By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — When the tornado hit, Dennis and Wilma Chastain were holding hands. On May 20, 2013, the couple left their home in south Oklahoma City in Green Briar Estates near Westmoore High School around 2 p.m. to make it to a 2:30 appointment near Moore Medical Center.
Tornadoes have frequented the area, often putting the Chastain’s home in danger. This time, home would have been the safer place to be. The Moore Medical Center and the nearby doctors’ offices were destroyed that day as the structures took a direct hit from an EF-5 tornado.
The Chastains have been married for 57 years and have grown grandchildren. In 79 years of living in Oklahoma, Dennis Chastain has never seen a tornado first-hand — and still hasn’t. But that day, he experienced what it’s like to be caught by one.
Now a year later, the Chastains are grateful to have survived, but feelings of depression and anxiety plague the couple. For Wilma Chastain, one haunting moment is indelibly etched in her memory.
Following the couple’s rescue, they were taken to the hospital and put in different rooms to be examined. When she was released, Wilma was told to keep the gown — her clothes were covered with dust from the rubble. She wandered down the hall in her hospital gown, dazed by the day’s events and looking for her husband.
As she passed another room, she saw a young woman inside crying.
“She had three little diapers in her hand,” Wilma said, then broke into tears.
Dennis Chastain said they later learned that the woman’s baby had died.
“It was a poignant moment,” he said.
“Why am I still here and her sweet little baby is gone?” Wilma said. “Every day I get up and think, ‘What is my mission today?’”
The couple celebrated 57 years of marriage in August. Wilma is still recovering from her injuries.
“For a while, I couldn’t control my fingers to write,” she said. “On most days, I can write legible enough to write a check. I’m OK with this. I think, with time, it will get better.”
The Chastains’ rescue was immortalized by Transcript photographer Kyle Phillips. They did not expect photos of their rescue from the rubble to be on the front page of The Transcript on May 21 — the day after the tornado — and eventually splattered across the nation via news outlets and the Internet.
Dennis was rescued first. He was walking, dazed and confused, blood dripping down the side of his head, when Phillips captured the photo that appeared on the paper’s front page. Later, when a fireman lifted Wilma out of the rubble, Phillips was there to shoot her photo, too, not knowing he had also photographed Wilma’s husband.
“We had gone to our doctor’s office,” Dennis said, recounting their story days after the event. “I had just checked the weather.”
Shortly after their arrival at the clinic, a woman asked everyone to move inside the exam rooms, away from the windows. People huddled down and staff passed out pillows to cover their heads.
The couple sat on the floor, holding hands.
“It was very scary to me — just the idea,” Wilma said. “You’ve seen the aftermath so many times.”
Dennis wasn’t concerned at first.
The sound came first, like a loud wind.
“I saw the roof lift up and fly away,” he said. “And then the wall fell in.”
At that time, Wilma’s world went black.
“Something fell on my shoulder,” she said. “There was no air, and someone said, ‘Breathe.’ I thought, ‘Am I breathing?’ I couldn’t move.”
Wilma felt like she was sucking air through a straw.
Dennis said the air was thick with dirt that filled their ears and covered their clothing.
The couple was pulled apart when the tornado hit, but Wilma could hear people talking.
A first responder helped Dennis get the chair off his lower body, and he crawled out of the rubble.
Wilma was buried, trying to breathe. A fireman kept talking to her, trying to get to her. Excruciating pain radiated from her arm and shoulder and she couldn’t move.
“I’m going to dig you out of there,” Wilma heard the fireman say.
The fireman found her and slowly pulled her out.
“He was very gentle,” she said. “He was very careful not to make it worse.”
Someone found Wilma’s purse and returned it, but she believes her cane is still buried under the rubble. The photo of Wilma’s rescue has become one of the tornado’s iconic images.
Now, a year later, Dennis said more information has come to light.
“When we went to the doctor, our PA (physician’s assistant) told us it was two hours before they pulled us out,” Dennis said.
The couple had thought it was only 20 or 30 minutes.
They were told that the tornado picked everyone up and threw them around and actually took a rug off the floor of the doctor’s office.
“We didn’t realize that,” he said. “She said we were actually in the air for a while.”
Wilma’s injury was due to being pinned down by heavy debris.
“I was underneath a wall and a credenza, and I was pinned down so tight, I couldn’t move,” she said.
The couple also experienced coughing for a long time after the tornado because of breathing in debris.
“We found out some stuff that we had never known,” Dennis said. “The after-effects were very significant. Apparently, people came up with tornado lung.”
The trauma of their experience also has had psychological consequences.
“We really watch the weather this year,” he said.
The Chastains do not intend to attend any memorials or other remembrance services today. They just want the day to pass so that they can move past it.
Wilma said she feels a strange sense of loss over a quilt that was in their car. The car was turned into what Dennis describes as “a lump of metal.” They found the car and tried to retrieve the quilt that was in it, but the tornado had twisted it up with the metal of the car and the quilt could not be extracted.
“There was something about that quilt,” Wilma said. “It was a flag, and it had stars on it, and it was so patriotic. It really didn’t have any sentimental value, but it seemed like something I should have.”
She is disappointed she couldn’t get that quilt out of the car.
“I just had a connection to that quilt, and I don’t even know who made it,” she said.
Wilma said a kind lady heard the story of her quilt and gave her a beautiful, homemade quilt.
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