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Survivor remembers: 'I just kept screaming for help'

By Ken Raymond Published: May 1, 2009
Renee Faulkinberry huddled in the bedroom closet with her 16-year-old daughter.

They had a blanket and a pillow, and Faulkinberry was talking to her sister on the telephone. The first windows shattered. The wind roared. “I have to let you go!” Faulkinberry yelled into the phone. “It’s here!”

Then nothing.

The air was sucked out of the house, which the Faulkinberrys had closed on three days earlier. The Country Place addition near SW 138 and Pennsylvania Avenue was brand new, filled with pristine brick homes and neighbors who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet.

Faulkinberry, now 49, doesn’t remember what happened after she hung up the phone. Neither does her daughter.

The best they can figure, both blacked out as the F5 tornado devoured their home and neighborhood, tearing through fresh brick and mortar as if it was paper. When they came to, Faulkinberry called out to her daughter, who replied that she was OK.

“All I could see was blood coming down my arm and down my face,” Faulkinberry said recently. “I remember her getting out and me lying there waiting for her to get help. It seemed like forever. I didn’t hear anybody, and I kept screaming for help.”

She was trapped in the rubble. As her eyes cleared, she could see a broken board hanging right above her face. When rescuers began digging her free, she feared the board would break loose and strike her.

Unexpected discovery

Oklahoma City police Sgt. David Baxter heard people shouting that someone was trapped.

Minutes before the tornado struck, Baxter was at his home near SW 149 and Western Avenue. Television meteorologists had said the tornado was headed directly for his house, so he rushed there from an off-duty job to take his wife and 6-year-old son to safety.

At the last minute, the tornado shifted to the north, bypassing his addition and turning toward Faulkinberry’s. Baxter left his family at home and followed the tornado’s path.

By the time he got to Country Place, he said, “the neighborhood was gone. It was completely flattened.”

He followed the shouts and found Faulkinberry amid the wreckage of her house. Neighbors and other law officers surrounded her.

“We pulled some rubble up,” he said. “We began pulling her out. ... Blood was coming down the side of her face, but it wasn’t like she was completely cut open.”

She was trapped for about 30 minutes. Baxter and a state trooper walked Faulkinberry down a mound of debris and got her seated on the ground, awaiting medical attention. Instantly, someone shouted that another person was hurt across the street. Baxter ran to help, not expecting to see someone he knew.

Dixie Szymanski, a civilian employee of the police department, lay in the yard. She wouldn’t wake up.

‘The house exploded’

Dixie and her husband, Master Sgt. John Szymanski, had just moved into their new Country Place home. They’d been married about a year.

John had the day off.

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