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.

Part 2: Continuing the Search for my family

Search for my sister

Several minutes after my husband, Steve, and I exit Interstate 240 east of Moore, we are headed south on Sunnylane. But traffic slows to a snails pace again. We strain our eyes into the distance, trying to see past the shredded tree parts littering the road and squint into the darkness. Traffic moves a few more inches and we wonder aloud what could be causing the standstill. Could there be tornado damage further ahead? I am anxious to find my parents and my grandma to see if I still have a family.

Steve tells me to calm down. But I cannot. Through the darkness, we see more bits of insulation fluttering about on the road and chunks of twisted metal littering the easements. I can only imagine the worst.

It seems forever before we reach Southeast 19th Street in Moore. We head straight for Wal-Mart to pick up my sister, Kim Boyd, but a co-worker tells us Shirley took her home.

I jump back in the car and we head north to South Fourth Street. We follow the road to Janeway and head north. But a roadblock and police officers will only let us turn right. We need to go forward or left to get to my parent’s house.

“That’s OK, go right, just go right,” I tell my husband. We are big believers in backroads. “Turn on one of these side streets and I can get us to grandma’s house.”

Detour to Grandma’s house

Steve follows my directions and we head north on Lawton, turn right on Northwest 15th Street, turn left on City Avenue… I am following my instincts, hoping I remember the neighborhood I spent much of my childhood playing in during visits to Grandma’s house.

“Left, turn left here,” I say, then realize too late that I am lost. I try to catch my breath and think. I look around. All is dark, the street is full of cars with people looking for other people. Steve keeps driving and soon I recognize a house around the corner that I had spent time in many years before.

“Go back! go back!” I tell Steve. “I know where I am.”

“How do I get out of here?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to say it. Just turn around and I can tell you how to get out of here.”

Steve turns around and I direct him to the corner at Northwest 17th Street and Sunrise. My mother always complained about the location of the stop sign. If we go one way, it’s a dead end. Another way and we are back on 12th Street. I tell Steve to turn left. And that’s when we see the destruction. I breathe in air and let it out as quickly as I can. I feel panic but try to keep calm. What used to be brick three-bedroom houses are now unrecognizable piles of lumber and bricks.

I recognize the corner of Northwest 20th and Sunrise. A part of the two-story house on the corner is still standing. I tell Steve to turn left. I look around desperately, searching for GrandmaÕs house. All I see are piles of rubble with a few walls standing up like sentries. Steve drives onto the street until his path is blocked by cars haphazardly parked, blocking the way.

“You stay here,” he tells me. I am afraid to leave the car. Afraid of what I might see. I am not prepared for it.

It seems he is gone forever. I hug Sassy, my beagle-chow mix dog and tell her it will be OK. But I am not so sure. I roll down the window and try to find GrandmaÕs house. But I can’t tell which is which. I look out the other side of the car, across the street. I see the front of a house and a garage. I think it looks familiar, but I’m not sure. I look in the direction of Grandma’s house. I keep staring at one sentry-like wall and think to myself: That one must be it.

I can’t hold back any longer. I cry. I know my parents must be dead, too. Through my tears, I stare into the distance, towards the northwest. In the darkness, lighted only by moonlight, I think I see the roofs of houses near my parents’ house.

I had never seen those roofs from here. Before they were blocked by the roofs of my grandmother’s neighboring houses.

Then Steve returns to the car.

“Your Grandma is OK,” he tells me and lays his hand on my leg, a comforting gesture. “She’s at the church. I asked her neighbors where she is and they said she’s at the church. Do you know what church?”

I shake my head. There are a lot of churches in Moore. Then I remember one.

“Maybe she’s at Regency Park (Baptist Church). It’s at the end of the street,” I tell him.

We back out of the neighborhood and take Sunrise to Northwest 21st Street. The houses are still standing here, in stark contrast to those one block south. The street is mostly clear and we follow it to Janeway.

Steve asks a man in the street what church people are going to.

“What about that church?” we ask, indicating the one at the end of the street.

“Oh, no,” he tells us. “That one is destroyed. People are going to First Baptist Church. Try there.”

We decide we’ll go to my parents neighborhood first. We turn right onto Janeway. I notice the car wash is still standing, and the four two-story apartment buildings across the street. And I see a ray of hope beginning to shine. Surely if they are still standing…

But we can’t turn onto Northwest 23rd. Power lines and poles are blocking the entrance.

“Keep going. Turn into the next street,” I tell Steve. He rushes up the street to Northwest 24th, a street with a divided entrance and a one-way sign indicating no entry.

“That’s just for this lane,” I tell Steve. “Turn there anyway. I don’t care.”

We follow the street to Nottingham and turn left, then left again onto my parents street. All the houses are standing.

As we pull up to my parents still-standing house, Steve honks the horn several times.

My parents and a horde of neighbors are standing in the front yard, surrounded by debris.

I jump out of the car and Mom and I embrace. And I start crying again.

Mom tells us that Grandma is OK. She is in Hillcrest hospital, but she is OK. After the tornado hit, Edward, a neighbor, ran to her house and dug her out of the debris. She had hid in the closet in the center of her home and the tornado had tried to suck her out of it. But it hadn’t.

Edward and another neighbor had carried her to Regency Park church. Then a man in an extended cab pickup pulled up and said he would take the injured to Hillcrest. Dad helped Grandma into the pickup, then returned home to get Mom to ride with her to the hospital.

When they returned to the church, the man already had taken Grandma to the hospital, so they returned home, to clean and to guard. My parents were lucky. The storm only tore up the shingles on the roof, blew out the north windows and ripped the electric cable from the back of the house. The house next door to the east lost its roof.

But I still haven’t been able to reach Kim and we aren’t sure just how serious Grandma’s injuries are. I ask Mom if she wants to go see Grandma at the hospital. She says she does, but someone has to watch the house. We also need to contact my sister, but I only have a few minutes left on my cell phone. Electricity and telephone service are unavailable in the neighborhood. I feel frantic, uncertain what to do, but Mom tells me to calm down. She knows things will work out.

Part 3: And the finale

Finding My Sister

“Have you talked to Kim or Steven,” I ask my parents after finally reaching their home, which sustained minor damage. Steven is my younger brother. He was at work when the tornado ripped through my parents’ and grandmother’s neighborhood in Moore.

“No we don’t have phone service. The power is out, too,” they tell us.

I go to the car and page Kim on my cell phone. I enter my pager number, since I only have about 12 minutes left on the cell phone. Then I wait.

Mom tells us she wants to go to the hospital to be with Grandma, but she doesn’t want to leave Dad alone and he must stay at the house to protect it.

“What are you talking about?” Dad asks her. He gestures to the four or five neighbors in the front yard. “I’m not alone. You go be with your mother.”

Steve and I drive Mom to the hospital. When we arrive, the hospital staff tells us Grandma is in inpatient surgery and they will let us know when we can see her. She has suffered a gash to the back of her head and she is experiencing pain in her side.

As we wait, ladies in hospital uniforms bring us sandwiches and soda pops. I use the phone to page Kim again.

A television in the corner broadcasts images of the destruction. I watch for a glipse of my neighborhood, along wth the other people in the room. All of us are waiting to hear about our loved ones injured in the tornado.

After what seems forever, we decided to go see Grandma in cubicle No. 11, where we find her with a bandage on her head and her right hand, which has several stitches.

We talk with her while two doctors place staples in a three-in-long gash on the back of her head. Whenever she must move, she complains that her side hurts.

After with talk with Grandma, Steve and I decide to go back to Moore to tell Dad how Grandma is doing.

On our way back to the house, my pager vibrates. It is an unfamiliar phone number, followed by Kim’s birthdate.

I grab the cell phone and quickly dial.

Kim wants to know if she still has a family, a house.

“Tell me, just tell me,” she says.

I fill her in, letting her know Mom and Dad are OK, Grandma is OK but in the hospital.

Mom’s house is still standing. Grandma’s is destroyed.

She is relieved.

We drive back to Wal-Mart on Interstate 35 to pick her up. She tells us her co-worker, Shirley, had tried to get her home, but the police would not let them drive into the neighborhood. Kim said she was able to walk as far as Northwest 12th Street and Santa Fe, where she saw a grocery store, drug store and convenience store were demolished or severely damaged. She figured her house was the same.

Steve drives us to Southwest Fourth Street. Kim knows the back roads, so she directs us to turn onto the first street west of Janeway. We wind through the neighborhood to Norman Avenue, then follow it across 12th Street to Regency Boulevard. No police are in sight on this route.

As we drive down Regency, we see more devestation in the darkness. Piles of debris litter the yards and streets. We see the bones of Regency Park Baptist Church from where its roof used to be. But up ahead, on Northwest 22nd Street, we see homes that are still standing.

We follow 22nd around and head down 23rd to the house. Still standing.

After the storm

Steven found his way back into the neighborhood Tuesday. He had spent Monday night at a friend’s house, terrified that he’d lost most of his family. He and his friend help Mom and Dad clean the debris out of their backyard and sift through the belongings at Grandma’s house.

Sunday afternoon, Steve and I drove through the Regency Park neighborhood south of my parents’ street. We found what was left of a house a childhood friend of mine lived in. She and her parents are OK. But the house is gone.

My parents are handling the disaster well. Mother marvels at the generosity of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other people who have donated more than the tornado victims could possibly need.

“When we’re out there digging at my mother’s house, I can just think what we need, and it seems about 10 minutes later, someone drives up and asks us if we need that item. Boxes, gloves, water, food — whatever we need, they’re giving away. God is really working here,” my mother said many times while I helped her with the cleanup effort.

Grandma, it turns out, suffered two cracked ribs during her ordeal in the tornado. She says she hid in the closet in the center of her house when the television told her to. But the tornado tried to pull her out of the closet. She says she held onto the doorknob and that’s what kept her from flying out. Edward found her behind the couch in the living room, which was sitting on the other side of the closet wall.

As I survey the pile of lumber and debris and linens at Grandma’s house Wednesday, I wonder how that could be, that a door kept her from flying away. The walls to the closet have disappeared and we can’t find the door or knob she says she held onto…