In the early evening of May 3, 1999, the most powerful tornado in history roared down my street. My wife, my daughter-in-law, my 10-year-old son, my 4-month-old granddaughter and I huddled in a bathroom in the center of our house. I had no idea we were in so much danger.
The experience has changed how I think about safety. Safety used to be something I did for a living. Now, I feel safety is something that must be consciously practiced to stay alive and to be able to care for your loved ones. Maybe you'll understand after I tell you what happened.
We had been following the movement of the storm for some time on television, and as it got closer and stronger I drove to pick up my older son's wife and baby, who were alone in an apartment. My son was at work in West Oklahoma City. My daughter was at the University of Oklahoma, 15 miles south.
My wife started to prepare our shelter in the hallway bathroom (incredibly, for the past 25 years, homes in Oklahoma City, in the center of Tornado Alley, have been built without storm shelters). She emptied the space underneath the sink for our younger son to crawl in, and brought in a mattress to cover our heads from falling debris.
My older son started calling from work for the latest news. His workplace appeared to be in the path of the tornado. I told him that it had changed direction and was now moving east (I didn't mention that it was moving toward us). Minutes later, the twister thundered through the city of Moore, to the south of Oklahoma City, a few miles from us. A reporter chasing after it exclaimed in horror, "Oh my God, this is a monster! I can't believe the destruction!" The "monster" was moving roughly parallel to Interstate 240, which runs a mile south from our home.
A glitch could have cost my life: the reporter said the tornado had crossed I-240 at a street five miles east of my neighborhood and was moving northeast. In fact, it was crossing a street only half a mile west of our home-and was heading straight at us.
Thinking the tornado was moving away, at first I refused to take shelter when my wife called me. Suddenly my TV shut off, and I sensed something was wrong. I moved into the bathroom with the rest of my family. About two minutes later my ears were ringing, and I remembered this is a sign that a tornado is about to hit. As I pulled the mattress over our heads, we heard the rumbling sound of a powerful wind around our house. It sounded like thousands of marbles were rolling over our roof. People say that a tornado sounds like a train, but my wife was praying so loud that I couldn't hear anything. Her praying probably kept us safe.
A battery radio on top of the sink suddenly flew across the room and fell at my side. I didn't understand what had happened. I saw a large crack in the false ceiling and thought, "I hope it doesn't rain tonight!"
"Shock of my life"
After only 30 seconds to a minute, the storm passed. I ventured out, thinking we had only roof damage. Instead, I was in for the shock of my life: it looked like a bomb had exploded in our living room.
The brick chimney had collapsed in a heap. The roof and all the windows were blown away, and the walls and dressers of our master bedroom had crushed our bed. (I'm very grateful that we were not caught asleep!)
I was even more stunned when I saw what was left of our neighborhood: it looked like a photo of Hiroshima after the atomic blast! So much destruction in less than one minute! And it was beginning to get dark, contributing to the feeling of doom.
Neighbors started to come out from the ruins of their homes. The houses across the street had been hit harder and were nothing but piles of debris. We were lucky that the walls in the front of our house were still standing.
I saw a neighbor calling for my next-door neighbors, an elderly couple both over 80 years old. A car had been blown across our patios and landed on top of the room where they were taking shelter, burying them under debris. A policeman climbed the roof and talked to the lady; we needed more help to rescue them. After I helped pull her out, she calmly told us that her husband was dead, still buried inside the house.
I couldn't find my own family. While I was helping the neighbors, my daughter-in-law had tried to return to her apartment but was forced to evacuate (there were gas leaks all around us). A family took her, her baby, and my young son to their home. My wife had left our daughter-in-law and tried to find me, but was forced to evacuate and was taken to a nearby Air Force base. She contacted a friend who took her to her house.
Eventually, I was taken along with a group of survivors to a nearby church where, by chance, I met my older son when he returned from work. With pagers and telephones, our wives were able to locate us and we were reunited at 2 a.m. The tornado had hit around 7:30 p.m.
This experience has given me a different awareness of safety. I'm more acutely aware of the many dangers we face every day. I keep reminding myself that I did not survive a tornado to be hit by a forklift, fall from a ladder, or be electrocuted.
I'm also more proud than ever to make a living by keeping people safe. Many people in Oklahoma City were not as lucky as my family. Many lost loved ones or were badly injured. I feel this experience has made me more valuable to society. I take every opportunity to share the lessons learned during this experience to help others prepare for this type of emergency.
Thirty seconds that changed my life
October 21, 2009