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STORM'S PATH HAS NO PITY

By Tony Thornton Modified: May 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm •  Published: May 1, 2009
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photo - Tornado damage: Regency Park housing Addition looking east from Sunset   towards Moore's First Baptist Church, and the traffic on I-35.
Tornado damage: Regency Park housing Addition looking east from Sunset towards Moore's First Baptist Church, and the traffic on I-35.
Still, it seems as if the storm took a 12-minute breather after Bridge Creek before unleashing a blitzkrieg.

Southwest Oklahoma City

South of SW 134 and west of Pennsylvania, half of the 100 homes in the Country Place addition are gone - or soon will be. Homes in the southern part took the full brunt of the storm. The addition, with homes ranging from $120,000 to $125,000, is 3 years old. Many of those destroyed were still under construction.

"We had two people who closed on their house Friday, and then this happens on Monday," said Scott Frakes, a sales director for the development's builder, Ideal Homes.

It's easy to tell which homes will be bulldozed. They're the ones on which an insurance company's name has been painted into the brick in foot-tall letters.

One man died in this addition on SW 136 Place, five houses down from where Bill Warmker was taking a nap minutes before he lost his roof. The phone woke him just in time for him to put the van in the garage, then call his parents and tell them he loved them. He suspected it would be his last phone call.

Two blocks away, one home is reduced to its slab and its mangled contents. Its bathtub remains virtually intact, except for the splintered 2-by-4 that now pierces one corner. The home's occupants hid in that tub and escaped unharmed.

"It's stories like that that remind you there is a God," Warmker said.

The tornado reached 1 1/4 miles wide here before narrowing as it crossed Pennsylvania, almost as if zeroing in on Westmoore High School and the Eastlake addition between SW 134 and SW 125. Some 200 homes were destroyed here, with a similar number damaged.

Southeast of the intersection of SW 119 and Western, Jim Wilkerson points past the rubble where his porch used to be. Replacing his home is the least of his worries. Wilkerson's wife of 51 years, Aleatha "Lee" Wilkerson, died when their patio home collapsed on them as they clutched each other in the bathtub.

Wilkerson remembers telling his wife not to worry - he was sure it would go east of their home. At worst, he told her, we might lose the roof.

"The last thing she said to me was, 'What's that noise?' That's when we got in the tub. We were side by side. I knew we were in trouble then," he said.

It was 7:20 p.m.

The Wilkersons' son, Jimmy, and 14-year-old grandson, Seth, were the first to arrive a few minutes later, running from their own destroyed home six doors down.

"It's all just kindling now," Wilkerson said, pointing to the piles of debris that were his and his neighbors' homes.

Though it took his wife, Jim Wilkerson vows to rebuild. He'll have an easier time than most. He and his son own a construction company.

"This is home," the son said. "We have to rebuild. We have no other options."

Moore

After ravaging Westmoore High School, the Emerald Springs Apartments and the Greenbriar Eastlake Patio Home addition where the Wilkersons lived, the tornado's strength and appetite grew.

Meteorologists said the tornado resumed F-5 status near NW 12 Street and Santa Fe Avenue in Moore. The evidence can be seen at a Moore church that was literally scraped off its foundation. All that remains is the concrete slab.

Shortly after slamming into the church and a group of neighboring businesses, the tornado swept into one of the most densely populated areas in Moore - Regency Park.

Filled mostly with older homes, the tornado cut a path nearly a half-mile wide. All that remained at most home sites were a few standing walls. Others were completely blown away. Tracking northeast, it just missed an apartment complex. But it wrecked hundreds of homes and a school before crossing Interstate 35.

By this time, the tornado had lost some of its punch. But it was still an F-4 and had plenty of fury for its next target, the Highland Park addition.

After ripping through the southern edge of the Moore business park, the twister jumped over Interstate 35 and slammed into a hotel and an apartment complex. It worked its way through the housing addition, ripping up hundreds of houses, damaging First Baptist Church and demolishing an oil well service company.

Still nearly a half-mile wide, the tornado destroyed some homes on rural property before making a sharp turn north along Eastern Avenue and rebuilding to F-4 level.

At Moore's north edge, the nine-hole Lakeside golf course is a desolate wasteland. The clubhouse is gone, and the putting green bears gashes three inches deep where the tornado peeled the turf. It's inconceivable that new branches will sprout on the bark-free trees left standing. Motorized golf carts were swept away, but many of the batteries that made them run are scattered on the fairways. Earth is torn back to reveal irrigation lines.

Clearly, this will never be a golf course again.

The toll in Moore: seven killed; 894 homes, 275 apartments and 50 businesses destroyed; at least 4,000 other homes damaged.

Southeast Oklahoma City

Finally, a sign of mercy: The tornado bypassed Crossroads Mall and concentrated its 200-plus-mph winds on a rural stretch between Eastern and Bryant.

Along SE 89, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway has erected a 250-foot microwave tower to replace the crumpled mass of steel that lies in two pieces. The tornado disrupted the railroad's communications for all of Oklahoma.

On Bryant, trash trucks arrive every few seconds to the tornado debris site immediately south of Oklahoma City's main dump. There workers will sort through the remains of more than 1,000 homes for recyclables.

Across the street is a trucking company where two people died.

Thirty-foot trees lining Interstate 240's north service road act as backstops for strips of sheet metal, fencing and other debris.

At Sunnylane, the tornado narrowed to less than a quarter-mile briefly, saving the Dolese concrete block plant from utter destruction. Instead, the monster braced for one final, four-mile attack, turned north again and spread its fury over two housing additions between SE 59 and SE 29 and between Sunnylane and Sooner Road.

Del City and Midwest City

Much of the Del Aire addition looks like a pile of pick-up sticks. From Bismarc Street, one can see the entire subdivision. Only 2-foot-tall piles of rubble block the view. Military Humvees guard Del Aire's entrances.

Inexplicably, but mercifully, the storm spared two large apartment complexes by switching directions at Del Aire's north edge. Instead, it turned east and took out a baseball field and industrial park.

As it snaked into Midwest City, the tornado crossed Interstate 40 and obliterated the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, a motel and several homes and businesses, but skipped over the Sweetbriar Nursing Home.

A vacant lot near the nursing home is indistinguishable from what used to be neighboring houses in the Crosby addition.

In Midwest City, three people died immediately and two others died in hospitals during the next week.

Near the intersection of Air Depot and NE 10, the tornado meekly returned to the sky. It left behind a 38-mile path of death, bitterness, sympathy, mourning, bewilderment, gratitude and, in the case of widower Jim Wilkerson, pragmatism.

"You can run but you can't hide when it comes to Mother Nature," he said.

Staff writers Bob Cramer, Bob Doucette, Amy Greene and Christy Watson contributed to this report.


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