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Story behind the photo: Family members describe desperate search for one another after EF5 twister

They feared the worst after learning youngest son's school had been destroyed.
by Juliana Keeping Published: May 23, 2013

The sky went dark. The sirens screamed.

Robert Raymond just made it into Southmoore High School to pick up his two teenage children, Robert, 18, and Lily, 17.

His daughter was worried about the storm.

It was Monday, the last week of school.

School officials pulled Robert and Lily's dad, an Air Force sergeant, into a windowless room.

The rain poured down.

The siblings took cover in classrooms in different parts of the high school.

An EF5 monster stretched toward the ground.

The tornado was coming.

Robert Raymond and a few other adults briefly left the inner room to see where it was.

“I went out back, and I started taking video of the tornado,” he said. “We could tell it was coming toward us. We ran back inside, got in the offices and hunkered down.”

Lily and her brother took cover in separate classrooms.

Meantime, their mother, Monica Raymond, hid in a freezer with strangers at the local Walmart where she worked as a customer service manager.

The twister kept coming, grinding, grinding, grinding.

It headed toward Briarwood Elementary School, nearby, in adjacent south Oklahoma City.

Inside, the family's youngest son, Ethan, 11, braced for impact.

As Ethan and his classmates hid in a bathroom, a tornado destroyed the building around them, but everybody at the school survived.

Then it was over.

Robert Raymond walked outside the high school. The principal broke the news: Briarwood had been hit.

“My heart just sank,” he said. “My youngest son was in that school.

Robert Raymond texted his wife the news.

“I lost it,” she said.

Cellphone service went out.

“I didn't know what was going on,” she said.

Before he could try to find his youngest boy, Raymond had to collect his teenagers. And he had to deliver the news the tornado destroyed their brother's school.

The high school released children to parents who were present.

School officials called his son and daughter to the front of the school.

Robert Raymond told them about Briarwood.

“There was a look of terror,” Raymond said. “We were all just scared.”

They were scared and they were stuck at the school. No one could drive anywhere because downed power lines crisscrossed the roads.

At the Walmart, Monica got in a car with a co-worker and rode toward the collapsed elementary school. She got as close as she could. Then she got out of the car and walked toward the school on foot.

Robert Raymond, his son and daughter just started running from the high school to the elementary school about a mile away.

“I did not stop,” Lily Raymond said. “I just ran. I ran from Southmoore.”

The family members sprinted through the neighborhood toward the devastation.

Lily saw the destruction and panicked. She started hyperventilating.

“It was awful,” she said.

Robert Raymond screamed his son's name again and again.

And then, there he was.

“His teacher was holding onto him the whole time,” his father said.

“She brought him over. She was crying. I was crying. My son was in shock. My daughter got over there first and just scooped him up.”

A picture taken by Oklahoman photographer Paul Hellstern captured the moment.

Seconds after they spotted him, the family members had reached Ethan and hugged each other tight.

“It was so emotional,” the father said.

Monica Raymond saw her family together as they walked through the battered city of Moore.

“We met in the middle of the street,” Robert Raymond said. “That was such an amazing moment — to know that my family is safe.”

The family's home nearby in the Westmoor addition survived the tornado though it pummeled some of the neighbors' homes.

“I feel fortunate knowing that I still have a home,” Robert Raymond said.

Now the family is gearing up to help those who lost more during the tornado that took 24 lives, including seven third grade students at nearby Plaza Towers Elementary, which was also destroyed.

“There's so much around there that's all gone,” Robert Raymond said. “We gotta pull together and help people out while times are rough.”

by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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