The Times West Virginian

Headline News

May 22, 2013

Teachers credited with saving students in Oklahoma

MOORE, Okla. — The principal’s voice came on over the intercom at Plaza Towers Elementary School: A severe storm was approaching and students were to go to the cafeteria and wait for their parents to pick them up.

But before all the youngsters could get there, the tornado alarm sounded.

The plan changed quickly.

“All the teachers started screaming into the room and saying, ‘Get into the hallway! We don’t want you to die!’ and stuff like that,” said sixth-grader Phaedra Dunn. “We just took off running.”

In the moments that followed, some of the children at Plaza Towers Elementary would, in fact, die. At least seven were killed by the twister Monday afternoon. Others would crawl out of the rubble, bloodied and bruised, utterly terrified.

The tornado that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people destroyed Plaza Towers and also slammed Briarwood Elementary, where all the children appear to have survived. Students and parents recounted stories Tuesday of brave teachers who sheltered their pupils, in some cases by herding them into a closet and a restroom amid the fear and panic.

After the tornado alarm went off, students at Plaza Towers scrambled into the halls. But the halls — some of which were within the view of windows — did not appear safe enough.

Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys’ bathroom.

“We were all piled in on each other,” the 12-year-old said. Another teacher wrapped her arms around two students and held Antonio’s hand.

Twenty seconds later he heard a roar that sounded like a stampede of elephants. His ears popped.

Then it all stopped almost as suddenly as it started. Crouched down, his backpack over his head, Antonio looked up. The skylight and the ceiling were gone, and he was staring up into a cloud filled with debris.

Antonio and a friend were among the first to stand up. They climbed over debris where their classroom had been just moments earlier. Students and teachers were struggling to free themselves from under the bricks, wooden beams and insulation. Some people had bleeding head wounds; blood covered one side of someone’s eyeglasses, Antonio said.

“Everybody was crying,” Antonio said. “I was crying because I didn’t know if my family was OK.”

Then Antonio saw his father ride up on a mountain bike, yelling his son’s name.

Phaedra survived, too. Her mother rushed to the school just moments before the tornado hit, covered Phaedra’s head with a blanket to protect her from hail and ushered her out the door. Phaedra’s 10-year-old sister, Jenna, didn’t want to budge from the school.

The principal “grabbed her backpack, put it over her head and literally said, ‘Your mom’s going to open the door. Get out. You’re safer with your mom,’ and pushed her out the door,” said Amy Sharp, the girls’ mother.

At Briarwood Elementary, the students also went into the halls. But a third-grade teacher didn’t think it looked safe, so she herded some of the children into a closet, said David Wheeler, one of the fathers who tried to rush to the school after the tornado hit.

The teacher shielded Wheeler’s 8-year-old son, Gabriel, with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it literally sucked glasses off kids’ faces, Wheeler said.

“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” Wheeler said.

Gabriel and the teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — had to dig their way out of the rubble. The boy’s back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head, Wheeler said. It took nearly three hours for father and son to be reunited.

Other parents waited even longer, as they drove from one emergency shelter to another in search of their children.

At St. Andrews United Methodist Church, 15-year-old Caitlin Ulrey waited about seven hours before her parents found her. Her high school had not been hit by the tornado. But her nerves were frayed.

“I was starting to panic and shake and have an anxiety attack,” Caitlin said.

At Plaza Towers, several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried dazed and terrified children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot.

Hundreds of Oklahoma schools have reinforced tornado shelters, but not the two that were hit on Monday.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said it is up to each jurisdiction to set priorities for which schools get funding for safe rooms. But he said a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at Plaza Towers. The tornado was an EF5 twister, the most powerful type, with winds of at least 200 mph.

“When you talk about any kind of safety measures ... it’s a mitigating measure, it’s not an absolute,” Ashwood said. “There’s not a guarantee that everyone will be totally safe.”

Moore School Superintendent Susan Pierce said teachers and administrators put their well-rehearsed crisis plan into action as the tornado approached. But she suggested there are limits to what people can do in the face of such a powerful storm.

“Safety is our main priority,” Pierce said. “We monitored the weather throughout the day and when it was time to shelter, we did just that.”

1
Text Only
Headline News
  • Colorado deaths stoke worries about pot edibles

    A college student eats more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumps to his death from a hotel balcony. A husband with no history of violence is accused of shooting his wife in the head, possibly after eating pot-infused candy.

    April 19, 2014

  • Everest avalanche kills at least 12

    An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, killing at least 12 Nepalese guides and leaving four missing in the deadliest disaster on the world’s highest peak. Several more were injured.

    April 19, 2014

  • Diplomacy doesn’t move insurgents in Ukraine

    Pro-Russian insurgents defiantly refused Friday to surrender their weapons or give up government buildings in eastern Ukraine, despite a diplomatic accord reached in Geneva and overtures from the government in Kiev.

    April 19, 2014

  • Clinton to Obama: Many parallels

    Thousands of pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s White House affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    As Clinton prepared for an August 1994 news conference in which he hoped to build public support for his struggling — and ultimately unsuccessful — health care overhaul, he told his advisers: “A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.”

    April 19, 2014

  • Obama voices skepticism on Russia in Ukraine

    President Barack Obama conveyed skepticism Thursday about Russian promises to de-escalate a volatile situation in Ukraine, and said the United State and its allies are ready to impose fresh sanctions if Moscow doesn’t make good on its commitments.

    April 18, 2014

  • President defending health-care law good for some Democrats

    President Barack Obama’s full-throated defense of his health-care overhaul seems perfectly timed for Democrats who want their party to embrace the law more enthusiastically.
    At a White House news conference Thursday, Obama noted that health insurance enrollments under the new law are higher than expected, and costs are lower.

    April 18, 2014

  • Deal reached on calming Ukraine tensions — for now

    In a surprise accord, Ukraine and Russia agreed Thursday on tentative steps to halt violence and calm tensions along their shared border after more than a month of Cold War-style military posturing triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

    April 18, 2014

  • Boston Marathon organizers confident of safe race

    The arrest of a man with a rice cooker in his backpack near the Boston Marathon finish line led police to step up patrols Wednesday, while organizers sought to assure the city and runners of a safe race next week.
    The actions of the man, whose mother said he had a mental disorder, rattled nerves as Boston prepared for the annual race, but authorities said they did not consider it a security breach.

    April 17, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.51.22 PM.png VIDEO: Toddler climbs into vending machine

    A child is safe after climbing into and getting stuck inside a claw crane machine at a Lincoln, Neb., bowling alley Monday.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Solemn tributes mark Boston Marathon bombing anniversary

    Survivors, first responders and relatives of those killed in the Boston Marathon bombing marked the anniversary Tuesday with tributes that combined sorrow over the loss of innocent victims with pride over the city’s resilience in the face of a terror attack.

    April 16, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads