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May 20, 2013

An EF5 tornado ripped across central Oklahoma.

The storm was one of the largest and most powerful the state had ever seen.

Plaza Towers Elementary School stood directly in that storm's path.

It was completely destroyed.

Students, teachers, faculty and parents were all in the school at the time the tornado hit.

Some died but many lived.

These are their stories.

Plaza Towers Elementary

The 's above represent the approximate locations of students, faculty and parents in the hours, minutes and moments leading up to the May 20 EF5 tornado. Click on any to read the stories and watch video from the survivors of that day.

Back > The Hallway

The Hallway

I am a proud Plaza Tower Panther. I am a capable and dependable student full of possibilities and potential.



- Story by Phillip O'Connor, Carrie Coppernoll and William Crum -


Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan fixates on the door at the far end of the hallway as if there is a monster behind it.

There is.

On the afternoon of May 20, an EF5 tornado tore through the metro area, carving a path of devastation 17 miles long and more than a mile wide. The massive twister destroyed 1,200 homes, displaced thousands of residents and caused damage estimated at more than $5 billion.

It stole 24 lives, among them seven children who perished as they sheltered with Doan in what they thought was the safety of their school, Plaza Towers Elementary.

In what has been a deadly Oklahoma tornado season, in which 49 people already have died, their terrifying story stands out.

The vast destruction, the children's traumatic deaths and the community's compassionate response drew national attention, prompted a presidential visit and produced an outpouring of sorrow and support from across the country.

From the disaster and its aftermath emerged tales of heartbreak and hope, sadness and selflessness.

These are memories of that day, those children and their teachers and the horrors and heroism that took place as they huddled in a hallway that for seven became a tomb.

A child's batting helmet overlooks crosses at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo by Jim Beckel

Monday, May 20

5:30 a.m.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan wakes before sunrise worried about the weather. Several tornadoes spawned the previous day in central Oklahoma, including one near her Edmond home. Thunderstorms are again forecast, and Doan, 30, fears driving home in a downpour.

Before she leaves home, Moore Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce checks the calendar she keeps by the phone. Her retirement party is the next day. She needs to finish her speech. Her arthritis is flaring up. She blames the weather.


7:00 a.m.

Moore firefighter Kyle Olsen, 30, heads to the gym after a 24-hour shift. He plans to spend his day working his side job mowing lawns.

Less than a mile from Plaza Towers, Principal Amy Simpson dresses for the day. A Moore native, she's finishing her third year in the top job.

Built in 1966, the school sits like an island surrounded by streets of tightly packed homes in the Plaza Towers neighborhood. For years, the school was one of Moore's top elementaries, with active parents and high-scoring students. Changing demographics and other factors took a toll, and a 2010 redistricting assigned many of its affluent families to a new school two miles south. Still, Simpson is proud of the school and its close-knit culture.

Showered and dressed, Doan skips her morning coffee. The mother of two young girls learned just a few weeks before that she's pregnant again. In the bedroom, she leans over and gives her still-sleeping fiance a kiss.

"I don't have a good feeling about today," she tells him.

He tells her to stay home.

"I can't," Doan says. "We only have four days of school left."


8:45 a.m.

The school day begins with most of the school's 500 students gathering in the cafeteria for their daily "Rise and Shine" assembly. They say the Pledge of Allegiance and recite the school creed.

"I am a proud Plaza Tower Panther," they say. "I am a capable and dependable student full of possibilities and potential. ..."


9:00 a.m.

Doan heads to a red-brick building behind the cafeteria. The 11,500-square-foot structure built in 2006 includes eight classrooms lining a central hallway and houses the second- and third-graders.

Three miles to the east at district headquarters, Superintendent Pierce and her staff meet.

Weather is on the agenda, but so are regular end-of-the-year items -- graduation, retirement parties, the last day of school on Thursday, teacher contract negotiations to begin on Friday.

The meeting breaks. Pierce works to finish two speeches: one for Saturday's graduations and another for her retirement party.

At the gym, Olsen gets a call from his wife. She warns him bad weather is forecast for the afternoon. Olsen cuts his workout short to get an early start mowing.

Doan's class spends the morning listening to music, emptying their desks and writing and drawing pictures about the school year and their summer plans. Despite the challenges at Plaza Towers, Doan loves the school and especially this class of 20 students. They get along, don't make fun of each other and encourage their classmates. In her fifth year of teaching and second at Plaza Towers, she's never had that before.


9:30 a.m.

For about an hour, Simpson announces awards in math, reading and citizenship.

The year is winding down. More awards are scheduled for Tuesday, student fun day is Wednesday, the talent show Thursday. She helps sixth-graders practice for their Tuesday night recognition ceremony.


11:25 a.m.

Pierce emails principals and administrators that central office staff is monitoring the weather. They should as well, but don't alarm students, she advises.

"Keep calm, watch for valid information, and pray," she writes. "It is May in Oklahoma. We can do this."


I don't have a good feeling about today. Jennifer Doan, third-grade teacher

11:30 a.m.

The National Weather Service predicts the possibility of strong tornadoes between 3 and 6 p.m. A few nervous parents trickle into the school office to pick up their children before the storms hit.


12:00 pm

Doan leads her class to the cafeteria for lunch. She drives to Chick-fil-A and orders her usual, chicken nuggets, before heading back to eat at her desk and text her fiance.

"I hope I make it home before the storm," she writes.


1:00 p.m.

After a quick lunch at home, Pierce returns to the office for another staff meeting. They watch weather reports.

Doan's students go to music class.

Knowing that many of her students can't afford a yearbook, Doan uses her planning hour to make books that the children can sign and exchange that afternoon.

She wants them to have memories.

Storms are forming east of Lawton.

Steve Bocock picks his boys up early from their south Oklahoma City elementary school. He's been texting his wife, Aimee, an autism specialist at Plaza Towers, who frequently works with the third-graders.

"Are you watching the news?" he asks.

"Yeah, we're watching it on our iPads," she responds.

They've been married exactly one month.


1:10 p.m.

The weather service issues a tornado watch for an area that includes Moore until 10 p.m.


1:11 p.m.

Pierce again emails her principals, canceling evening activities. Regular dismissal is still planned.

"Keep calm and carry on," she writes.


1:39 p.m.

Pierce forwards an email from Moore's emergency management director with a map showing rain over the metro and a line of thunderstorms across Lawton.

Across the district, parents are streaming into schools to pick up their children early.


2:00 p.m.

Firefighter Kyle Olsen finishes his last mowing job of the day. The air is hot and sticky. He calls his wife and asks if he has time for a quick jog. Their two young boys are napping. He goes for a run around the pond near their new south Oklahoma City home.

A copy of the Lord's Prayer hangs on a fence at the makeshift memorial to students who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo by The Associated Press

2:12 p.m.

The weather service issues a severe thunderstorm warning and predicts the worst weather will arrive just as schools let out.

Early dismissal isn't an option. With 23,000 students districtwide, Pierce worries children could walk home to locked houses or teen drivers might go somewhere unsafe.

Pierce must decide whether to dismiss students on time or have them wait out the storm at school. Keeping kids indoors seems less risky than putting them on buses and in cars.


2:30 p.m.

Doan texts her fiance: "Kids are getting checked out left and right."

He replies: "I can call and act like your dad and we can check you out."

Olsen gets home from his run. His wife is watching weather reports. The boys are still asleep. He heads for the shower.

At Plaza Towers, Simpson interviews a job candidate. She hears heavy thunder, squawks from the weather radio and chatter from the school office. A secretary peeks in. Simpson wraps up the interview.

She emerges to a line of parents, not unusual during thunderstorms. But this line is long, and many parents seem afraid.

Simpson axes the formal check-out process.

No signing papers. No waiting in line. Just talk with an administrator, calmly pick up your children and go.


2:40 p.m.

Moore activates its outdoor warning system after the weather service issues a tornado warning. Across the city, 36 sirens blare with little pause for the next 40 minutes.

Pierce sends her last email to her principals, saying she is watching a potential tornado coming from Bridge Creek, about 20 miles southwest of Plaza Towers. She warns them to take shelter.

In the Plaza Towers office, Simpson gets on the intercom.

"Get into your places," she says.

The school has no storm shelter and no basement. Students take cover in hallways, away from windows.

Simpson tries to move calmly through the halls. As she passes teachers, she asks them to turn off weather broadcasts on their phones. She doesn't want the kids to hear warnings that those above ground could die. She also needs her teachers strong.

Simpson walks through the east hall, where the fourth, fifth and sixth grades are lining the walls. They look afraid. They know this isn't a drill. Some hold hands.

"Mrs. Simpson doesn't see anything on radar yet," she says.

The destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo by The Associated Press

2:45 p.m.

While they don't socialize much outside of work, being isolated in the "back building" has forged the second- and third-grade teachers into a tight team.

For the next half-hour, they pace their hallway, patting students' backs and offering reassurance.

Initially, Doan's class sits in alphabetical order. As adults arrive to collect their children, the remaining students squish together. A few switch places.

Eventually, Doan is left with 11 students: Sydney Angle, Antonia Candelaria, Emily Conatzer, Ja'Nae Hornsby, Nicolas McCabe, Kyle Davis, Porter Trammell, Kai Heuangpraseuth, Xavier Delgado, Ruby Macias Ramirez and Macy Riel.

Third-grader Christopher Legg asks his teacher, Michelle Gonzalez, for permission to use the bathroom. When he returns, his spot is taken, so he sits among Doan's students.

The children crouch on the hallway's tile floor facing the cream-colored cinder-block walls that during the school year had been covered with colorful student artwork and lessons.

The wind howls, and hail pounds the building's roof and skylights. Children cover their tucked heads with their arms.

By now, Doan's fiance is home from work and following the tornado on television. When he sees it's headed toward Moore, he gets back in his car and drives toward the school, just in case Doan needs a ride home.


2:50 p.m.

"We're just taking precautions," Simpson says over the Plaza Towers intercom.


2:56 p.m.

Olsen and his wife watch on television as the tornado hits Newcastle, 10 minutes from their house, and veers in their direction. The family decides to drive to a friend's home just a few miles away where there's a storm shelter. Heavy rain and dime-size hail slap the car. Olsen and his wife glance back south and see the enormous funnel.

Steve Bocock and his sons clean out a closet at their south Oklahoma City home. They don baseball helmets and watch on television as the tornado drops on Newcastle and heads toward their neighborhood near SW 119 and Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We gotta go," Bocock tells his sons. They drive a mile on north on Penn. Bocock turns his pickup around and parks. He pulls out his cellphone camera.


3:01 p.m.

The weather service issues a tornado emergency, saying it is tracking a "large and extremely dangerous" tornado near Newcastle moving northeast. The service warns people to take shelter.

Parents now flood through the Plaza Towers school doors, some panicked. One man slips, and Simpson snatches him by the coat to keep him from falling.

"You can't go down my hall like that," she says, just like she had to a half-dozen others. "You have to remain calm."

He swears at her; there's a tornado on the ground. Simpson knows he's only afraid.

"I understand," she says to him, "but you can't scare my kids."


Lord Jesus, don't take her, I'm not ready. Steve Bocock, spouse of Plaza Towers staff member

3:09 p.m.

Doan texts her fiance: "Love you."


3:10 p.m.

It's getting hot in the second- and third-grade hallway. Kids are sweating. Teacher Cindy Darter retrieves pillows from her second-grade reading corner to put over children's heads. Another second-grade teacher, Shelly Calvert, covers others with her green sweater.

The frantic voices of KWTV-9's storm trackers play on the radio in the background as Steve Bocock uses his cellphone to record video of the tornado as it crosses Penn in the direction of Plaza Towers, where his wife is at work.

Fear sets in.

He prays.

"Hail Mary, full of grace ..."

"Lord Jesus, don't take her, I'm not ready," he thinks.


3:15 p.m.

Simpson's husband texts her: "It's gonna hit you."


3:16 p.m.

The tornado hits Briarwood Elementary with winds topping 200 mph and shredding whole neighborhoods in its path.

Less than two miles to the northeast at Plaza Towers, second-grade teacher Emily Eischen hears the storm's approach. It sounds like a jet engine. Eischen hears her principal over the intercom, using a stern voice she's not used to.


3:19 p.m.

From the hallway, third-grade teacher Cheryl Littlejohn watches out a west-facing classroom window for the tornado. As the twister reaches the playground, Littlejohn slams the classroom door and ducks down with the children.

The teachers kneel down and wrap their arms over the children. Some pray. Many of the children are crying. Some scream. None look up.

Doan fixates on the door at the far end of the hallway.

On her left is Xavier Delgado. On her right, closest to her is Porter Trammell, and next to him Nicolas McCabe, who is crying. Next to Nicolas is Kyle Davis.

Doan reaches and pats Nicolas on the back and tells him it's OK.

She ducks and is moving her left arm to cover her head when the tornado strikes.

In the school office, seconds before impact, Simpson gets on the intercom for the last time.

"It's here," she says.

She rushes into a faculty restroom with four other women and crouches under a sink.

A pounding sound fills the hallway as airborne objects strike the back building. The hallway door blows open. Choking dust and debris fly through the hall and fill noses, ears and mouths. The roof tears away, and the hallway walls crumble inward, one on top of the other. Water pours from a broken sprinkler pipe in the ceiling.

Teachers' aide Nicki Willis feels herself being pummeled and then picked up by the tornado.

"This is it," she thinks.

And then it stops.

Scott McCabe, an electrician, is working in Shawnee when the job is shut down because of approaching storms. Soon after, he hears reports that Briarwood Elementary has suffered a direct tornado strike. He speeds in his company truck toward Plaza Towers, where his only son, Nicolas, is a third-grader in Doan's class.

Mikki Davis left work shortly after 3 p.m. to pick up her two children, Kyle and Kaylee, from Plaza Towers. It was raining so hard, she instead drove to her grandfather's house near SW 74 Street and May Avenue to wait out the storm. There, Davis watched television reports of Briarwood Elementary being hit by a tornado, but heard no mention of Plaza Towers. She is hysterical and in no condition to drive. He father picks her up, and they drive toward the school. They reach SW 12 and Santa Fe Avenue before downed trees and debris block their way. They abandon the car and hasten south toward the school two miles away.

Nicole Angle is pinned under a wall in her destroyed home on SW 14, a half-mile from the school. Eventually freed, she'll go to Plaza Towers in search of her two daughters, including Sydney, who is in Doan's class.

After he and his family escape unscathed from the storm shelter, Moore firefighter Kyle Olsen receives a text from his father, the Midwest City fire chief, telling him that Moore has been hit hard and that he probably needs to go to work.

Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillin, left, hugs Plaza Towers Elementary School Principal Amy Simpson. Photo by Sarah Phipps

3:21 p.m.

The restroom walls protecting Simpson and the four other staff members still stand, but the roof is gone. She hears kids. She climbs out, turns a corner and sees a car bumper at eye level. Everything she knows is gone.

In the back building, some students appear unconscious, others are bleeding. Some cling to their teachers, who are searching for a way out of the mountain of debris. Pieces of metal, wires and shredded insulation hang overhead.

Several teachers look down the hallway to where the third-graders were sitting. It's buried beneath a collapsed wall. They yell and get no response.

Doan finds herself in darkness, beneath a deep pile of rubble, able to move only her left arm from the elbow down. She feels heavy pressure on her back and is having trouble breathing.

She uses her free hand to push debris away from her face. She takes a gasp of air.

Her right arm is still around Porter, who struggles to free himself. Each time he moves, Doan feels stabs of pain. She has a broken sternum, three broken vertebrae and a piece of steel rebar piercing her palm. She tries to calm Porter, but he keeps struggling.

"I don't want to die," he says.

"It's OK," Doan repeats again and again. "It's OK."

Simpson sees children crying and climbing out of the kindergarten hallway and hears cries for help. She shouts directions to families and strangers arriving at the scene and helps usher children away from the building.

"Try to stay quiet so that you can hear," she tells them.


3:22 p.m.

The tornado crosses Interstate 35.


3:27 p.m.

The tornado strikes Moore Public Schools headquarters, where Pierce and other staff members have taken shelter. They emerge to find the surrounding neighborhoods reduced to matchsticks.

By now, neighbors and parents swarm Plaza Towers, many carrying gloves, shovels and crowbars. Many look terrified. Some sob. Others scream out the names of their children. The neighborhood is a wasteland of splintered wood, twisted metal, stripped trees and tossed cars.

Steve Bocock and his sons had followed the tornado in his truck and seen the horrible black wall bear down on Plaza Towers, where his wife works. He drives through the obliterated neighborhood to within a block of the school. His boys are crying. He tucks the family's Yorkshire terrier, Gizmo, under his arm like a football, before dropping him in a parked car near the school. He runs into the parking lot screaming his wife's name. Miraculously, he finds her almost immediately.


3:30 p.m.

Someone touches Amy Simpson's shoulder. It's her husband, Lindy, an Edmond firefighter. They hug. Simpson has seen the youngest students streaming out through a hole in the front of the building. But she hasn't seen the second- or third-graders. She points her husband toward a tree, stripped of bark and leaves and wrapped in metal.

Go to the tree and turn east until you find the back building, she tells him.

He's joined by Steve Bocock. Their sons played football together.


They're here. They're here for us. Jennifer Doan, third-grade teacher

3:35 p.m.

After a rapid weakening near Lake Stanley Draper, the tornado fizzles and lifts, completing its 50-minute march of destruction.

Doan doesn't know how much longer she has. The weight bears down on her; she's in agony and struggles to breathe. She prays that they'll be found. She tells Porter, the student pinned next to her, that someone will come. She can't see Porter in the darkness but can feel him.

By now, she's lost all concept of time.

She thinks about her fiance and never seeing him again. She thinks about the child she'll never know, certain she's lost the baby she's carrying.

At times, Porter is calm. At times, he screams.

"I think Nicolas is dead," he tells Doan about the boy next to him.

Steve Bocock and Lindy Simpson enter the demolished back building and immediately find several teachers and students soaking wet. Adults pass children down the hall. Bocock lifts them over a concrete wall and hands them down to Simpson.

Doan calls out for help but doesn't know if anyone hears her. Several times she hears voices saying a pregnant teacher is trapped.

Finally, she hears the sound of debris being removed nearby.

"We're here," she hears a voice say.

"Hang on, Porter. Hang on," she says. "They're here. They're here for us."

Porter is pulled out first. Then the debris around Doan's head begins to move. She sees a glimpse of light. She raises her free hand. A man takes hold of it.

"It's OK. We're going to get you out," Steve Bocock tells her.

"We're all in here. We're right here. We're right here," Doan says in a voice that Bocock finds amazingly calm.

Nearby, a girl is pinned under rebar. Bocock and Simpson free her and find three more children underneath, wedged together. They pull the first two out alive. The third is dead.

From the top of the rubble pile, Doan is passed down through a series of cradled arms and placed on a backboard.

Rescuers carry her to the front of the school where the injured are being triaged on a concrete slab that used to be a pavilion.

Doan sees Amy Simpson and several teachers. They try unsuccessfully to call her fiance. They hold Doan's hand as she lies on her back staring into a clear blue sky. She is happy when another of her students, Kai, is placed on the ground several feet away and he turns and asks her if she is OK.

Scott McCabe traverses the decimated school grounds calling his son's name and asking everyone he comes across whether they've seen Nicolas. At one point, he sees one of Nicolas's classmates, Kai, and his teacher, Doan, lying in the triage area. Doan looks too injured to approach so he asks Kai if he knows where Nicolas is. Kai says he hasn't seen him.

Frantic parents ask Simpson if she's seen their babies. Rescuers try to determine how many are left inside. Simpson gives her best guess: as few as five, as many as 15. She's desperate to know what's happening. She crawls up the rubble for a better look, but emergency workers shoo her away.

Strangers place Doan in the passenger seat of a four-wheeler and drive her the half-mile to Abundant Life United Pentecostal Church on SW 19, which is serving as a temporary staging point.

Around her, the neighborhood she knew is gone, not a single landmark recognizable. People, many bleeding, walk about in shock.

At the church, people place Doan in the back of a pickup. A stranger rests her head in his lap and tries to comfort her. He tries unsuccessfully to reach her fiance, as do several other people standing nearby. And then she is in the back of an ambulance.

From left to right: Jennifer Doan is pulled from tornado debris at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Doan poses for a photo at her home after suffering a broken sternum and back. Doan is embraced by her fiance, Nyle Rogers, during a memorial service. Photos by Chris Landsberger and The Associated Press

3:45 p.m.

Nicole Angle locates her 11-year-old daughter, Casey, but 9-year-old Sydney is still missing. She's in Doan's class. They're told she's been evacuated to St. Andrew's United Methodist Church, on SW 119 in Oklahoma City. She heads that way.


4:00 p.m.

Doan is already gone by the time her fiance reaches the destroyed school building. But Nyle Rogers doesn't know it. He'd also abandoned his car on SW 12 and run the final two miles to the school, then spent about 20 minutes digging through rubble with firemen, parents and neighbors before someone told him Doan has been taken to the church. He sets off at a run. He will miss her again.

Approaching the school on foot from the northwest, Mikki Davis almost collapses when she sees what remains of the Plaza Towers. Yellow crime scene tape surrounds the site and knots of anxious parents watching emergency workers poring over the rubble.

The musty air is filled with the sound of jackhammers, the Jaws of Life and other heavy equipment being used to try to cut, lift and remove debris.

Davis doesn't linger. She's received word that her daughter and mother are at the Abundant Life Church. After they reunite, Davis provides police with information about her still missing son, Kyle. She's also sent to St. Andrew's, where she's told children rescued from Plaza Towers are being taken.

Like other Plaza Tower parents, she arrives at St. Andrew's to find only high school students. Like many parents, she is upset and angry. She collapses and is taken by ambulance to a hospital.

Doan feels a wave of relief in the OU Medical Center emergency room when one of the attendants performing an ultrasound says, "I have a heartbeat."

Her baby is OK.

A chaplain asks if she can contact anyone and returns a short time later to tell Doan her fiance is on his way. More relief.


5:45 p.m.

Simpson's cellphone comes back to life. It rings and dings nonstop. She gives the phone to her husband, who updates her Facebook page. They've survived.


6:45 p.m.

Simpson and others walk to Abundant Life Church with children who haven't been picked up by family yet. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper in and out of Moore.


7:00 p.m.

Pierce, the superintendent, has been all over the city -- hitching a ride with a federal agent named Pablo, showing up at the wrong command post, arriving at the right one, finagling a ride in a construction worker's pickup, setting up the school district command center at Moore High School, catching a ride with a Moore police officer.

After hours of navigating a ravaged city, she's finally made it to Abundant Life.

A steady stream of humanity shuffles back and forth along the half-mile stretch on Eagle Drive between the church and school, but Pierce has to stay put. Her arthritis is too painful and the terrain too treacherous.

Counselors and police officers ask for her help in identifying the dead. They have seven bodies and seven families still searching.

No one can agree how to go forward.

Should the identification take place at the school, where the recovered bodies were being kept under guard in the cafeteria? Should they take the bodies back to the medical examiner's office? Should they drive separate cars or take a bus?

In a drizzle under bright portable lights, dozens of emergency workers continue to search through the flattened building, uncertain whether others may still be trapped.

About 50 workers form a line and pass rubble down from a snarled heap of bricks, blocks and iron. The smell of natural gas stings the air. Search and rescue dogs sniff the ruins. As night falls, relatives stand near the rubble pile, calling out the names of their missing children, unaware that the bodies of the seven dead students were recovered not long after the wall's collapse.

Among the families are Scott McCabe and his wife, Stacey, who maintain a vigil at the school until about 10:30 p.m. when they go to Abundant Life, where families of the missing are told to gather.

Firefighter Kyle Olsen has no idea how long he's been digging through the rubble of the hallway. After emerging from a storm shelter that afternoon, he'd called dispatch and been directed to Plaza Towers. At the site, a fire department commander stops to warn Olsen he'd be dealing with fatalities.

"I'm fine," Olsen responds.

Immediately he'd gone to work trying to free the body of a young girl buried under cinder blocks, reinforced concrete and other debris. He loses track of how many children he helps recover that night.

When they finish the hallway, he sees the parents still standing near the police tape. One agonized face catches his attention. He can tell it's a father of a still-missing child.

He'd say something if he thought it would help. He hopes the father knows they're doing everything they can.

A woman visits a makeshift memorial outside Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo by The Associated Press

10:30 p.m.

Officials agree on how to identify the bodies.

Relatives will write descriptions, like what the children wore to school that day. But the children's names won't be confirmed that night.

In the parking lot of Abundant Life Church, a police chaplain comforts frightened and frustrated parents who still don't know the fate of their children.

An odyssey through several churches ends for Dan and Nicole Angle at Abundant Life. Authorities take down their daughter Sydney's description and send them home with a sliver of hope they will hear something the next morning.

Nicki Willis, the teachers' aide, reunites with her husband at Abundant Life. She helps authorities sort their list of missing, crossing off children she knows are alive. She sees families gathered in the sanctuary, lit by candles and a single generator-powered light.

For Willis it begins to sink in. Some of these kids aren't lost or in a hospital. They aren't coming home.


Tuesday, May 21

12:00 a.m.

By the time she's discharged from an Oklahoma City hospital where she's been treated for anxiety, Mikki Davis still has no news regarding her missing son, Kyle. She heads to the First Baptist Church of Moore, which by now has become the reunification center for Moore school families separated by the storm.

There, counselors tell Davis they still don't know where Kyle is. They tell her to go home. They will contact her as soon as they hear anything.

She drives with her fiance to his home in Noble. She doesn't sleep. As rain pours down, all she thinks about is that Kyle might still be trapped alive in the rubble, wet, cold and hungry.


1:00 a.m.

Exhausted, firefighter Kyle Olsen arrives at the incident command post near Fire Station No. 1 off SW 19 Street, where he runs into his father, the Midwest City fire chief. The father asks where he's been working. When Kyle tells him Plaza Towers, his father responds, "I'm sorry."

Pierce and her team meet at First Baptist Church. They talk briefly about logistics and the buildings lost. They talk too about the greater loss. Seven babies gone. And seven families who've lost their children.


1:30 a.m.

Simpson and her husband wait at First Baptist Church with a few of the families still missing their children. When the families are given rooms for the night and taken care of, the Simpsons leave for home.


2:30 a.m.

Pierce arrives home -- the one she grew up in, the one she's lived in with her husband, Archie, for nearly 20 years.

She hugs Archie, a retired Marine.

She is muddy. They have no electricity or running water. All she wants is to wash her face and hands. She grabs bottled water out of the refrigerator.

She can't sleep but knows she has to try. She and Archie pray, both for the blessing of being together and safe and for the strength the families of the lost will need.

She sleeps for about two hours.


8:30 a.m.

Mikki Davis is headed north on Interstate 35 toward First Baptist, when her fiance's cellphone rings. It's her sister. The medical examiner's office has called their dad. They've identified Kyle's body.


11:00 a.m.

Dan and Nicole Angle are called back to First Baptist Church. They know what's coming. Sydney didn't make it.


Wednesday, May 22

Doan is mad. For days, at a hospital psychologist's suggestion, her fiance and others refuse to tell her which children are dead.

Finally, after he receives an official list of names, her fiance and the psychologist go to Doan's hospital room to break the news.

"I saw his face at the door," Doan said of the psychologist. "I knew that's what he was coming in there for."

Still, she isn't prepared.

Gone are Sydney Angle, Antonia Candelaria, Emily Conatzer, Ja'Nae Hornsby, Nicolas McCabe, Kyle Davis and Christopher Legg, the boy from Michelle Gonzalez's class who was sitting with her class.

She cries hysterically, each name breaking her.

Her shrieks can be heard down the hospital hallways.

"They're all mine," she wails again and again and again. "They're all mine."


Saturday, May 25

Just released from the hospital, Doan attends the funeral of Emily Conatzer at First Baptist Church in Moore. She thinks it might help but is concerned about going.

She's thought a lot about what she'll say to the parents but never comes up with the right words.

She's worried, even afraid they may be mad. How will they react?

At the funeral, the parents of Antonia and Nicolas approach her at the same time. They embrace her, hold her hand and thank her.

"I'm so sorry," Doan says.

The sun glistens off a cross at a makeshift memorial outside Plaza Towers Elementary School. Photo by The Associated Press

Epilogue

Plans are underway to rebuild Plaza Towers Elementary. Officials hope to have the new school open by fall 2014. If only one could know the date when the emotional scars will heal.

During Memorial Day weekend, a Moore police officer led some of the families of the seven students on a private tour through the rubble of Plaza Towers. He showed them the hallway where their children died and provided as many details as he could.

Mikki Davis, who lost her son Kyle, said the tour gave her a sense of closure.

Dan and Nicole Angle, who lost their daughter Sydney, didn't go. They have not been back to Plaza Towers.

Scott McCabe finds it too difficult to talk much about the loss of his son, Nicolas. He thought he would be safe at school that day.

Jennifer Doan says she struggles with what she could have done differently. The answer that most people give her -- nothing -- is hard to accept.

She said she's been blessed and amazed by the support she's received even from strangers. But it also makes her uncomfortable.

"I hear all these words calling me a hero and saying they're so thankful for me. ... But I don't have any sense of that. I just feel tremendous guilt still.

"Maybe it's because it's my kids that died. I didn't protect them. I didn't return all of them back to their parents like they should be."

Back > In Memoriam

In Memoriam

Children who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore as a result of the May 20 tornado.
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Kyle Davis, 8

A smart, funny boy who played soccer and enjoyed the outdoors.

Read more about Kyle

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Nicolas McCabe, 8

Built complex Lego creations and was a loyal friend.

Read more about Nicholas

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Ja'Nae Hornsby, 9

Loved reading, traveling with her grandparents and helping others.

Read more about Ja'Nae

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Emily Conatzer, 9

Aspired to be a fashion designer and adored all things girlie, especially unicorns.

Read more about Emily

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Antonia “Tonie” Candelaria, 9

Loved to sing and draw, and her nickname was Ladybug.

Read more about Antonia

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Sydney Angle, 9

A talented softball player who was learning to pitch.

Read more about Sydney

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Christopher Legg, 9

A cancer survivor who loved to play sports.

Read more about Christopher

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Lacey and Coleman Goelz

Kindergarten mother, and student

Lacey Goelz checked out her son, Coleman, from his kindergarten class just a few minutes before the school was locked down.

“I had a really bad feeling, and I didn't want to be separated from my son.”

Coleman, 6, is sad his school is gone.

“It got crushed down, and my dad said the tornado broke the wall and it threw cars in the hallway.”

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Kaden Shippers

Kindergarten student

Kaden Shippers was with his first-grade teacher when the tornado hit. He suffered a broken hand and needed about 50 stitches.

“Mrs. Simonds was on me and we were under a car and I made it out. That's all.”

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Jennifer Simonds

Kindergarten teacher

Teacher Jennifer Simonds was with her afternoon kindergarten class when the tornado struck. Her arm was crushed by a car.

“I only had six in my afternoon class when it hit. We were just in class, you know, and we had known it was coming, and the last thing we heard was it wasn't close to us. So I was like, 'We're OK.' I went over the precautions with my class. They were prepared and ready, you know. They didn't think it was serious. We went out in the hallway and sang some songs and were rubbing their backs to get them calm.

“And then all of a sudden it was people yelling, 'Get down!' And then you just heard the glass shattering. We just started getting hit with stuff and covered. I just grabbed backpacks off the hooks above me and laid them on my babies' heads, and I just said, 'This is going to hurt.'

“I just laid on them. That's what saved them. All of them came out without scratches on them. I took the brunt of it. We were under a car.

“I couldn't even tell you how long we were there. I was able to stand up somewhat and realize that we were underneath a car. And then some men from the neighborhood (and) one of the fifth-grade teachers lifted the car. And I was able to get all of my babies out, and we were able to stand up and walk away. I was just taking them and putting them in the bathroom with the first-graders in case it came back or anything. We got all of the kindergartners out. We were getting pre-K-ers out. We were just grabbing who we could so that we could get out of there. When we were finally about to step over the wall and just see everything - it's amazing that any of us walked away from that.

“I took the brunt of it, and only one of my kids had to get stitches. The rest just had scratches. So they're OK, and that's what matters. I just kept praying that if anything has to happen that God would take me and not my babies. I wanted them to walk out of there, and they did.

“I just kept saying, 'Take me. Take me. Not my babies.' I'd rather them be there because they're only 5 and 6. They've got their whole life ahead of them. I've lived my life a while. But they're OK.

“This is only my second year teaching. I'm from Chicago, so I've never been in a tornado, never knew what to do in a tornado. It was something else. It's something I never hope to experience again. ... I think that's what anybody would do if they were in that situation, because they're precious.

“My house is OK. We live not far from the school, but it didn't come near our house. So my house is OK. My car was in the school, but it's replaceable. Just thankful that our babies are OK, my husband was OK, my house and my dog were OK. We were all able to walk away from it.”

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Dennis Stocksen

Grandfather

Dennis Stocksen's grandson Ty Piatt was a first-grade student in Jennifer Simonds's class at Plaza Towers.

“We live north of Bridge Creek. I happened to be out in the yard that afternoon and saw the tornado forming. And my wife had taken Ty to school that morning.

“It was amazing how fast that come up. I called my wife and said, 'You get to the school and get Ty out of there.' They got there and they picked him up. They hadn't been gone 15, 20 minutes and the tornado hit Plaza Towers.

“If I hadn't have called, don't know. Everybody's safe. But our son's house was destroyed and everything else. They're living with us now out there. Everybody's that's here, the good Lord's been working in our lives. We feel for all the lives that were lost.”

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Mary Booker

First-grade mother

Mary Booker's son, Chaden, was a first-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“The school, I can't believe it's gone. It breaks my heart.

“We were actually at our house in the neighborhood, which thankfully did not get much damage. We just got broken windows and things like that.

“I just went and picked him up early, thankfully. As it came nearer, I didn't know it was going to actually hit where we were at. And then one of my friends called me and said, 'You need to get out of the house. You need to go.' We went to Crossroads (mall) right before it hit, thankfully.

“It's just so surreal to see our community on the TV. That's our school. Those are our teachers. Those are the faces we see every day.”

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Erin Baxter

Kindergarten teacher

Kindergarten teacher Erin Baxter was inside Plaza Towers Elementary School when the tornado struck. This is her fourth year teaching.

“Just a normal day in Oklahoma. The sirens went off. Our principal came over the intercom and said, 'Take your tornado procedures.' We got the kids in their designated spots.

“Our whole hallway was so calm with all the first grade and pre-k and kindergarten. We just sang and the kids did amazing. They were amazing.

“We practice procedures monthly. We went out in our hallway and got in our designated spots. The children got down and covered their head the whole time. My aid and I and a parent, we just rubbed their backs and sang. The whole hallway was signing 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' (and) ABCs. It was really calm. Very calm.

“Immediately, we got the debris off of us. We made sure that we got the kids up, checked them. We started to walk out, picking children up, getting them out of there. Neighbors were running to the school, helping us take the children out to safety. It was just almost instinct. I don't know what overcame us. But we were just able to get them out of there safely before any more further damage might have happened.”

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Maylene Sorrels

Kindergarten teachers' aide and PTA president

She had four children of her own - Dalton, 13, Breanna, 13, Victoria, 12, and Jaden, 11 - in the school the afternoon the tornado struck. They were in the fifth- and sixth-grade wing at the east end; she was with teacher Erin Baxter and their kindergartners down the hall on the west end.

“I wanted to run down the hallway and I wanted to get them. My head and my heart were telling me to run, but I had a feeling just to stay, and I had a feeling that I just needed to stay put, and so I did and I just prayed that their teachers would protect them as I was doing for the students I had that day.

“Those are our kids. Their parents dropped them off, and those are our kids for the day. And we would do anything and everything, which we all did, to make sure that they were safe even if it meant one of us was taken. We would have done that regardless, and I'd do it again.”

Sorrels' home was damaged in the tornado. The family spent the next weeks living out of two rooms at the La Quinta Inn off SW 19 Street in Moore.

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Elizabeth Espino

Kindergarten mother

Parent Elizabeth Espino was in the school when the storm hit.

“I was in the kindergarten hallway, and then everybody got down onto their knees and ducked for protection. Then the tornado came. The windows shattered. The roof came off. The wall fell over. The other wall fell over. As I tried to go, I saw the car in the middle of the hallway right there.

“Our heads, we were praying to God, speaking to God, for us to get out of there, to keep us safe. I praise God.

“Thank God I was able to find my daughter. She was next to the third-graders. I just praise God she was alive.

“They did an awesome job by throwing bodies over the kids. We have the best teachers at Plaza Towers. They're just awesome teachers.”

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Shanna Jones

Third- and sixth-grade teacher

Shanna Jones' daughters, Katelyn and Megan, were sixth- and third-graders, respectively, at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“My husband was at our house when it happened, so he left as soon it was over and rushed to the school. He got there just after it happened, and a volunteer fireman got there right after it happened and pulled my older daughter, Katelyn, out from the closet. Her and four other kids and the teacher were in the closet, and he pulled them out through the roof.

“The last I heard was that my husband had my older daughter and my niece. So when I got to my house and they weren't there, I walked from our house to the school. Walking up over the hill and seeing everything was gone and not knowing if everyone was OK, it's the worse feeling I've ever had.

“I ran up to them and hugged them harder than they've probably ever been hugged before. I felt incredibly blessed that my kids were OK (when) so many others weren't.”

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Accasey Gray

First-grade mother

Accasey Gray had two children who attended Plaza Towers Elementary School - first-grader Miles and sixth-grader Trinity.

“I teach in Oklahoma City, so I was there with my (students) at school, trying to keep them safe, too. So my mom checked them out 10 minutes before the lockdown. She made it back home and into the safe room in time, because they live on the east side of Moore. They made it right inside. Their house didn't get hit. It was about two blocks away from there.

“Luckily, she was able to text me and tell me she had them and they were fine. That was OK. I was just worried about all the other kids and trying get back to my neighborhood to see how things were.

“They weren't aware until I finally made it to them. They were at Moore High School with my mom and dad, and I made it to them at 8 o'clock at night. We had to sit down and talk.”

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Victoria Hare

First-grade mother

Victoria Hare's daughter, Omalee, was a first-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“They said it was going to be a bad day, and I believed them. I packed a bag anticipating we might not come home that night. I was texting my co-workers, telling them I didn't want to leave my kids and that I had this bad feeling and I didn't know what to do.

“I gave the decision to Omalee whether or not to stay or go to the day care right away. I was going to take her after the awards straight to the day care because I was concerned. So I let her stay, despite what my instincts were telling me.

“Then I got an automated call from the school saying they were only releasing to parents and I thought, 'Oh my God. I don't know if she got picked up. I don't know if she's still in the school.' Then I got a picture from the day care showing they had my son still but not my daughter yet, and I knew the tornado was already on the ground. I didn't know where she was or if she was safe, so those were some pretty scary moments.

“I didn't know where they were. It took me a couple hours to even get the text message, 'They are OK.'”

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Jody Harris

Father

Jody Harris is the father of four children who went to Plaza Towers Elementary School. Deon Harris and Jordan Love were fourth-graders. Devon Harris was a third-grader, and Dakota Harris was a first-grader. He was at work, and his family survived in their home, which was not destroyed.

“The more the day went on, you could feel it in the air that it was getting worse. You could tell that something bad was going to happen.

“My wife called and had them get ready that day before the storm hit, so she got them with about 10 minutes to spare to get home. It was bothering her that day that the kids were at school, and they said we had a target on us. So she kept bothering me, you know - can she get the kids from school early? So I told her if it makes her feel better, go right ahead.

“She got one text out to me, and it said, 'We've been hit.' And I got one out to her that said, 'How bad?' That was our only communication.”

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Echo Mackey

First-grade mother

Echo Mackey's son was a student in Becky Pouder's first-grade class at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Mackey was in the school when the storm hit.

“I'm so glad all of these people are alive.

“We don't have a storm shelter at our house, and my neighbor ran outside, and he was like, 'We have to get out of here. It's coming! It's coming!' I was like, 'No, I'm not leaving. You need to take me to my son.' And so I didn't know what I was doing. I just knew I had to be with him, so that's where I went.

“I walked in, and he was like three-fourths down the hallway, and I had both of my dogs. We had a rat cage. We had a lot of stuff. We just sat down next to each other. We were there for maybe 10, 15 minutes before it hit.

“And it just felt like someone put a nice fan at the end of the hallway. Then the hail started, and I don't know. All I really remember is a lot of screaming. I was on top of my son, trying to bury both of us. I didn't realize how bad things were until a wall fell on me.

“I didn't think any of us were going to make it. We were curled up in the hallway. All you could really do is pray.

“Well, I don't know if anybody has a video of the sky afterwards, but it looked like another tornado was forming. We were terrified because we didn't know where to go. We didn't know what to do. My son, my best friend, and I, there's a little bridge over by the school. We just ran over to the bridge and started army-crawling out the mud. I didn't know where else to go. Nobody's houses were around.

“My son is in first grade - Ms. Pouder. I loved her at the beginning of the year, and I will probably know her for the rest of my life. I love that woman. She is amazing. She saved so many children.”

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Nicki Willis

Assistant teacher

Teachers' aide Nicki Willis was in the second- and third-grade hallway during the tornado with teachers including Shelly Calvert.

“I had three on one side of me, one on the other, and I was just holding on to them as tightly as I could. Everything went black, and we just keep hearing things pounding and pounding really hard. And I didn't see, but Shelly saw the doors twist off.

“And then I felt myself being picked up and moved, and I thought that was it. I held as tightly as I could to the kids because I'm thinking tornado, and it's going to pick me up and I can't do anything but, you know, I gotta hold these kids down.

“And I held as tight as I could, and then it stopped. The suction stopped. And then things just kept hitting and hitting, and I kept feeling things hitting my back really hard.

“And, at one point, I looked up and some of the kids were trying to see what was going on, and I yelled, 'Heads down! Heads down! Heads down!'

“It calmed down and we stood up and we could still see some debris cloud swirling, but it wasn't as bad. I mean, stuff was going in our mouths and our ears.

“We were covered in it, we had to get the stuff off of us to stand up, and we were just checking around to see everybody and, you know, in shock and dazed.

“The first thing we noticed was the third grade.”

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Ginger Chick

First-grade mother

As the weather became worse, Ginger Chick drove to Plaza Towers Elementary School to get her first-grade daughter, Kylie, who was a student in teacher Karen Marinelli's class.

“I had the news on all day watching it because I'm horrified of tornadoes already.”

She scooped up the family's Chihuahua puppy, Jewels, and headed for school. She ran to the office, where a secretary told her to skip the formality of checking Kylie out and go straight to her classroom.

Five or six kids were still in class; as they turned to go, Kylie said, "Wait, I have to get my binder."

"No, you don't need your binder," Marinelli said.

“You could hear the worry in her teacher's voice.”

Ginger handed Kylie her phone and the dog, and they headed north. They were on SW 109 Street or SW 104, Ginger said, when the radio reported Plaza Towers had been hit.

Kylie's classmates survived, but Marinelli was seriously hurt.

“We got out of there just in time.”

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Karen Marinelli

First-grade teacher

First-grade teacher Karen Marinelli was protecting her three students when half of a wall fell onto her, breaking her back.

“It was a very normal day to start with. It was actually a celebratory day. So I don't know if it was normal, but it felt normal. The students were having their awards ceremony in the morning for just a year's worth of awards for basically how well they've read and how well they've done their math and all kinds of things. We had lots of parents up at the school for the first hour of the day for the awards, and we were just progressing through our day normally, making some memory books for the end of the year. There were stacks of everything that they had made on my little horseshoe table because it was going to go home with them on the last day of school as a representation of the year and things that they have learned. We were doing stuff like that.

“I knew it was kind of stormy, there was a chance of storms outside; it wasn't storming yet. My co-workers and I, in fact, on our planning period which is from 1:45 to 2:25, we hadn't even looked at the weather and decided it was just storms going to come in.

“We went to pick up our students from specials which is their P.E. and music time. As we were getting them from P.E. we realized that it was raining. Right as we were walking through the two buildings there was a huge, huge crash of thunder and so loud in fact that half the students started screaming, a few of them were crying because it was loud and it scared them. Again, at that point we just thought it was storming outside. So we went back to our classroom, and I was just letting students play with pattern blocks because I was starting to have parents come in to check their children out, and it was just becoming so frequent that they were getting checked out that I decided we wouldn't work on the memory books anymore because we'd have some people behind, so that's when I let them get on the floor and play with their pattern blocks and some other friends.

“I would say for the next 20 to 30 minutes, students were being checked out just over and over and over and over again. Then our principal came on — and I didn't ask any of the parents what was going on, I don't really know why, I should have, but you know I figured they're worried it's going to storm later so they're coming to get their kids, because my assumption was it was going to be later in the day that was going to happen. Finally our principal came over the intercom and said we needed to follow tornado procedure and take our students into the hall. So I quickly did it and started to worry a little bit.

“I had five students left at that point. We went to our place out in the hall, which is a hall that faces the north, and so it is our kindergarten hall is what it is. We got in our normal positions where they sit on their knees and they put their heads forward up against the wall and cover their heads with their hands. At that point I was just kind of rubbing their backs, talking to them.

“I was making my own communication with my phone — I text my husband and asked him to pray for all of us. I text my mom and sent her to go pick up one of my sons who was at Brink Junior High. And then I had a friend who was supposed to pick up my youngest at Oak Ridge Elementary which is, these are all within five minutes of my school, and she was going to go ahead and pick up my youngest because I thought I don't want them to be at school with a tornado. But right about that time I started getting messages on my phone that Moore schools were holding all students, they were keeping everybody and not releasing anyone. So my mom was stuck at my son's junior high; I guess I started getting a little more worried at that point.

“I wasn't really talking to any of the other teachers about what was going on. We were just all sitting in the hall singing with our students. We sang the ABC's, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,' and I rubbed their backs. They kept saying that they were getting uncomfortable, and I said, 'I know, it won't be much longer,' because still in my mind I'm thinking, yes there's a tornado around, it's not going to come directly here, we've been in this position before, not a big deal.

“I only got on my phone one time to look at a weather map, and when I did, I could see by the radar that whatever it was, it was coming our way and the arrow was pointed towards us. You never know, like in a tornado and if they say there's a tornado warning and it's headed your way, if it's really going to head your exact way. So I would say even at that point I wasn't very worried.

“We were in that position for quite a while, a good 30 minutes I would say, 20 to 30. Our principal was walking up and down the hall checking on us. I don't know, I think I just started to get the sense that it was getting a little bit worse. I text my husband and told him I was scared, and he said it was OK, these schools have good tornado safety precautions, it's going to be all right, kind of telling me that not only for myself, but also for my other two children who were at other schools.

“It just started getting really dark, and I could just feel in the air something was different. At the end of the hall someone yelled, 'Get down,' in a very, I don't know, in a voice that you knew meant business and something bad is about to happen. I think at this point I knew that we were going to be hit, no idea with what it would be though. I bent down over my kids — kind of in the same position they were — on my knees but instead of covering my own head and just resting down on my own knees, I was on my knees and the top part of my body was over them. I just leaned over them, covering them with my body and arms and even grabbed the teacher beside me, Erin Ogdon, I grabbed her hand and told her I was scared, and right at that moment is when it hit.

“When it hit, you just could hear it. You could hear a roaring sound. To me it sounded like, to me it had such an evil sound and look, and it started hailing. Windows start shattering, then at that point things start falling down on us. I could tell the building was getting hit. It went through the library first, which was to the west of us, and you could hear things just falling apart and cracking. We had a few things fall down on us, and I would say just about halfway through it, a big chunk of wall fell on us, and at that point I had no idea what had fallen on us, I just knew it was so incredibly heavy. It fell from about the middle of my back all the way past my legs. When it did, it crushed my pelvis, down, flat to the ground. I had been sitting where I was in the air, up over them; it smashed my back side and my legs just flat like a frog that you ran over down into the ground.

“I thought, I really thought we were going to die, at that point, I just thought things were going to keep coming down, and we were going to be crushed to death. I felt I couldn't take really big breaths; I was really scared to say much to the students because I was afraid that I was going to run out of air. I just kept talking to them and basically saying the same words over and over, I kept telling them, 'Shh, it's OK, it's going to be over soon, it's all right.'

“Two of the children that were under me, I had three boys under me at that point. Two of the five were picked up while we were out in the hall, so it was just the three boys and I at the time that the tornado came. So I had three boys under me, and there was only one, the one in the middle, that was very vocal. The other two I didn't hear the whole time.

“The one in the middle kept yelling, 'What's going on? Let me out of here.' He was screaming and crying a lot. I guess it ended, it ended at some point while we were feeling very trapped underneath everything. It was over, and the girl next to me who was the speech teacher was able to move some of the debris, and she asked me if I was still with her, and I told her, 'Yes,' but that I was being crushed and that I was afraid they were being crushed as well, and I was like, 'Someone's gotta come get us or we're all going to die.'

“I think we had resolved that we were going to be calm at that point and take slow breaths, but then we started hearing people running up and pulling things off of people, and we both started screaming at that point for someone to help us.

“Finally the wall started being pulled off of my back, they also pulled the wall that was in front of us that we were initially resting up against, they were pulling that forward at the same time. It was a little half wall by that point, because the top of that wall is what had fallen over on us. When they pulled it forward, it made the back part of the wall fall deeper into me; it wasn't standing up against the other wall where it couldn't come down any farther. So I was screaming, 'That hurt, hang on, wait a minute.'

“During all of that, somebody, I know it was a man, came and took all three of the boys out from under me. Like I said, they pulled that wall, the half wall forward to where they could reach them because they were still down low under me. They pulled them all out, I didn't really get to see or hear how they were doing, it was just so chaotic at that moment. People everywhere and things everywhere and people pulling stuff off of everyone.

“They finally got everything off of me, the wall and bricks and everything. The man that had taken all of the kids was back with me, and so they tried to lift me up, and I couldn't, I couldn't stand. I was just screaming that my legs were hurt and I couldn't stand on my legs. Then he tried to pick me up and when he tried to pick me up that was even worse, I just felt like knives were ripping through my body. So basically we just situated me until I was kind of resting on that half wall.

“I just remember sitting on that half wall and just looking around in disbelief that everything around me was gone, it was all crumbled. I could see them pulling other people up, the other teachers and the kids, and I was hurting so bad, it was really hard to focus.

“I had probably five men around me at that point, and they were putting me on a board because they were worried that I had back and neck injuries since they couldn't move me, and they put me on a board. One of the men who happened to be the father of one of my students, they actually laid the board on the top of the Jeep, he had a big, white Jeep. They decided they were going to put me on the hood of that on my board and drive me to the ambulance because the ambulances couldn't come to us, they couldn't get over the debris and he thought he could get over there with his jeep. It was kind of an off-road big tire Jeep, and so that's what they did. They put my board with me lying on top of it on the hood of the Jeep and drove, gosh, probably just three miles an hour over there with two men holding on the sides while he drove.

“Once they got me over there, which was a pretty bumpy, hard ride, it was very painful, they put me in the ambulance, and the ambulance took me to OU Medical. From there it was just wild being in the trauma center, ER; they're just stripping everything off of you and hooking tubes everywhere to you and asking tons of questions. They were able to start pain medicine on me; I had a CT scan, tons and tons of X-rays.

“I didn't even know what was wrong with me that whole night, it wasn't until the next morning when the orthopedic surgeons came in and said that I had broken a part of my back. What it was is it's my sacrum bone, and what that is is it's right below your spine, right below where all your discs end, but then above your tailbone, it's kind of in the middle of that situated in between your hip bone and pelvic bone. It's kind of like a heart-shaped bone and the two top parts were broken. I had a bilateral fracture of the sacrum is what it was. They said I needed to go in for surgery to put a pin through that, and they went in and put a pin connecting each pelvic bone to the sacrum.

“They told me yesterday at a doctor's appointment that they had to break my pelvic bones to be able to put the pin in between; I thought that was pretty crazy. They inserted a screw basically through the left pelvic bone through the sacrum and then through the right pelvic bone just to pull it in all together to heal.

“I was in the hospital, I was in OU Medical for five days, and I had a brace put around me, around my middle, and it also attaches to my legs to hold me in a straight position where I can't bend around or twist around too much. I have to lie back in my wheelchair at a 60-degree angle, I'm not allowed to sit up straight quite yet. Then I was in Jim Thorpe for two weeks after that working on rehabilitating myself. I also have a sprained right ankle with torn ligaments in it.

“Then I went home. I've been home for a couple of weeks now. I'm in a wheelchair, I cannot put any weight on my legs for three months from my surgery, so eight more weeks from now, in August, the end of August is when I'll be able to be out of my wheelchair and start walking again.

“They do expect me to make a full recovery. I just have all kinds of therapy coming to my house, ... and then I'm going to switch to outpatient aqua therapy where I'll be doing my therapy in a pool. They did just tell me, too, that I'll be able to return to school in August. I'll be able to be there for when the kids come back so I'm really excited about that.”

Marinelli was unsure if her three students would be alive if it weren't for her body taking the brunt of the wall.

“If what hit me would've hit them, no, I don't think they would've. It fell farther down on my back, but where my hinny was sticking up in the air; basically, covering them with where that came crashing down which would've been right by them. It would've crushed them, definitely paralyzed them if they were alive or hurt them badly. It was insanely heavy crushing into me.”

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Stefan Nowlin

Prekindergarten and first-grade father

Stefan Nowlin has a daughter and son who attend Plaza Towers Elementary School. Alanna was in Karen Marinelli's first-grade class and Connor was in prekindergarten. Connor was already out of school for the day, and Nowlin also took Alanna out early.

“The day before I had actually worked, so I was at home in bed, but had to get up for an awards ceremony for Alanna. She had won like seven or eight awards, so we went over to her ceremony, and we got to see that.

“He was in school, my son, Connor. He's in prekindergarten. We picked him up as a normal kind of day. We had lunch and then it said the storms were going to start getting worse. She (Nowlin's wife) turned on the computer and was watching the storms. At probably about 2:45 it started looking pretty bad outside.

“We kind of ho-hummed and debated about it for a little bit and finally I asked her, 'So should I just go get Alanna?' At first my wife said, 'I don't know, maybe we should just leave her there to be safer there.' So ultimately we decided it would be better if she was with us. I told her, 'I'd feel better if she just came with us.' And she said, 'OK, go get her.' We went over at probably, what was it, 3 o'clock?

“I got Alanna and we came home. Probably about five to 10 minutes after I got home, we decided to leave because literally we could see the storm working its way across Santa Fe towards the school. We got in the car and went to Norman.

“(Our home was) destroyed completely. My truck that I use to go back from, to my house from my place of employment, I work at the heart hospital, I left it at my house, and it ended up at Plaza Towers Elementary parking lot.”

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Steve Bocock

Spouse

Steve Bocock, husband of Plaza Towers autism specialist Aimee Bocock, followed the tornado down SW 134 in his pickup, arriving minutes after it passed. He and Lindy Simpson, a firefighter and husband of Principal Amy Simpson, were among the first rescuers to reach the hallway where third-graders were trapped beneath a collapsed cinder-block wall.

“It was really just about four of us … me and Lindy and two other guys, I don't know who they were. But as this wall laid down this way (gesturing with his hands), probably 18 foot long and 10 feet wide, and it laid up against another pile of rubble.

“At the top, we could see a little girl with her head stuck in some rebar and her face was in it, and she was struggling to get loose because she was just pinned in. So I dug out a bunch of concrete from underneath her to where we could pull her out from the side.

“Lindy and I dug through the concrete. The amount of dirt and dust was unbelievable; we could hardly breathe.

“There were two kids packed underneath her with their backpacks on. And you know the teachers teach them, tell them to put their heads between their legs, so that's how we found them, literally like sardines, just packed together.

“And as I pulled that little girl out, then I could see another boy, and he started moving and I pulled him out, and then I got to one that was gone.”

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Liz De La Cruz

Pre-kindergarten parent

Liz De La Cruz has a daughter who attends Plaza Towers Elementary School. Isabelle, 5, was in prekindergarten, but was already finished with school for the day when the tornado struck.

“She's in preschool; she was already at home because she only goes half-day. She feels that it's her teachers and her school and stuff. She's a little - hears sirens going and kinda freaks out. Thank God she wasn't at the school, that's all we can say.

“That's our fourth child, and our oldest three, they all graduated from there. They got all sorts of awards and their names were on the walls and everything. That was kind of what we were hoping for her to do. All the plaques, they're gone, obviously. That was our hope, to be able to get her name up there, too.”

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Christopher Dennis

Father

Christopher Dennis and his wife, Courtney, took their three children to his parents' home in Newcastle to avoid the storm.

“My wife, she's from Austin (Texas), so she didn't grow up around tornadoes. She's way freaked out about them, so whenever it was coming in, she said, 'Let's go get the kids from school.' And she had a doctor's appointment at the Moore Medical Center at like 3, and she was like, 'Let's go ahead and cancel that. We'll go ahead and just go over to your parents' house in Newcastle, because they have a storm shelter.'

“And so I'm just thankful she did, because our house got leveled. Me and the 1-year-old would have been there. She would have been at the Moore Medical Center. Our kids would have been at Plaza Towers. I'm just thankful she did it, you know?”

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Lemmy McGeisey

Prekindergarten parent

Lemmy McGeisey's three daughters attend Moore Public Schools. His youngest was in prekindergarten at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Their home was only slightly damaged in the storm.

“We weren't there. We had picked up the kids, and after that, we left the school. We left town basically. We weren't at the school when it collapsed. We were on the road, running away from the tornado.

“We went toward the First Indian Baptist Church. We stayed in their parking lot and just watched the tornado. Then it started to come our way. They kept telling us it was going north and then we heard it was going east. When the sirens went off where we were out, we just went south toward Norman.

“She doesn't understand. That evening, we went to McDonald's and we met one of her classmates at McDonald's. She was looking forward to going to school soon to talk to her friend about playing at McDonald's. She doesn't know about what's really happening.

“They (the teachers) are beautiful. I love them to death. They're so nice with the kids, all the kids. They give each kid respect, every parent respect. They're wonderful people. I love them to death.”

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Linda Patterson

Prekindergarten teacher

Linda Patterson taught prekindergarten at Plaza Towers. This was her last year in the classroom after 31 years.

“They told us to take precaution, tornado precaution. So we went in the hallway and put our heads down, like the children have been taught. We just covered them up. I only had eight left in my little pre-K group. There was me and my teaching assistant and the speech therapist, and we just laid on top of them.

“The kids were wonderful. That's why we practice these things. They knew exactly what to do, and they were so good. I think we were probably in the safest place we can be. My room's gone. My classroom's gone. The roof and the walls are gone.

“They were all fine. They had to dig us out of the debris, but we were all fine.

“I think all the teachers did just what we normally do. We just did as we've been trained, and we kept the kids calm. I think the heroes are the men that came in and dug us out. ... There were eight kids and two teachers I know that were completely covered. I said, 'There's people here,' and they started digging them out. They had to wedge me out. My legs were caught, and they had to help me get out. They did it. There was like three or four guys - don't know who they are, but they're my heroes.”

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Emily Eischen

Second-grade teacher

Teacher Emily Eischen collected her second-grade students from other classrooms to take tornado precautions in the hallway.

“My kids were in specials. They were in P.E., music area, which is in the gym right next to our building. As soon as the sirens went off, the procedure is they come back to our building and line up in the hallway right outside our classrooms.

“We had probably half the amount we do on a normal day because so many were getting checked out, even up until like 30 minutes before. We had them all get down in their positions, which we practiced numerous times so they knew exactly what to do.

“A few of them started to panic because they felt this wasn't a drill. We tried our best to keep them calm, patting them on the back, reassuring them we're right there and we're not going to leave. I have a few students who have had deaths in their family, and so it was kind of very near to them. So that was all they had on their mind is, 'What is going to happen to me?'

“Then it got to the point that we could hear the storm. I describe it as like a jet engine. Amy (Simpson) was on the intercom - our principal - numerous times, kind of preparing us. She's not very stern. She has a poised presence that they follow, so she doesn't normally have to be stern. But she was pretty stern that day to stress the urgency.

“Before we knew it, we had a few more seconds to make sure everyone was down and covering our heads, and then it hit. Debris was going everywhere. A few students got pretty bad head injuries. We came to, and we really didn't know how many students we had left, so we were making sure everyone was off the ground. There was a little girl next to me. I think she was knocked out because I had to wake her up. She was laying flat right next to me. She came to, and I noticed she had some injuries.

“In a flash there were people there. I can't explain it other than that they were angels. There was one boy that came in, he was drenched. You could tell he was probably just in part of the storm, too. He said, 'What can I do? Who needs help?' He was kind of our initial messenger to communicate who needed help the worst.

“Once we looked at our second-grade area then we looked at our third-grade area, which is in our same hallway - and we noticed that the walls collapsed, and that was hard to see. We didn't hear any sounds at first. We were trying to yell for them and see if we could hear anyone. At first we couldn't, so our main priority was to get our kids out because there was debris and cords hanging above our heads. We felt their safety was at hand. We had to get them out as quickly as possible. It was kind of chaos from there.

“In a state of shock you try your best to get the kids to where they need to go to. I've never experienced anything like it.

“I had several of them. I taught kindergarten for eight years, so I had them back in kindergarten and again in second grade. A few of them I knew very, very well.

“Some days you feel like you're doing well and you're head's back on your shoulders, and then you kind of spiral in a different direction that you don't expect.”

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Maria and Zandria Hannigan

Third-grade mother, and student

Linda Patterson taught prekindergarten at Plaza Towers. This was her last year in the classroom after 31 years.

“They told us to take precaution, tornado precaution. So we went in the hallway and put our heads down, like the children have been taught. We just covered them up. I only had eight left in my little pre-K group. There was me and my teaching assistant and the speech therapist, and we just laid on top of them.

“The kids were wonderful. That's why we practice these things. They knew exactly what to do, and they were so good. I think we were probably in the safest place we can be. My room's gone. My classroom's gone. The roof and the walls are gone.

“They were all fine. They had to dig us out of the debris, but we were all fine.

“I think all the teachers did just what we normally do. We just did as we've been trained, and we kept the kids calm. I think the heroes are the men that came in and dug us out. ... There were eight kids and two teachers I know that were completely covered. I said, 'There's people here,' and they started digging them out. They had to wedge me out. My legs were caught, and they had to help me get out. They did it. There was like three or four guys - don't know who they are, but they're my heroes.”

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Joshua Hornsby

Father who lost a child

Joshua Hornsby served three years in the Army from 2006 to 2009, including 15 months in Iraq, with the Third Infantry Division. He and his daughter, 9-year-old Ja'Nae, lived in the mobile home park just east of Plaza Towers. Ja'Nae worked hard to be a big sister to 2-year-old Jia. Ja'Nae, a third-grader in Jennifer Doan's class, was killed.

“Ja'Nae would be singing and Jia would be walking along right behind her, singing with her. She loved playing with her little sister, doing everything with her.

“She had this little microphone that had songs on it and so they would sing little songs or she'd be trying to teach Jia how to sing the songs. She can't talk very well yet, but she would sing it in her own little words.

“Ja'Nae was love. And if you knew Ja'Nae, then you knew love.”

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Jennifer Doan

Third-grade teacher

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Shelly Calvert

Second-grade teacher

Shelly Calvert's second-graders knelt in the hallway outside their classroom and covered their heads with pillows and her green sweater as the tornado tore into their school. Calvert lay over them, gathering all she could in her arms. She and her children emerged with minor injuries.

“I don't know if she was knocked out, but one little girl was laying next to me, and she was really, really little, and I picked her up, and when I picked her up she started crying.

“And this was kind of before, I mean, during the whole thing. 'Cause I knew that she was so light, and I mean she was, I was trying to wrap my arms around as many as I could.

“And she was like the next one over, and I knew that she was so light I was scared that she could have gotten sucked in.

“So I looked to make sure she was OK, and she was laying here beside me so I went ahead and picked her up and stuck her in front of me on top of the other kids.

“And the kids were very, very brave.

“I mean, they were scared and screaming, but they were brave, and they not once lifted their heads because they knew what to do and we practiced it.

“They knew what to do. They weren't about to raise their head up.”

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Beulah Wester

Mother

Beulah Wester was trying to reach her second-grader, Grace Barone, but couldn't get to the school in time. Wester's father reached the school first after the storm hit.

“I knew at that point at least something had to have had happened. I just fell to the ground.

“Dad drove south and turned back. I don't know how he got in that neighborhood. Dad called: 'I have Gracie. I have Gracie.' Talk about relief. I wouldn't have been able to hold it together.”

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Melissa Dashiell

Second-grade mother

Melissa Dashiell has a son and daughter who attend Plaza Towers Elementary School. Chase, 8, was in second grade and Olivia, 6, was in kindergarten. The family was in their shelter as the tornado took their house.

“That morning I got a call from my neighbor and she said, 'Check the news. At 2:30, there's storms coming in.' So I took them to school then picked her (Olivia) up, went to the library, came home and said, 'Oh, we better check the news.' They were talking about how storms were going to hit within 25 minutes of OKC. I'm like, 'Well, let's go get Bubba.' So we went and got him and got home and had just enough time to pack a bag of clothes, medicine. I had them go to the bathroom and get real shoes on.

“I get a text message, I guess from the National Weather Service that said, 'Take shelter.' As soon as I read the text message I was like, 'It's time to go.' And the sirens went off for the first time. So I sent my husband a text message because he was helping a co-worker deal with the storms from the day before. So I sent him a text like, 'Don't come home.' I still didn't know what was going on in Newcastle. I had no idea because I turned off the TV and I didn't turn it on when we got back home.

“We got in the storm shelter and the sirens went off. Someone is banging on the garage door, and I'm like, 'Crap.' And the kids are like, 'It's Daddy.' So I opened up the shelter and opened the door, and it was not Dan - it was my neighbor. So I sat on the storm shelter steps and waited for her because I didn't want to leave my kids and she comes peeking around the corner and she goes, 'Is there room?' and I said, 'Yes.' So she gets in, we're sitting on the stairs of the shelter because we had an in-ground shelter, and the sirens went off. I left the garage door part way up in fear that Dan didn't get my text message, which he didn't.

“My 8-year-old described it as God put a big lawn mower on top of our house and let it sit there. It was just loud, and it went on and on and on. I'd never been in a tornado before, but I thought it would be quick. I just thought it would be there and gone, and it just stayed. Debris and insulation started blowing into the shelter. My neighbor grabbed us and put our heads down, and I was screaming, 'Shut your eyes.'

“When it was all over I started texting Dan, 'Buried, trapped,' and nothing would go through. My 8-year-old son asked if we were going to suffocate, and I said, 'No, if we stay calm we'll be all right. Daddy will be here any minute.' Olivia was like, 'Is our house gone?' and my neighbor was like, 'Well, we know your roof's gone.' I looked at my kids and said, 'The whole neighborhood's gone.' It just felt so big. It was like there's no way anything is left. We sat there for it felt like forever. I don't know how long it was, I need a watch. All of a sudden I hear Dan, and he was like, 'Baby, are you in there? Do you have Chase?' I said, 'Yeah.' And start bursting into tears.

“We were like 3 feet under and he had to get some guys to help him move the part of the garage off of us. He couldn't lift the garage door off of us. So he got us out, and when we stepped out it was just all rubble. We were like, here's Plaza (the school), and five doors down on 11th is our house, so it was like everything's just gone. He walked us to the truck. We have a German shepherd. She was with us in the shelter. She walked with us to the truck. He made us sit there and he went to start digging people out.

“We were right across from the gym, so we started seeing the teachers coming out and the kids were screaming at their teachers because they were just so happy to see them. It was so horrifying to be there and not be able to help.

“My husband's in the Air Force, so his quadrant put us up in one of their apartments. ... So it's worked out for us, but I'm still not sleeping very well. We have it a lot better than others. We're going to miss our school. We had the best neighbors and the best school and the best church. Moore is one of those cities that just embraces you and pulls you in, and who wouldn't rebuild there?”

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Amy Simpson

Principal

Amy Simpson has been the principal of Plaza Towers for the past three years. She went to Moore Public Schools and has spent her whole career as a teacher and principal in the district. About 2:30 p.m. the day the tornado hit, Simpson helped parents check their children out of school.

“At that point I had made an executive decision that we weren't going to do a regular checkout.

“I came up to the office and kind of stood in the front and greeted parents as they came and told them they could go down the hallway, and there were several of them pretty panicked. I was like, 'It's going to be fine. Just go get them. Take them.'

“I met every one of them at the front door and just asked them what grade and told them where they were. We were in procedures at the time. A lot of them were scared and panicked, so I calmed them down because I didn't want them to scare my kids. I just told them, 'Stay calm.' They were telling me, 'There's a tornado.' I was like, 'I know that. That's why we're in procedures. Please stay calm.' So a lot of them took them and a lot of them had to take shelter with us. There were several parents with us in the bathrooms and the hallways.

“I could see closer towards the time - I would say 30, 25-30 minutes out before the tornado hit - that parents were scared, and I could see it on their face. I had one gentleman, he came in so wildly that he almost fell. It's carpet at first and you hit tile. I had to grab him by his jacket and pull him up so he didn't fall down.

“I was bossing them around like I do kids. 'You have to walk. Get your child and walk out.'

“I was just trying to do crowd control and allow parents to get their kids quickly because I knew they were scared.”

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Kay Herriott

Former teacher

Kay Herriott was a physical education teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary School off and on for 20 years through 2000. Now she teaches at Hayes Elementary School in Oklahoma City.

“I had moved to Plaza. We had come back from Texas. ... My first year back in Oklahoma, that's where I taught. I was a P.E. teacher there. It was just a real nice little neighborhood school.

“The school was just about everything. The school was a real good neighborhood school. Lots of participation from the parents. The kids loved coming to school. I think that's probably the way it still was over there. The school was one of the older schools in the area.

“There were new teachers, but there were a lot of teachers that had been there for a long, long time.

“We (the P.E. class) just had the cafeteria, along with everybody else that needed the cafeteria. But we had a good playground. We had a good pond out back that we did a lot of fishing in. I taught fishing. I don't know if they still do that there. The kids enjoy coming to school.

“As a teacher, all of us here have cried. We didn't let our kids out of the building either. ... They trust you so much. They trust you with everything.”

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Tanner Herriott

Former student

KTanner Herriott started his school years at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where his mother was a teacher.

“I was there for kindergarten around 1985-86, I believe, but my mom taught at Plaza, so I spent a good deal of time there outside of school. She took a job at another Moore elementary school and transferred me there for first and second grades.

“(The school was) rough. I was a transfer student, so I could be at the same school as my mom. And I knew we had more money and were better off than most of the other kids. My parents often bought shoes and clothes for kids there who didn't have them.

“(I remember) the way the cafeteria smelled. Not a bad smell, but it was also doubled as the space for mom's P.E. classes. I was also part of her jump rope team, the Jump Busters. Also, I was one of the only kids who got to go to the teacher's lounge because of my mom.”

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Summer Loveless

Former student

Summer Loveless attended Plaza Towers Elementary School from kindergarten through sixth grade in the 1980s. She lives in south Oklahoma City.

“I still have people in my life that I've known since kindergarten. When I was in Moore, I graduated from Moore High School, just like my dad did. I'm from the Moore that's a really, really, really small town. ... It was just a small town when I attended there. I stayed all night with my friends on my street, playing games. It just had a small-town feel. You're community. You're family.

“I can remember my first day of kindergarten and I can remember my last day of sixth grade. My first day of kindergarten, I just remember bringing the students that were upset about their parents leaving to a table and giving them activities. I just remember comforting the students that were there.

“I was in the closet with my little girl. We were watching cartoons on our iPad. That's what we were doing. I had food and other supplies if necessary packed away with a bunch of pillows. It's what you do. They said that the tornado had hit Moore. Of course, I was getting in touch with family and sending text messages and trying to hear from everybody I could think of. My mom called me, and she said, 'I'm OK.' And I said, 'OK. Is the house OK?' She said, 'Well, not really but it could be worse.' ... That's before she knew anything about the school.

“It's a family. From the outside, it may seem like it's an economic boom, but at the heart of that town is a close-knit family.

“It's like so many other schools in the district.”

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David Moore

Former principal

David Moore was the principal of Plaza Towers Elementary School for 12 years before moving to the new Oakridge Elementary School in 2010.

“It was a good spectrum of kiddos from the district. It's kind of like one of the old schools where it's a walking, neighborhood kind of a school. The people around the neighborhood were great.

“I really feel like it was a whole community of people there. It takes the parents working with the teachers and the teachers working hard with the kids and the kids responding, doing their best as well. That's what we tried to do, and that's what they continue to do there.

“When I was there, and even now, the community was taking part and chipping ... (to) make it the best school they could.

“We did a morning Rise and Shine every day, and I think they still do that. To me, it helps start your day off the right way. It's just our morning open each day. It lasts 10, 15 minutes. The kids come in and we do our salute to the flag. We do announcements, tell everybody what's for lunch. We sing some songs together. Then we had a school song at the end.

“I went to school there when it was first built. The school opened in '66. When I had a chance to go back there, I was excited to go back. I called it going back home. We have a lot of people like that. Our superintendent and our newly-elected superintendent come July, we've all grown up in Moore, so we're proud of Moore.

“I know (current principal) Ms. (Amy) Simpson does a great job over there, and the teachers rallied together - just worked hard for the kids. Mrs. Simpson is a very positive person. She'd always have a smile on her face. That's what I appreciate about her being there.”

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Susie Pierce

Superintendent

Susie Pierce has spent her whole life in Moore Public Schools. She attended as a student and was a member of the second graduating class from Moore High School. Then she spent her career as a teacher and administrator. Now she is the superintendent.

“It was a Monday morning, and we have a little bit of a different routine on Mondays, because we have our weekly staff meeting at 9 o'clock.

“Graduation, preparing for the last day of school, ending of school activities, when grades would be posted. ... We would have opened negotiations with our teachers on that Friday. That was one of the things we were looking at. Basically just end-of-school stuff with concentration on graduation.

“One of the things we talked about was weather Monday because we knew that there was the potential. There was a heightened threat for tornadoes.

“We weren't ready to call evening activities yet or anything. This time of year, there's no time to make it up.

“I remember thinking the next morning that none of those things that I had thought about or worried about the day before really even mattered anymore. It was all just so different.”

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Chikage Windler

Former student

Chikage Windler attended Plaza Towers Elementary School in the early 1980s until her family moved to Tulsa in sixth grade. Windler attended the University of Oklahoma and is now chief meteorologist for KEYE television station in Austin, Texas. Her parents, Mike and Kazuko Windler, still live by the school. Their home had minimal damage.

“My job is to keep people safe as a meteorologist. To see people in harm's way is always tough. ... I knew that the track was heading in that direction. ... All I could think about was the neighborhood I grew up in, my school memories and watching everything. I've got two young children. It's every parent's worst nightmare, what happened there. As a meteorologist, do you send them south? Did they have time? There are all these things that you wonder. Could people have done anything different? Could that have made the difference?

“I had such a good experience. I always smile when I think about Plaza. In second grade, I was a cheerleader for the Plaza Towers Roadrunners. Black and gold uniforms and our pompons. Every memory I have of Plaza was just what a great place it was to grow up.

“I just see this happen to a place that I remember as only positive - I'm just heartbroken. I think it was because I felt like I knew everybody. I was in Camp Fire girls and Brownies. I would go to all my friends' houses, and we all went to the same school and all the parents knew each other. The PTA was super active. It fostered kids and parents taking care of the neighborhood and the families.

“The homes in there, they were little bitty homes. They weren't glamorous. They weren't fancy. But that was home for me.”

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Jacquie and Cort Nayphe

Third-grade mother, and student

Jacquie Nayphe has one son who attends Plaza Towers Elementary School. Cort was in third grade. During a reunion party for students and teachers, she talked about what her son went through in the storm.

“He was one of the first ones pulled out. Luckily, my husband had gotten there just in time. He was at Southmoore (high school) with my oldest son. The minute he heard it hit Plaza Towers, he bee-lined it out of there. The police weren't even at Plaza Towers yet. Luckily, like five guys had pulled Cort out and ... my husband came around the corner and got him pretty quick. We were very lucky and fortunate that he was able to get him out of there before, you know, he got to see any of that. It was very scary, very scary.

“He told me he was hunkered down. One of the teachers, I think her name is Ms. Gonzalez, was on top of him and had his backpack on his head and that him and one of his friends were holding hands. And then he said, next thing he knows, there was noise and men pulling him out.

“That's what I told Ms. Littlejohn: 'Y'all saved his life.' I mean, I can't imagine what they went through, and they did everything they could for them. I just can't. It hasn't quite all hit me yet. He's fine. He's perfectly fine. He lucked out. God was definitely watching over him.

“I don't force him to talk about it. He just tells me a little bit every day. He's pretty clingy right now. Today, it was storming. We were staying with family in Piedmont, and we were getting ready to come here, and he was like, 'I don't want to go.' And I said, 'No, we're going. There's no tornadoes. You need to go see your friends.'

“I have a feeling that we've got a lot ahead of us to go through. ... Our house, it's still standing, but it will probably be knocked down. We haven't even discussed if we're going to rebuild in the same place or what we're going to do.”

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Monica Palmore

Fourth-grade student

Fourth-grader Monica Palmore rode out the storm with her mother and her brother, a sixth-grader, in a bathroom at Plaza Towers Elementary School. After the tornado tore apart the school, the family ran home to rescue the father.

“I was in my other class, my math. Her name is Ms. (Kimberly) Martinez. I was in her class at the time.

“We heard the sirens and then the intercom went on. Our principal said, 'Everybody get in your tornado positions.' Our teacher had us grab our math books, and we sat outside. Everybody grabbed their bag, too.

“Our teachers tried to get us calm and stuff. Our teachers said, 'It's OK. It's all right.'

“We just ducked down, and she told us to get our math books and put them over our heads. We went in the hallway, but then everybody kept getting checked out and stuff.

“We went to a hall and then a few minutes passed and then she (my mother) came and then I heard my name and I went with her.

“Then we were going to leave but then we stopped because we heard the sirens or something. I don't know. We stopped, and we went in the hallway and then we went in the bathroom. We stayed there.

“One of my friends said they were stuck in the stalls. They had to, like, push it to get out.

“I felt kind of safe and glad she (mother) was there. I thought she wouldn't be there. If she wasn't there, I would have gotten scared and stuff.

“It was scary. ... It was shaking the school and stuff. Then we heard it. The roof came off. I looked up. I was so scared. I saw the tornado swirling. We saw cars. We saw cars flying up. I looked up. It was so scary. People looked up, and we could see it going around and around. I was holding on to my mom. Some of the roof went off. When the roof went off, some of the stuff fell down on us. I've got a bunch of scratches.

“(After we got out) I was crying and running home. I was scared. We all ran. And then I didn't know what to do so I kept running to my house. We kind of got lost because all of the houses were down. Some of the signs are all knocked off.

“I was close (to my father) and I heard him say, 'Help, I'm over here! Help me! I'm down here!' Underneath all the stuff. It went on him. He was running out of air. ... I was just looking at them digging him out and stuff. I guess one of them saw his hand so they started digging him out. They finally realized where he was.”