Monday morning started in the usual fashion, with the weekly assembly in the school gym. The rest of the schoolday followed the customary schedule, as well. . .until about 2:15.
Around that time, anxious parents began to arrive to pick up their children because of volatile weather conditions.
Patrick, the husband of sixth-grade teacher Amy Chase, had called earlier to inform her that storms were brewing west of the Oklahoma City/Moore area. Amy started checking her phone for weather updates, but, probably because of the atmospheric turbulence, she was no longer able to phone or text anyone.
The Briarwood Elementary students were returned to their homerooms at this time. Amy had a class of 26, but only 10 of her students remained.
“I had students go ahead and pack their backpacks because parents were checking out their children and seemed to be frantic,” Amy recalled. “ I had heard there was circulation above Bridge Creek and assumed a tornado warning would soon be issued.”
Around this time, teachers were instructed to begin tornado preparedness.
Because Briarwood had been constructed with all classroom doors opening to the outside, precautionary measures dictated that everyone seek shelter in the interior hall. Amy filed her students, equipped with their backpacks, to that location; and because she didn’t know how long they’d be there, she told them to sit comfortably with their legs crossed, rather than kneeling.
Her 11-year-old daughter Madalyn, a sixth-grader, was with her at the time, but 7-year-old Emma was with her own teacher; and knowing that Emma’s instructor had also taken precautionary measures, Amy knew she was in good hands.
“I never thought to go get my younger daughter, because I would have had to leave my students, and I didn’t realize what was coming our way,” she explained. She would learn later that Emma’s class had remained in their classroom, against a counter on the inside wall opposite the door, sheltered beneath tables and desks—and that although the classroom had been completely destroyed and the occupants buried under piles of debris, everyone had survived.
Amy’s classroom was situated in the main pod. Several of the parents who had come to take their children early had decided, instead, to stay in case the teachers needed assistance.
“We had two men who stayed with us,” Amy said, “and I am so thankful that God sent them to us.”
Receiving news coverage briefly on her phone, she learned a tornado was on the ground at Newcastle, roughly 15 miles to the southwest. Eventually, the hall lights began to flicker; and, to calm the fears of the children, some of whom were only pre-kindergartners, she turned the lights off altogether and attempted to reassure them.
An unstoppable monsterHowever, as Amy stood there in the dim hallway, things suddenly grew eerily quiet and she started to sense that something was terribly wrong. Returning to her classroom, she looked out the window. A large field lay west of the school, and all she could see was turbulence and debris flying through the air, she said.
She tore back into the hall and told the children to lie flat on the floor and cover their heads with their backpacks.
“I told them, ‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’” she remembered. Turning a corner and seeing parents who hadn’t left, “I screamed at them to lie on top of all the babies,” she said, referring to the pre-kindergartners.
By the time she returned to her students, she was screaming and crying. Six of her students were in defensive positions against the wall, the other four were under a table, and she quickly grabbed a chair from off the table and fell, pulling it over herself. But because she didn’t have time to draw her legs under her, she was lying on her side with her legs exposed. By that time, she was sobbing, she said.
Amy was frighteningly aware of the deafening roar of the maelstrom as it approached, and the strident shrieks from the school’s security and fire alarms only intensified the air of terror and helplessness.
“Everyone was screaming,” she recalled. “I was screaming ‘No!’ over and over.”
Then the walls were toppling “like dominoes,” she reported, and the wall of cinder blocks next to them was ripped apart and descended on top of them.
“I believe now it offered us the most protection from the falling debris,” she surmised in retrospect. She heard the roof being violently torn from the school, and the cinder blocks were growing heavier.
“I remember hearing roaring, ripping, and things falling,” she said. “After I realized that screaming ‘No’ was not going to stop this monster, I began the Lord’s Prayer. It’s all I knew to do, because at this point we were all in God’s hands; and if it was our time to go, nothing would stop it.”
Miraculously, there were no fatalities at Briarwood Elementary that day.
AftermathWhen things once more grew quiet, Amy and her students were buried in debris. Her lower body was trapped, but pulling her arms from beneath the rubble, she started tossing cinder blocks from the boy next to her.
The adrenaline must have been flowing, for Amy is a slight woman, and concrete blocks are heavy.
After the boy surfaced, he freed Madalyn. Water pouring from a broken water pipe above them was flooding the floor. Amy instructed the boy to stanch the water’s flow with a book, then the two courageous sixth-graders freed her from the rubble.
“I got up and tried with all my might to lift the wall off my students and just couldn’t do it,” Amy noted. One of the men who had stayed answered her plea for assistance. Crawling to them through the destruction, he supported the weight of the wall while Amy extricated the other children.
She indicated that they were among the last to emerge from the wreckage.
The heroism and selflessness demonstrated by the victims of the storm in its aftermath—not to mention their clear heads and purposeful actions—were truly remarkable.
Here were people who had just been through the most traumatic experience of their lives—who had been fearfully close to death—but who were continuing to function, and for the most part, logically.
Amy must have been in a mild state of shock, however; she told a policeman at the scene that he should dial 911 because the school had been hit by a tornado. But despite this temporary setback, she had helped rescue her “kids.”
“Everyone was directed to the playground where parents were reunited with children, and siblings with each other,” she said. “My younger daughter was crying for me, and it was the sweetest reunion!”
The twister had destroyed Amy’s 2010 Nissan Altima, along with the other cars in the Briarwood parking lot. At any rate, downed power lines and devastation would have made driving home impossible, anyway.
Amy had lost a shoe in the storm and had glass embedded in one of her feet, so picking her way through the rubble half-barefoot was both painful and painstaking; but a woman—a stranger—gave her a child’s flip-flop to wear.
Eventually, Amy Chase reached home eight blocks away with her two daughters in tow.
In the meantime, their husband and father, an administrator at a school near 89th and May in OKC, was unaware of the immediate threat to Briarwood. He first learned of the tornado when Amy’s brother got a phone call through to him and the secretaries at the school informed him that Briarwood had been in the storm’s path.
“He immediately left and wasn’t able to travel any father than 119th,” Amy noted. In desperation, Patrick left his truck there and RAN the intervening 30 blocks to 149th Street, the location of the school. By this time, Amy indicated, the area had been blocked off but he was able to gain access through his school badge.
“He tells me that as he got closer to the school and began to see the complete devastation, he thought to himself, ‘I will be pulling their bodies from the rubble,’ Amy said.
“Thank goodness that was not the case.”
ScarsAmy sustained numerous cuts and abrasions on her legs, and her daughter suffered a ruptured eardrum. They received medical treatment the next day and are on the mend.
But emotional scars don’t heal as easily. . .or as quickly.
“As the days pass, the sights and sounds seem to fade,” Amy attested. “The first week, I would hear ripping, loud sounds, sirens and screaming in my sleep. When I hear of the thought of severe weather, I become very apprehensive and nervous.”
Her daughters, she pointed out, now react similarly to storm warnings.
“Low-lying clouds scare my oldest daughter, and storms and rain keep them awake or cause them to cry during the day,” she elaborated.
On May 31, when a massive E5 tornado wreaked destruction in El Reno and parts of the metro area, then changed direction and headed for Moore, “obviously, it was not a healing day,” Amy observed.
“I was terrified, but my family was together safe in a storm shelter, so I knew we would be OK. If we lose our house and our ‘things,’ they are replaceable. We are not.”
As far as recovery is concerned, “the outpouring of help has been overwhelming,” Amy asserted. “So many people have provided food, water and clothes to those who lost everything.
“God was with us on May 20, and He is still here today. You can see and feel His presence every day with the volunteers combing our communities.”
The demolition of what remains of Briarwood Elementary is almost complete, and rebuilding should begin soon. Classes will be conducted in a temporary location next year; but a new school will arise from the rubble and, according to Amy, will hopefully house classrooms again in 2014-’15.
She will continue to teach at Briarwood. “Most importantly,” she stressed, “I plan to provide my students with a routine of stability and structure as we continue the rebuilding and healing process.”
In reflection, Amy observed, “I walked away with my two children, and all my students survived. We will rebuild our classrooms, and we will heal. We are ‘Moore strong.’”