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Students from tornado-ravaged Moore, Oklahoma return to school

4:01 PM, Aug 16, 2013   |    comments
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MOORE, Okla. (USA TODAY) - Ethan Nichols has a new backpack, notebook, box of crayons and shiny new Puma sneakers for his first day back at school.

But when he and other students return to classes Friday in this storm-ravaged city, some things will still be missing. Most notably: seven of Ethan's friends and former classmates, who were crushed under concrete walls not far from where he and other students huddled against a monster tornado in May.

"It was all light, then it was darkness, then it was light again," said Ethan, 9, a third-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary who rode out the storm at school. "I was happy to get out of that building."

Plaza Towers Elementary was the epicenter of destruction for the massive EF5 tornado that raked across the city on May 20, flattening homes, flinging trucks and tractors through the air like pebbles, and killing 25 people. The storm left behind a swath of ruin 14 miles long and more than a mile wide. Seven of those killed were third-graders at the school, which was crushed into a hill of debris. Less than 2 miles west, Briarwood Elementary was also destroyed but suffered no casualties.

It's hard to know how many of the 23,000 pre-storm students in Moore's schools will be there when classes start Friday, said Robert Romines, superintendent of Moore Public Schools. Families scattered across the region after the storm and have been hard to reach. Around 2,000 families with children in Moore's schools were impacted by the tornado, he said.

Over the summer, as the city dug out of the rubble, school leaders met with officials from Joplin, Mo., who suffered their own devastating tornado two years ago, to learn what to expect from students and teachers and strategize how to rebuild safer, Romines said. Only two of the district's 33 schools are designed with "safe structures" - concrete-reinforced areas built to withstand tornado damage and where students can ride out storms, he said. Plaza Towers and Briarwood will be rebuilt as safer structures, he said. But getting the money to retrofit every school in the district has been a challenge.

Teams of counselors have also been dispatched to schools with affected students to offer on-site counseling and support groups, Romines said. "We're going to get back to normal," he said."But we're not going to forget the lives we lost that day."

The first day of classes is a key step in Moore's slow march to normalcy, City Manager Steve Eddy said. Around 1,040 homes were destroyed in the tornado, and the city has so far hauled away 161,387 tons of debris - about 90% of all debris left by the storm, he said. But getting students back to school is a true marker of progress, Eddy said. "Schools are such an important part of the neighborhood fabric," he said.

With their school in ruins, Plaza Towers students will attend nearby Central Jr. High, while Briarwood kids will go to class at Emmaus Baptist Church, Romines said.

Work crews over the summer completed a $400,000 renovation of a wing of Central Jr. High to accommodate the 300 or so Plaza Towers students. Banks of lockers were removed, extra classrooms were added with fresh carpet and Promethean interactive boards, and bathrooms were remodeled for smaller visitors, said Tammy Baker, Central's principal. On-site counselors will be monitoring not just students but parents and teachers as well, many of whom lost homes or relatives in the storm, she said. "It'll be emotional," Baker said.

On Wednesday, Plaza Towers students and parents attended an open house at their new digs - their first return to school since the storm. Excited shrieks filled the hallways as students scanned printouts taped to a window to find out who their new teacher would be. In the lobby, a large paper banner welcomed Plaza Towers students with scribbled personal notes from the junior high students. "Be strong for us - it will be ok!" read one. Another said: "The worst is over."

Inside each classroom, new backpacks stuffed with school supplies and a Build-A-Bear teddy bear awaited each student - part of the wave of donations that poured into the city after the storm. Each backpack also contained a handwritten welcome note from another student across the USA.

"The good has outweighed the bad tremendously," said Amy Shipman, attending with daughter, Kenzi, 7. "We're glad to have all the kids back together."

Others didn't take the return so lightly. Karla Esparza said her son, Andres, 6, has repeatedly asked to attend school for only a half-day. "It's hard still," she said. "They remember."

The storm formed quickly on May 20 just before 3 p.m. and rumbled northeast along Southwest 19th Street toward the school, just as classes were letting out and buses were lining up to take students home, said Amy Simpson, Plaza Towers' principal. Frantic parents arrived at the school to pull out some students. Others stayed. Simpson made sure the children were in predetermined spots around campus - hallways with no windows and other areas - then closed herself and four other staffers in her office bathroom until the storm roared passed.

She emerged to waist-high debris. The school's roof had been peeled away. Walls were sheathed off. A Dodge SUV was planted on her assistant's desk and another car lay upside down in a hallway between two classrooms. Still, she held out hope that everyone was OK, she said. But as nearby residents and rescue teams pulled shivering survivors from the rubble, she did a mental head count of those who weren't making it out of the collapsed building known as the "Second and Third Grade Building." By nightfall, it was clear she had lost seven students.

"It's hard," Simpson said. "I'll probably cry for the rest of my life when I talk about it."

Ethan was in that building, curled in a defensive crouch he had been taught during tornado drills. He felt heavy things falling around him as the storm roared over them, he said. But he kept crouched.

Today, a small scar on his forehead is the only noticeable reminder of that day. But deeper scars linger, mother Kelly Nichols said. The family was shopping at a furniture store after the storm when workers flicked the lights on and off to signal the store's closing. Ethan began to cry. "Is a tornado coming?" he asked.

Kelly Nichols has had to limit his viewing of the Weather Channel; bad weather bulletins make him antsy. At the first sound of lightning outside, he climbs on her lap. "If sirens go off again, he's not going to do well," she said.

On the same day of the open house at Central Jr. High, work crews 2 miles away used excavators and dump trunks to peel away the foundation from the Plaza Towers Elementary site. A new building is scheduled to be completed by next school year, Simpson said.

In the front lawn of the construction site, ringed by a chain-link fence, seven crosses stand next to seven tiny blue chairs with the names of those who perished at the school - a hushed reminder of the students who won't make the opening bell Friday morning.

Teachers will try to make this school year as normal as possible, Simpson said. But normalcy is a work in progress in Moore. At the open house, two students asked her whether their temporary school was "tornado-proof" - a question she's never been asked in her two decades with Moore public schools.

"I tell them that it's not tornado-proof," Simpson said. "But I'm going to keep them safe."

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