NORMAN — Like many who suffered through the tragic events in Moore less than a month ago, the life that Aaron Wright Gray knew before May 20 has forever been changed.
Formerly the entertainment editor at The Transcript, Gray is now the children’s department manager at the Southwest Oklahoma City Public Library. Part of Gray’s job is to go to schools in the Moore area to visit with children about the library’s summer reading program. On May 20, Gray was doing just that at Briarwood Elementary.
About the time the tornado was heading toward Moore, Gray was actually wrapping up her visit at the school.
“In my last presentation, I would say roughly 2:40-2:45, there was a loud clap of thunder and someone came on the intercom and said, ‘If you are in a portable building, come into the building.’ Even though I knew there was a chance of severe weather, I didn’t think we were in tornadic activity. I thought we were just about to have some thunder and lightning,” Gray said.
Soon, Gray said, the school was told to take tornado precautions. Gray started checking in with friends and family on her cell phone, but was having trouble getting service.
“A friend sent me a text as it started to get dark, she said, ‘It’s really big. They are saying get out or get underground.’ At that point, I really started to get worried,” Gray said.
Teachers and staff first told Gray to huddle in a hallway of the school with students. Then, she was told to move into a bathroom.
Still trying to get texts from the outside world, Gray began to hear the powerful tornado as it barreled through the Oklahoma skies.
“For me, when I heard it and the way it got louder, I thought it was going to hit us. Everyone got really quiet because you could hear it hit the building. I felt it because I was by the door. And I smelled it because it had gone through all those pastures. To me, it smelled like fresh cut grass,” Gray said.
Gray is uncertain how many students were in the bathroom with her that historic day at Briarwood Elementary. She was the last one in the bathroom before the room went dark. But, Gray still managed to make a connection with a mom that had found herself at Briarwood that day, too.
“The mom next to me started praying out loud. I leaned over the boy next to me and grabbed her and started praying with her. I prayed through the whole tornado. All I could hear was myself praying,” Gray said.
That prayer, Gray remembers, resembled something like, “God, please keep us safe. Please keep these kids safe. Please send your angels to surround this building.”
After the tornado passed the school, Gray estimates it took everyone to evacuate the rubble about one or two minutes.
“We were really lucky and only the ceiling fell on us. Kids, when they saw their school building, they cried more. I walked by the library, and it was gone. That was a shock. The whole thing took 20 minutes,” Gray said.
Trying to wrap her mind around what had just happened, Gray started looking for her car that had been in the parking lot just a short time ago.
“I realized my car was gone. Then I realized all of the cars were gone,” Gray said.
Although it was understandably chaotic the first few minutes after the building was struck, Gray was amazed how fast first responders were at the school to offer help.
“One thing that I thought was amazing, people were just rushing out to the school to see if the kids were OK,” Gray said.
Moments after the tornado passed, Gray tried to get text messages to family and friends to let them know she was OK. But there also was that woman in the bathroom that Gray shared a prayerful experience with.
“I’m really glad that lady started to pray out loud because I think that was blessing me. I felt at that time, a prayer said out loud, over kids and over the people there, I felt that was more powerful. And I only wish I had thought to connect everyone earlier and pray,” Gray said. “That mom, she was such an inspiration to me. Afterward she turned to me and she said, ‘I can tell you are my sister in Christ.’ And I never saw her again. I know she is OK. I appreciate her starting that prayer out loud.”
Gray admits that living through a tornado is not for the faint at heart. But the experience also made her think about accountability.
“No one knew I was there. That was scary to me because I don’t work there. And even though my calendar at work said I would be there, I stayed an extra 15 minutes to finish a program. I could have been at another school, I could have been driving,” Gray said. “My mom asked me, ‘Did you ever think that this could be it, I’m going to die?’ I didn’t even think that because it happened so fast. And also you couldn’t. You had to think, this is the best you can do at this moment. Later I thought, what if I had died? I was really thankful that at that moment I had no regrets. I feel like everyone knows I love them. I feel really happy with my life and my friends and family and my marriage that I was, ‘If it were to happen, I wouldn’t be if only, if only.’”
The whole experience has made Gray feel connected to the school community.
“I’d really like to find a way to help Briarwood rebuild its library. I can’t imagine that there was anything salvageable,” Gray said.
Having been in an actual school during an EF-5 tornado, Gray now knows the importance of having proper shelter in schools.
“The building we were in was OK. We were in the newest part of the building. Our walls held and the ceiling, when it came in, the beams at top were still there. Even if when they are building schools, they can give notice to that type of structure and make sure the interior rooms are reinforced. Our area really fared well and I know that wasn’t the case for all of Briarwood,” Gray said.
Although this life changing experience has impacted Gray forever, she still counts her blessings.
“I know I went through it, but I feel like I’m so much luckier than many people in my life. That’s something to keep in perspective. When I walked out and knew my car was gone, I didn’t even care. I’m so happy to be here and it just made me thankful,” Gray said.