MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

August 15, 2013

New school year for kids who survived twister

MOORE (AP) — One young girl is so afraid of the wind that she carries headphones to block out the sound.

Other kids are traumatized by the memory of their narrow escape from the storm and the friends who died just a few feet away from them.

Nearly three months after a twister blasted through Moore and destroyed two elementary schools, students are preparing to go back to class.

Although many families are ready to return to a familiar routine, parents and teachers say the town’s children have fears that are still fresh and a lot more healing to do.

Both schools — Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary — have been razed to concrete slabs, as have most of the surrounding homes. Students will attend class in temporary buildings starting Friday.

District officials hope the new school year marks a fresh start in the lives of children who survived the May 20 tornado, which killed 24 people and wrecked scores of homes and businesses along a 17-mile path through the heart of this Oklahoma City suburb.

“I’m not going to act as though those first couple of weeks (after the storm) weren’t so terribly difficult, because they were,” said Superintendent Robert Romines, a longtime Moore resident who took the district’s top post over the summer. “But since that day, we have turned a lot of corners. After our last funeral, we turned a corner.”

Parents of some of the children who attended Plaza Towers, where seven third-graders were crushed by a collapsing wall, say their kids frighten easily, especially during severe weather, and are often haunted by thoughts of their friends who died.

“There was screaming and crying,” recalled 9-year-old Ruby Macias, who was trapped under the same wall.

Now Ruby gets scared whenever the weather turns bad and remains troubled by the death of her close friend, Sydney Angle, who was also 9.

“She says she dreams about her friend,” said Ruby’s mother, Veronica Macias. “I don’t know what to tell her.”

Another Plaza Towers student trapped beneath the wall, 10-year-old Xavier Delgado, said he doesn’t like to think or talk about the day of the tornado, but he’s not afraid to go back to class.

“I’m not nervous. I’m kind of excited about seeing my friends,” said Xavier, who acknowledged that heavy weather still disturbs him. “I only get scared when there’s loud thunder.”

Xavier’s 8-year-old sister, Haley, a second-grader at Plaza Towers, often carries a pair of headphones to block out the sound of the wind, which reminds her of the day the twister reduced her school to pile of rubble.

“She remembers the noise,” said the children’s mother, Athena Delgado. “If it’s going to be windy or severe weather outside, she’ll carry them with her.”

The site where the Plaza Towers school once stood, in the heart of a neighborhood decimated by the tornado, has become a makeshift memorial for the dead and a meeting spot for volunteers.

A handful of wind-battered trees are beginning to grow new leaves and branches again.

A chain-link fence that ringed the school property was covered with hundreds of autographed T-shirts from across the country, many from the volunteers who poured into the community to help.

The fence has been removed so workers can begin digging out the slab, but seven wooden crosses remain, each adorned with the name of a child who died.

An eighth cross, taller than the rest, simply has a black number 7 inside a red heart.

Jennifer Doan, the third-grade teacher of six of the seven kids who died at Plaza Towers, suffered fractures in her spine and sternum when the wall fell in one piece on top of her and her students who had taken cover in a school hallway.

Doan, 30, managed to shield two students who were closest to her from the full weight of the wall, but she says she’s still disturbed by memories of the ones she couldn’t protect, especially when she reunites with her students who survived.

“I’ve been told over and over I couldn’t have done anything else, and I know I did help save the ones that were right there under me. But of course, it reminds me of my other ones that I couldn’t save,” Doan said.

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