The Norman Transcript

May 20, 2013

Theater guests, staff take shelter from tornado, then help others

By Corbin Hosler
The Norman Transcript

MOORE — Derrick Young could feel it.

Before even hearing the massive tornado that ripped through the walls, obliterated the windows and chewed through the Warren Theater in Moore where he works as a team member, Young said he could feel it. Huddled in the hallways with dozens of terrified moviegoers, Young felt the ground shake as the EF-5 tornado devastated Moore made its way across the Warren plaza, leveling homes, offices and a bowling alley while crippling the theater and the Moore Medical Center.

“The warnings started popping up, and it didn't last long before it hit,” the 20-year-old Oklahoma City native said. “We evacuated all the guests and we were crowded in both hallways standing shoulder to shoulder. Then everything started vibrating and shaking, and then you could hear just everything hitting the building.”

The tornado didn't stop with the theater. It built in strength and continued to weave a path of destruction through Moore eerily similar to the May 3rd, 1999 tornado that leveled major parts of the city, killing 43 and causing more than a billion dollars in damage.

By the time the twister — which at its apex created a debris field two miles wide — finally lifted near Lake Stanley Draper, it had destroyed dozens of homes and business and killed at least 51 people, many of whom were children who were killed as the tornado passed through and destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School. It was a level of devastation not seen in Oklahoma in 14 years and one that will serve as the new benchmark of the terror severe storms can create.

Not that Young and his colleagues knew that as they emerged from the innards of the theater to find buildings ruined and cars and other debris wrapped around anything and everything in the tornado's path. All they knew was a feeling of despair that didn't abate as they wandered around the war zone that had once been a hospital parking lot.

“The first emotion was just one of sadness,” said Alex Ansari, the IMAX house manager at the Warren. “It's so devastating.”

Fighting to keep everyone calm, Ansari then turned to his next task — ensuring that everyone from the area was safe. That included helping victims from the hospital across the street, where elderly patients and mothers with their newborns had to be evacuated to other hospitals as quickly as possible.

And while Ansari and those who huddled with him inside the theater were safe, others weren't so lucky. As soon as the storm passed and emergency personnel began streaming to the reeling suburb, the initial shock turned to rescue and triage efforts. Hundreds of dazed victims emerged from their shelters and what was left of their homes and began to take stock of the chaos around them.

And the Warren IMAX theater that Young, Ansari and others had taken shelter in and had just hours earlier housed happy moviegoers, became the focal point. First responders created a triage station just steps away from the blown-out windows of the theater, and in a grim display of necessity the theater itself was hastily turned into a makeshift morgue.

But amidst the wreckage of the fallen marquee, where ripped and faded posters for the movie Man of Steel still littered the ground, the volunteers began to appear. A few at first and later more than were needed, they came from cities across the state.

One of those volunteers was Andrew Pecore. A 25-year-old graduate student in the accelerated nursing program at OU, he didn't let anything stop him from getting to ground zero to assist.

As soon as he saw the extent of the damage on the news, he rushed from his Norman home and began heading north. When traffic slowed to a stop along the highway, he took the backroads to try and reach the damaged area. When downed power lines and other debris blocked his path, he started walking the long road to the theater. He caught a ride with the coast guard and later EMSA personnel and eventually reached the command station, where he immediately offered his services to anyone he could.

“I just thought, 'what am I doing sitting on my couch when this is going on,'” he said in between assisting victims who either walked or came by ambulance to the triage station. “I grabbed my scrubs and my I.D. and headed here. I've been walking around and looking for people who need help.

“I'm just trying to lend a hand any way I can.”