Wrenching Decisions as Tornado Flattens School

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Brett Deering / Getty Images

Downed utility poles block the road as a family walks south on Sante Fe Avenue at SW 19th Street on May 21, 2013 in Moore, Okla.

As soon as she heard the tornado siren start to wail on Monday, Tracy Stephen rushed to Plaza Towers Elementary School to pick up her 6-year-old daughter Abigail. But when she got there the doors were sealed, the school locked down as a tornado with winds over 200 m.p.h. (322 km/h) drew near.

Stymied, Stephen returned home and hustled her two younger daughters into a neighbor’s cellar, just minutes before the tornado flattened the family’s home on Sixth Street West in Moore. Emerging from the shelter, she could only pray that Abigail’s school had fared better. In fact, Plaza Towers had been reduced to rubble. Seven students were among the 24 killed in the disaster, according to officials.

Stephen was one of many parents who beat a path for the school as soon as the tornado cleared. “I was like a crazy person, running towards the wreckage,” she says. “Wailing.” A mother of a classmate told her that Abigail had been killed in the collapse – a horrific mistake, it turned out, one of many in the tornado’s chaotic aftermath. Abigail, who is autistic, was waiting at a nearby home after being saved by a teaching aide, who had thrown her body over the little girl and taken the brunt of the collapse (the aide was hospitalized but is expected to recover).

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Concerned about his daughter’s safety, Patrick Smith picked her up from Plaza Towers early on Monday. After riding out the tornado in his bathtub, covered by a mattress, Smith, a first responder at Cimarron Energy, made his way back to the school to help. He found dozens of kids trapped under collapsed walls, stuck in the debris. As he and other responders lifted what had earlier been parts of a classroom, he said the kids remained on the ground, too afraid to look up.

Though Stephen and Smith are thankful for their children’s lives, they are among a number of Plaza Elementary parents wondering if even more could have been saved by canceling classes for tornadoes and requiring schools to have safe spaces that can withstand them.

“People keep talking about how we only had a 16-minute warning,” says Greg Terrell, 34, a mechanical engineer from Moore who has three children. “In all reality, we’d been talking about that day for a week – that day when you know the tornadoes are going to hit, you’re just not sure precisely where. They’ll cancel school for a snow day. Why can’t they cancel it for a threat like that?”

School superintendent Susie Pierce sent an e-mail at 1:11 p.m., before the tornado, alerting all principals and school administrators that after-school activities would be canceled, but they intended to let schools out as usual at 3 p.m. That news was passed down to the parents through phone trees and text messages. Some parents went right away to pick up their kids.

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“I got there within an hour,” says Angie Tennyson, who has two kids in the Moore school system. “And people look at you funny when you take these warnings that seriously. But I’m glad I did. We made it into the shelter with just minutes to spare.”

That said, Tennyson doesn’t think tornado warnings should trigger automatic snow days. “There’d be no school between February and August,” Tennyson says, laughing. “It’s a small place that a tornado actually hits, and the area of the warning zone is huge.”

The decision to lock down or allow children to leave — potentially walking out into dangerous weather — is a wrenching one, says Darry Stacy, Cleveland County commissioner. Moore is in Cleveland County, as is neighboring Norman. “Last year we had a similar dilemma in Norman where there was a lightning storm just as school was getting out. We had to ask ourselves: Is it safer to let children out into a potentially dangerous situation or keep them inside, where it may be safer?” Stacy says. “Ultimately, it was decided inside was safer.”

Despite being in the heart of Tornado Alley, Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary do not have safe rooms in the event of a tornado — unlike some other area schools. “We should have had something,” says Smith. “Somewhere to go.”

(VIDEO: Family Emerges From Tornado Shelter to Witness Carnage)

Carrie Long spent much of Saturday salvaging clothing from the ruins of her home in Moore. The 40-year-old rental-car agent has two kids in the Moore school system: a 13-year-old at Highland West Middle School and a 14-year-old at South Moore High School. Long believes more safe rooms would be the best way to address the problem. “If I’d gotten my kids out and taken them home, they’d be dead,” Long says, her eyes welling up with tears as she clutched a garbage bag full of muddy clothes. “There’s just nothing left of our home.”

Before Monday’s tornado, there had also been a debate about whether schools should be used as shelters. “People think because it’s bigger, it’s safer,” says Kristy Yager, the public-information officer for the City of Oklahoma City. “Well, we learned today the hard way that just because it’s bigger, it’s by no means safer.”

Pierce choked back tears as she apologized for the loss of life at a press conference on Tuesday. “When our children are at school, they are in our care,” she said, reading from a statement. “Moore public schools, the City of Moore and the people of Moore have suffered a devastating disaster.” Pierce said Moore schools practice more tornado drills than required by law and that the students and teachers enacted the emergency plan put in place. Still, she said, “we are reviewing our emergency procedures today.”

Some disasters, however, will trump the best preparation. “No drill — no safe room, even — is going to help when the whole school falls down,” says Jeremy Lewis, the public-information officer for the Moore police.

— With reporting by James McGirk / Moore

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