Chris Summers, 27, was planning to pick up his young son at school at 3 p.m. Monday when the devastating mile-wide tornado touched down in Moore, Oklahoma. He and his live-in girlfriend, Sarah Southward, were forced back by hail and rain and decided to ride out the twister with nine others in a neighbor’s storm cellar.
Summers watched the tornado, packing 200-mile-an-hour winds, jump a row of houses and continue on its lethal path. It eventually would claim at least 24 lives, including those of 9 schoolchildren, and injure more than 200 people in the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. The death toll was expected to rise overnight.
“I was taking video on my phone through a window in the cellar,” he said. “After it lifted and passed us, that’s when we went out. It went over these houses and went back down and destroyed everything in its path.”
As Summers and Southward emerged from the shelter, a neighbor rushed over to tell them that the 7-Eleven at the corner of Telephone Road and Southwest Fourth Street had been leveled. “I thought, no fucking way,” said Southward as she stood before the pile of rubble, plaster, and mangled metal that had been the convenience store where she once worked. “My friends work there. I knew where they hid wasn’t safe enough.”
The 23-year-old waitress, with Summers in tow, ran the two blocks to the scene of the destruction. Rubble and glass were strewn everywhere. Bottles of Gatorade, Coke, and Sprite and cans of beer lay crushed on the sidewalk. Metal rods stuck out at crazy angles. “I didn’t think negative thoughts the whole time we were there,” said Southward. “We needed to stay positive. We got there before the cops and paramedics. We were going to save them.”
Summers, a retired Air Force officer, said he and other good Samaritans used their hands to dig through the debris to find a pregnant employee who was buried underneath the rubble, as well as a male employee who “had a hole the size of a grapefruit in his back.”
“We were calling out, ‘Is anyone under here?’” he said. “‘Holler if you can hear us!’ We pulled out seven people. Three of them were dead.”
Another female employee was found in the middle of the store, and a woman in her 40s was discovered on top of the wreckage. Summers said the woman told him she was working at a storage unit when she ended up at the convenience store. “She said she was at work at the time and she ended up at the 7-Eleven,” he said. “That is a good mile and a half away. She was in critical condition. She was lying on top of the rubble. Her stomach was lacerated.”
A man who owned a nearby liquor store was trapped underneath the twisted metal. “He tried to take shelter in the freezer, but the freezer wrapped halfway around the 7-Eleven, and he probably got blown out of the freezers,” Summers said. “He stood up, and we told him to wait for paramedics. A cop and I had to run across the street to get a paramedic because we had four critically injured.”
When they returned to the 7-Eleven, Summers said a woman told them that her friend and baby daughter had run for shelter in the store before it collapsed. They started yelling her name but didn’t get a response. An hour later, they found the woman near the bathroom. She was crushed underneath a bunch of steel racks. It took 30 minutes to pry her out from under the metal. Her baby was found about five feet away. “They declared her dead before the paramedics even came close to her,” he said. “I didn’t sleep very well last night. I am medically retired from the Air Force, and I have seen dead bodies before, but what freaked me out was seeing the baby pulled out. When I saw the dead baby, I kind of broke down, because I have a son who is 5 years old, and I couldn’t get hold of him. Luckily we found him. I just don’t know how to unsee what I saw.”
A massive search and rescue operation is still under way to find more survivors who may still be trapped in the miles of destroyed homes and buildings in Moore, which has about 50,000 residents. Street signs are gone, electricity is nonexistent, and a majority of the homes have been completely obliterated, as have two elementary schools and a hospital.
By 5 p.m. Tuesday, the decimation zone was packed with journalists; federal, local, and state police organizations; politicians; families picking through the wreckage of their lives; and good Samaritans passing out water, granola bars, and sandwiches. “This is our community,” said John Potts, a volunteer with the Church of the Harvest. “This is what we do. This doesn’t come as a shock. It is Oklahoma City, but it doesn’t hurt any less. We try to prepare for this, but it hit such a densely populated area.”
The town, once a bustling community of homes and ranches, is now a giant petri dish filled with debris, wrecked cars, broken glass, torn stuffed animals, twisted street signs, and muddy photographs. Fallen trees are filled with insulation, film tape, and in one occasion a bed.
On Tuesday evening Amanda Billings was pulling a wagon filled with her sister’s belongings down the street past the media trucks. Balanced on top of the wagon were a sunflower plant and a stack of photos. Her sister, she said, is moving back to Texas. Billings had feared for her sister and also her niece, who was in one of the destroyed elementary schools. “I was so worried about her,” she said. “They wouldn’t tell her dad anything. Luckily she was picked up by a neighbor.”
Emily Hoffman of Oklahoma City said she had spent the day combing through the wreckage near some of the homes looking for lost photographs. “If I was in their situation and I can find a picture, it would mean the world to me,” she said. “This has really hit home.”
Hoffman was also keeping an eye out for bank statements or checks and ripping them up so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands: “I don’t want someone trying to get into someone else’s account or anything.”
Meanwhile, Marcus Cooper and his wife, Ida, were searching the rubble around the 7-Eleven for a purse and personal effects belonging to Ida Cooper’s sister Athena Howard. Howard was one of the 7-Eleven employees injured in Monday’s tornado. “I can’t believe she is alive,” she said. “The place was leveled. I thought she was gone.”
“Her car is missing,” he added. “It is just gone.”
Ida Cooper said her sister was recovering from surgery in a local hospital and remembered “walls and bricks falling on top of her,” she said. “She went in and out of consciousness.”
“She sent me a text yesterday at 5:30 a.m.,” she said. “She was worried about me and was asking if I was OK because a tornado hit us in Norman ... I never expected anything like this. My heart sank. There is no place to hide in a convenience store.”