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Oklahoma tornadoes: Two arms that didn't know they were broken helped rescue children at Briarwood Elementary

When Jeff Wilhelm reached the intersection of Vicki Drive and 149th Street after a tornado swept through Moore, he saw no school and he saw no one. But everyone walked out of Briarwood Elementary, thanks in part to arms that didn't know they were broken.
by Berry Tramel Modified: May 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm •  Published: May 26, 2013

Jeff Wilhelm hopped into his truck so soon after the tornado passed his house, the Ford dodged flying debris as it raced toward Briarwood Elementary.

Wilhelm even floored the F-150 so he could drive right through a wayward metal building blocking Vicki Drive.

But when Wilhelm reached the intersection at SW 149, time stopped. It was the day the Earth stood still.

He saw no school and he saw no one.

“I just yelled, ‘Oh my God!'” Wilhelm said. And horror swept his spirit as he wondered how anyone could walk out of the Briarwood rubble alive.

***

Four days later, Jeff Wilhelm again approached SW 149 from Vicki Drive, but this time at a much more leisurely pace. He and his family walked the six blocks from their house, which was not terribly damaged in the tornado.

Wilhelm strolled slowly, one arm in a compression sleeve, the other in a sling. Radial fractures in both elbows.

Wilhelm doesn't know how the arms were broken. He just knows when the adrenaline stopped, when the last Briarwood kid crawled out safely, divinely and miraculously, Wilhelm couldn't move his arms.

But a few days of his wife having to feed him and brush his teeth were a worthy trade-off.

Wilhelm, an IT specialist at Seagate Technology, looks down at 9-year-old Lauryn and kisses her forehead. His son, Trent, 14, stands alongside.

“I can't imagine a world without either one of them,” Wilhelm said.

Oh yes, he could. Four days earlier, at that very intersection on the edge of despair, Wilhelm imagined exactly that.

Said Wilhelm, “I expected to see kids crushed in that rubble.”

***

Wilhelm sped the truck to the school, got out and ran toward the rubble. The tornado's roar had moved on to terrorize other parts of town, and the sounds left behind remain in Wilhelm's head.

Wood scraping. Natural gas spewing. The sounds not only of devastation, but desolation. Wilhelm called it the loneliest feeling he's ever had.

He started yelling for Lauryn.

As soon as Wilhelm went past the playground and rounded the cafeteria area, he saw a boy emerge from the mess. Then another two or three.

They were trapped not in the rubble, but atop it. So Wilhelm helped clear a small path for the kids to descend. As many as 15 or 20 escaped, along with four teachers.

The Earth had started moving again.

“I looked each one in the eye, let 'em know it was going to be OK,” Wilhelm said.

Then Wilhelm noticed Kevin Hixson, Briarwood's gym teacher, working to remove rubble. Directly under Hixson's head, Wilhelm saw a teacher's head.

“Help me,” she said. “I've got kids underneath me.”

Wilhelm and Hixson struggled to move a big metal door frame. When they finally got it shifted, a kid popped right up, not a scratch on him, and ran out. They moved some cinder blocks, and a few more kids scrambled to safety.

Wilhelm and Hixson reached another teacher, who had her arms spread. Under each arm were three more kids. Just a little more debris removed, and all six kids, scratched up a little, walked away.

Suddenly, more people came to help. Firefighters. Parents. All kinds of people.

“It was amazing to me that people I'd never seen before started showing,” Hixson said.

The tornado had been gone maybe five minutes, and already the emotions had swung from hopeless to hopeful.

Wilhelm kept digging. His rubble pile had dropped from maybe four feet high to 18 inches. He found a teacher with four students.

“Get me out, get me out,” she cried. “I've got kids.”

Those children got out. Wilhelm, Hixson and their new best friends kept digging “for what seemed like forever,” Wilhelm said.

The details run together. More digging, more teachers protecting kids, more pained but brave faces, more freedom.

Briarwood was coming back to life. And finally, there were no more trapped from that section of the destruction.

Jeff Wilhelm realized two things. He hadn't found Lauryn, and he couldn't feel his arms.

***

Wilhelm yelled for his daughter. He hadn't done that since he was alone in the horror.

Kids were coming out of the library. Wilhelm tried to move but says he couldn't even bend over. He suddenly realized he was powerless to help anymore.

But Lauryn got her daddy's height. She's a tall third-grader and spotted her dad first.

“Daddy!” she screamed.

Lauryn ran to Wilhelm. That feeling from a few minutes earlier, when Wilhelm turned the corner at Vicki Drive and 149th, was gone.

And Wilhelm's arms worked again. He managed a hug for his daughter.

Wilhelm's stepmother, Ava Wilhelm, teaches at Briarwood. They united with her, all her students were safe, and then they found Lauryn's friends from the neighborhood.

Turns out all the Briarwood kids were safe. “At that time, I couldn't think of anything else,” Wilhelm said.

***

Wilhelm didn't seek medical attention Monday. Too many people need it more, he told his wife. But after a sleepless Monday night, Wilhelm relented.

The doctor at St. Anthony South told him what you never want to hear — “Hey, you want to come see something?” — and soon enough, both arms were in a sling.

It's too soon to know if the elbows will require surgery. Wilhelm doesn't know how they were broken.

Wilhelm just knows that he can live with Trent calling him C3PO for his robotic movements and his wife texting photos of her brushing his teeth.

Wilhelm knows that two broken arms are a far better feeling than the emptiness that swamped him Monday upon reaching Vicki Drive and SW 149.

He still can't get that scene out of his mind. But he's sleeping better, no longer lying down accompanied by those sounds of wood scraping and gas spewing and teachers crying, “help me.”

Better memories are crowding them out. Heads popping out and kids scrambling down and rubble, tossed aside by arms that didn't know they were broken.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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