The Norman Transcript

May 25, 2013

Sharing stories of survival

By Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Norman Transcript

MOORE — As Monday’s EF-5 tornado moved closer to Plaza Towers Elementary School, teacher Justin Ayers knew they were in its path.

Ayers said all of the teachers at the site likely knew what was coming from television reports and they had been communicating by various means. Part of the information shared was their locations, so that when it was over the teachers and students could be found.

“As the storm moved closer, it was obvious we were going to be hit,” said Ayers, a 5th grade social studies teacher at the school.

Ayers said the students in his area on the east side of the building, fourth, fifth and sixth graders were in a

hallway per tornado protocol. Some were in the bathroom. He made his way around the building several times and watched the 1.3-mile-wide twister approach.

“It was big. It was a very big,” Ayers said. “I could see the neighborhood to our west — gone. Cars were beginning to move from the parking lot towards us.”

His first thought was the cars could become airborne projectiles and strike the building. He didn’t know what the impact would be. Due to that threat, he re-entered the building a few minutes before the tornado struck and went into a restroom, the most central location, where they huddled as close together as they could. It’s not procedure to take cover in a bathroom, but as soon as the order was made the children responded.

At that time, the skylights were being sucked out of the building, Ayers said. The roof was peeling back.

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Over at Briarwood Elementary, Principal Shelley McMillin said a lot of prayers were being said.

“We prayed a lot to God,” she said.

McMillin said she could hear grinding noises, walls being torn apart. She looked up and the ceiling was gone. She could see debris spinning in the tornado.

“It looked like it was in slow motion,” she said.

After the tornado passed, McMillin her thoughts remained on the safety of the children.

“I yelled as loud as I could ‘I have second graders trapped,’” she said.

All of the Briarwood students got out alive, McMillin said. The teachers were calm. She didn’t see teachers panic or scream.

They ignored their injuries and took the remaining children out.

Back at Plaza Towers, Principal Amy Simpson knew the tornado coming. She got on the intercom and made an announcement: “It’s coming. Stay down and cover your heads.”

Finally, Simpson took cover. “You heard it coming.” She said it’s cliché, that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but it’s true.” Outside, she could hear the wind, which began moving things around; peak winds have been estimated to be 200-210 mph. Debris started falling. “It shook us,” she said.

Seven Plaza Towers students died. The first burial was Thursday. Two more were on Friday.

Simpson said tornado drills are made with groups of 26 students lined up in the hall. That many can’t fit into a restroom, Simpson said.

As parents picked up students and fewer were in the building, protocol allowed for flexibility in decision making, Simpson said. The school had a total student population of 497 students.

Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said the district’s focus is to take care of the Moore family.

“We grief the loss of life, we attended two funerals this morning and we want to express our care and sympathies to those who are suffering as a result of the tornado,” Pierce said.