Part 1: Searching For My Family After May 3, 1999 Tornado

There is nothing like a hot night in June to bring back memories of old stories. So I’m going to reprint the articles I wrote in May 1999, just a few days after the May 3, 1999 Oklahoma City tornado that destroyed several neighorhoods and killed 40 people….

Tree skeletons reach their amputated limbs to the sky above the piles of rubble littering the ground where houses once stood. I had walked, biked and roller-skated these streets for more than a decade, but nothing looks the same the night after a killer twister rages through Moore.

I roll down the window of the car and stare out, past the cars littering Northwest 20th Street to a cluster of walls rising above a mound of debris that stretches into the night. That must be my grandma’s house, I think. Then I realize she couldn’t have survived. Tears run down my face as I sob uncontrollably. My whole family is gone. They couldn’t have survived this massive destruction, I think.

Decision to leave

My husband, Steve, and I are headed to Homeland in Shawnee about 5 p.m. to buy hot dogs and buns when I switch the radio station to KXY and hear meteorologist Gary England instead of music.

England is telling listeners that a tornado warning is in effect for Grady County. He listens to tornado sightings from various storm chasers in the field. We note that the storm is headed northeast and figured it will probably hit Meeker, where we live, later in the evening.

I tell Steve we should hurry home before it starts raining. One of our dogs, Bongo, loves rain and likes to get soaked before running inside and leaving wet paw prints in his wake.

Once home, we turn the television to Channel 9 and listen as the storm develops into a massive tornado and sweeps through Chickasha.

“This storm is tracking right up Interstate 44,” England says. I hope it will disappear before it gets much further.

We watch video sent by the storm chasers as the 1/2-mile-wide tornado follows the interstate, right into the edge of Moore.

Shortly before it hits, Steve calls my parents, Herb and Judy Boyd, who live in the 800 block of Northwest 23rd Street.

“Tell them to get in the closet this time,” I tell Steve. Last October, when a tornado swept through Moore, my parents watched it on television from the living room, never entering the closet. They were lucky. That storm didn’t touch their home.

Dad tells us Mom is in the closet with their dog, Pepper, and he is headed in that direction.

Steve tells Dad to call us as soon as the storm goes by and they hang up.

Then we wait.

“If you can’t get underground, get out of the way of this killer tornado,” England tells television viewers.

We watch the tornado’s radar signature pass through a map of Moore on the television. Still no word. I page my sister, Kim, who I know is working at Wal-Mart in Moore. She is scheduled to work until midnight.

She calls us back in a few minutes. No, she hasn’t heard from our parents. She is OK. Kim and the other Wal-Mart deli workers hid in the cooler as the tornado tore through town, but Wal-Mart did not sustain any damage. However, power is out. We tell her we will let her know as soon as we have word from our parents.

We call Mom and Dad, but no one answers. We try calling Grandma, who lives about five blocks away, but still no answer. Then we realize there will be no word. The power lines are down.

The only way to find out if my parents and my grandma are still alive is to go and search for them.

I call work, The Shawnee News-Star, and tell them my parents neighborhood has been hit by the tornado.

“We’re going to go see if my parents and my grandma are OK,” I tell the editor in charge that night. “If the tornado hits Lincoln County, send (another photographer) out to get pictures.” I’m supposed to cover Lincoln County, but I believe family comes first. My husband calls his employer and tells him we might not be back in town Tuesday.

Then we load our dogs, Bongo and Sassy, into the car and head for the city.

We drive out of Meeker on U.S. Highway 62, headed west. Our plan is to take U.S. Highway 177 to SH 9, to avoid the tornado that is now slashing through Midwest City and Del City, then head north into Moore on Interstate 35.

But as we’re heading south on U.S. 177, England reports tornadoes southwest of Shawnee, blocking our planned path. So we head west on Interstate 40 and plan to exit onto Interstate 240.

Rain pummels our windshield as we fly down the interstate, swerving around the slower moving vehicles on the road. My husband is a road warrior, flashing past anyone in his path. We are not hysterical, just determined. We have to know.

Traffic backs up as we enter the east side of Oklahoma City on I-240. As we crawl forward in the traffic snarl, we realize we’re driving through the debris path. Tufts of insulation litters the roadside. We wonder if this is what Meeker will look like when we return. England has reported a tornado heading for Meeker. We hope all our neighbors are in the two storm cellars on our block.

“This is not a good sign,” Steve says as we stare out at the debris. We drive over small tree limbs and leaves in the interstate and see large pieces of metal on the side of the road.

All three lanes are nearly at a standstill. We wonder around what could be stopping traffic up ahead. Then we see people driving down the shoulder to get to the Sunnylane exit. I notice people are headed south on the overpass at a fairly swift pace and urge Steve to take the exit. He heads for the shoulder, and I hope we can find our way through the destruction.

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