MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

May 30, 2013

Teachers recall tornado

MOORE — Harrowing tales of heroism scraped the emotional wounds laid open May 20 by a tornado that plowed a deadly path of destruction through the city.

Five Highland East Junior High educators  shared those stories Wednesday. Some did so with reluctance, but acknowledged it was part of a healing process that could last months if not years. 

The junior high school is one of three schools within the district that either were destroyed or sustained heavy damage. When the storm struck that day, 600 children huddled in hallways and other areas with faculty, staff and parents stuck at the school before they could pick up their children and flee.

Principal Kathy Knowles said for the most part, May 20 began much like a normal school day. There was, however, some lingering concerns about storms that struck the night before and a moderate threat of more severe weather that day.

“I woke up that morning and put on my jeans and tennis shoes because I ... didn’t want to deal with storms in my high heels,” Knowles said. “I sent a letter (that morning) to faculty ... just explaining I would be very aware of the weather that day ... and to please let them (the students) know that they were going to be taken care of.”

Early that afternoon, Knowles and the staff she relied upon to maintain “a sense of calm” inside the school took notice of the developing storm system. They “paid close attention” to the storm, which was forecasted to hit Moore at 2:32 p.m. — the “exact time” students ordinarily would have headed home.

Knowles, proclaimed by Superintendent Susie Pierce as a “personal hero,” made a decision at 2:30 p.m. to shelter the students at school. The decision was made even as parents arrived to pick up their children — some students checked out and left with parents before the twister touched down. 

“We were assisting in that process when I lost sense of time, and the tornado sirens started blowing,” Knowles said as she choked back a swell of emotions. “A parent who was coming in at that time and said a large tornado had just hit Newcastle .... I live in Newcastle ... my seventh-grade son was in Newcastle. 

“I had to suppress all of that and say a quick prayer for him because I had 600 students I had to worry about right then,” Knowles said. “I told the parents at that time they needed to shelter in the building and look to the direction of staff to keep them safe.”

As the tornado barreled toward Moore, Knowles and other staff prepared for the worst as they tried to reassure students of their safety. A counselor caught Knowles in the hallway and told her the tornado is “large, it’s violent, and it’s coming straight for us!”

Knowles said at that point she thought about her son and about the parents who had come to Highland East to pick up their children. She and staffers rushed to get parents who remained outside in the parking lot inside the school and reunite them with their children.

“I knew at that point I had to let that happen,” Knowles said. “I got back on the intercom and told teachers that parents would be coming to their rooms and allow them to shelter with their children.”

Some motorists who found themselves stuck in traffic on Eastern Avenue before the tornado struck also found refuge inside the school. When a police officer came running in to tell her “It’s time,” she sheltered in her assigned area where she found a father and his daughter praying beneath a table.

“The lights went out, and I started praying and said, ‘God, please protect these kids,’” Knowles said. “After a while, after the debris and the popping and all those things that you have heard described happened ... I jumped up and I ran out and I was so thankful to see a building.”

Knowles described an eerie silence inside the hallways, so she began calling out for others. Her voice was met with assurances of safety, but she quickly learned from Debbie Taran, a physical education teacher, about students and staff trapped in the gymnasium where there was leak in a natural gas line.

Michelle Fields, a reading teacher who took shelter in the gymnasium with her students, said she felt confident with their location as far as the walls but harbored some doubts about the roof. 

Fields said she consoled two girls who were hysterical and was unaware of the sounds of the roof falling in around them because of the screams.

Cynthia Gartan, an English teacher, said she didn’t hear the screaming because she was so focused on consoling her students during the seconds that ticked by as the tornado tracked across the school.

Taran, who found herself trapped with her students inside a laundry room near the boys’ locker room, said she was hesitant about sharing her story publicly.

“I had talked about it with close friends, but you don’t know what kinds of feelings are going to come out and trying to maintain,” Taran said. “I suppose when you talk about it over and over, it kind of helps.”

Knowles, after sharing her personal experiences of May 20, echoed sentiments shared with her by another school staffer who described the outcome for those who sought shelter within Highland East as “fortunate.”

“We were fortunate, no doubt, but we also knew what to do. From the moment those students walked through those doors in August, they knew that we loved them, they knew we cared for them,” Knowles said. “We built relationships with them and they trusted us, so when we told them that morning that we would watch and keep them safe they knew that — they listened to our voices because we told them that was what we were going to do.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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