that National Weather Service radar imagery showed stretched from Texas to Iowa overnight Saturday.

Though it ripped through Woodward in the dark, the tornado revealed itself in light created by its own destructive assault. Residents and storm chasers reported seeing its angry silhouette as breaking power lines sent arcs of electric light flashing into the night sky.

A signal tower for Woodward's tornado sirens was struck by lightning and hit by the tornado. Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the tower that was supposed to send a repeating signal to the town's tornado siren system was knocked out.

Considering the tornado struck at night and the sirens were damaged, it was remarkable that there wasn't a greater loss of life, Rutherford said.

Mostly, people in Woodward on Sunday recalled the tornado's sound.

“I've always heard people say that, that you hear this roaring freight train,” said Carole Beckett, 70, who was unhurt but whose house was destroyed by the tornado. “I don't think I'll ever forget that noise. It's just … it's just crazy. Unbelievable.”

Frantic moments

Beckett stood Sunday in the morning sunshine on upper story of her split-level home near 34th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, pieces of dirty insulation clinging to her clothes. The tornado threw the roof and much of the rest of her top floor into the backyard below.

She was awakened by a storm alarm warning the tornado was closing in on Woodward. Beckett and her husband, Gordon, 76, didn't make it to their safe room by the time the tornado rumbled through, but they and their dog escaped injury as their house loudly crashed down around them.

The Becketts' house typified the seemingly random pattern of the tornado's destruction. Collapsed interior walls had unscathed framed pictures on them, and a sizable flat-screen TV had only a bit of dust while other parts of the house were obliterated.

“My clothes are hanging up in the closet. I mean my clothes are actually hanging up,” Beckett said. “Gordon's aren't.”

Woodward High School Assistant Principal Kyle Reynolds, 43, was helping clean up after the school's prom when the tornado hit. It missed the gymnasium where he and others took shelter, but not his house.

NewsOK Weather Blog

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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