Stories from Oklahoma tornado survivors

May 22, 2013

The Post’s Melissa Bell is in Moore, Okla., talking to residents who survived Monday’s destructive tornado. Here’s what they have to say.

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Bridgett Simon kept her 19-year-old daughter Kayla Holt home from Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday. The family needed to help Kayla’s grandmother clean her home, which had been hit by a tornado that tore through Oklahoma the day before. An hour after the family returned to their home on 12th Street in Moore, they turned on the radio to hear a warning. Kayla said, “The man said if you were not underground when the storm hit, you would die.”

Kayla Holt, 10, of Moore, Okla. (Melissa Bell for The Washington Post)
Kayla Holt, 10, of Moore, Okla. (Melissa Bell/The Washington Post)

As the storm pressed down on them, Kayla and her mom ran across the street to a friend’s storm shelter and started banging on the shelter. From the other side, their neighbor banged back, trying to open the door. But the door was jammed. “I was crying and she was crying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ ” Simon said.

Kayla, who was carrying her two dogs under her arm, slipped in the mud, and then looked down the street: The tornado was just a block away. As they ran back to their house, the roof started peeling off. They hid in a closet, but “I could feel us being lifted up,” she said.

After the storm passed, they went back to their neighbor’s home and pried open the storm shelter. The neighbor fell on them crying, saying she thought they had all died. “We’re all going to have to get some counseling after this,” Simon said.

Kayla lost five friends at Plaza Towers. She said she and Emily Conatzer, a 9-year-old who was killed Monday at the school, had been best friends for three years. They had a falling-out, as third-graders sometimes do, but they recently made up. “I wish she didn’t have to die.”

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Addison Roberts, 7, climbed out of the debris of Plaza Towers unscathed Monday. By Tuesday, she was eating dinner with her family in front of her destroyed home, complaining about the quality of cheese on her ham-and-cheese sandwich, and seeming every bit a happy 7-year-old. Her grandfather, Jack Eldred, said his granddaughter was a rock through all the turmoil. When her dad came to pick her up, “She was patting him on the back, saying, ‘It’s okay, Dad!’ “

“He was crying!” Addison added. Her mom, Summer, praised Addison’s teacher, Ms. Veach, for staying with her daughter, letting the family know she was okay, and keeping Addison calm. “She has no nightmares. She’s fine.”

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Larry Jernigan, 65, of Moore, Okla. (Melissa Bell for The Washington Post)
Larry Jernigan, 65, of Moore, Okla. (Melissa Bell/The Washington Post)

Moore is a known as a working-class suburb of Oklahoma City, encircled by wealthier neighbors. Residents are janitors, casino dealers and construction workers. Larry Jernigan, though retired at 65, had disregarded his friend’s advice to ride the storm out in her cellar because he had hopes of getting some work in Norman, Okla., that day, cleaning up yards.

Jernigan got in his truck, but he only made it a few blocks. “There it was. It was there even before I knew it,” he said. He got down on the floorboards of the truck and the storm came right over him, breaking the car windows and slamming him and the car with debris. His right forearm was torn open and filled with sticks and mud.

His longtime friend Debbie Goodson fiddled with an Austin’s peanut butter cracker wrapper and said she and her family looked for Jernigan on foot for three hours. Her eyes welled with tears. “It hit me today. It hit hard.”

The two bickered over Jernigan’s decision to try to outrun the storm. “We heard on the radio that morning … ” she chastised him.

“I’m hard of hearing!” he rebutted.

Jernigan and Goodson were waiting to be let back into his neighborhood, still barricaded by the police. Jernigan needed to get his hearing aids.

Finally, Goodson smiled. “We’ve known each other 20 years. You can tell by how we argue.”

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