Jennifer Doan laid a comforting hand on the back of crying third-grader Nicolas McCabe and told him it was OK just as the twister struck.
Seven months later, Doan hasn't let Nicolas go.
The EF5 tornado on May 20 destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.
In what became an iconic photograph of the disaster, firefighters are shown freeing a debris-covered Doan from the rubble of a collapsed wall. Nine-year-old Nicolas and six other students who sought shelter in the same school hallway were killed.
Doan was 8 weeks pregnant when the tornado struck and was certain that her baby had not survived. On Dec. 21, she gave birth to a healthy boy. She and her husband named him Jack, simply because they liked how it sounded. For a middle name they chose something that carried deeper meaning. Nicolas.
“He was the one closest to me that didn't make it,” Doan said. “I had my hand on him. He's been a little hard to let go.”
As she spoke recently of her former student, Doan's soft voice trailed off. Her eyes filled with tears.
Storms and pain
Sitting in the living room of her Edmond home, Doan, 31, talked about her life since the tornado, her recovery and her decision to honor Nicolas. As she reflected, her two daughters, Kairi, 6, and Kylie, 3, fluttered about the baby. They patted his head and cheeks and smiled. Doan warned them to be very gentle with their new brother.
After the tornado, Doan spent several days in the hospital. She'd suffered a broken back and sternum, a strained neck and lacerated tendons in her hand. A piece of rebar had deeply cut her palm. For two days, at a psychologist's suggestion, no one told her which children were dead. During that time, Doan couldn't stop thinking about Nicolas. Immediately after the wall collapsed, students on either side of her had begun to talk and squirm. Not Nicolas. Under Doan's palm, he'd stopped moving.
When she finally learned that seven students had died, including six from her own class, her shrieks could be heard down the hospital's hallways.
Doan wore a back brace for six weeks following the disaster and, during the duration of her pregnancy, refused to take any pain medicine, worried it could hurt her growing baby.
“That made it harder,” she said.
But it wasn't just the physical pain.
“The mental part has been the hardest,” said Doan, who visits a psychiatrist once a week. “I would like to think I'm making some improvements there. He tells me I'm doing well for where I am, but, it's hard for me to feel that way. It's an ongoing process.”
A mother's guilt
When Doan thinks of Nicolas McCabe, she thinks of his smile.
“He would get in trouble over some little thing and just flash me his big smile to get out of it,” she said. “He just had one of those smiles.”
As Doan talks, she seems more subdued than one might expect from a new mother.
“It's definitely been hard for me to find my smile,” she said. “It's been harder since.”
Still, for Doan, her baby gives her hope and a reason to go on. Already, she thinks, they've been through so much together. But he's also a reminder off all that's happened.
“Just looking at him, it reminds me of that day, and the ones that I did lose.”
Doan said the death of her students broke her heart, and she's not sure if those scars will ever heal. She struggles with guilt. She lived, her students died and she wasn't able to save them.
Again and again, she's been told that their deaths are not her fault.
“I can't help but to feel that way,” she said.
Stacey McCabe, Nicolas' mother, said Doan has nothing to feel guilty about.
“She was doing what she was supposed to be doing, right along with the rest of those teachers,” McCabe said.
McCabe said she is touched that Doan's baby shares a name with her only son, a boy who loved going to the lake, playing with Legos and listening to country music.
“It's very meaningful because she was with my son when he died,” McCabe said.
Hoping for healing
Doan said she wants to return to teach at Plaza Towers when her doctors say she is ready.
The “Tornado Alley” school had no storm shelter. The new school, being built on the same spot, will.
“There's a lot of me in Plaza Towers,” Doan said. “I know it's going to be difficult. I'm hoping it will bring some peace and some healing.”
In October, Doan married her fiance, Nyle Rogers, in a no-frills ceremony and recently changed her last name to his.
Doan thought about choosing the name Nicolas for her son's middle name for some time before she told her husband. She worried he would think the name would make her sad. Instead, he was moved.
Doan also worried that parents of the other children who died that day might think she was honoring one student above the rest. That wasn't what it was about, though.
“They were all my students. They were all mine,” she said. “He's just been the hardest for me because he was right there.”