While May 20 at Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary school in the Moore, Okla., school district started off in a normal way, with students gathering for morning meetings to sing songs, hear announcements, and honor students for academic accomplishments, there was one thing that was starkly different.
Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillin had to confront livestock.
McMillin dutifully kissed a sheep, a woolly gesture 3rd grade students had earned by accumulating so many Accelerated Reader points.
If only that’s where the day’s excitement had ended.
Nothing indicated that the two Oklahoma schools would, at least physically, cease to exist, killing seven 2nd and 3rd graders, by the end of the day because of a powerful, supposedly rare type of twister that obliterates everything in its path.
The schools had received a few warnings from the district about the weather being ripe for a tornado, but McMillin and Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson, both Oklahoma natives, said at a news conference late last week that they weren’t worried. Their staff members and students knew exactly what to do because of relentless practice for a storm.
“Tornado drills are just like fire drills: We practice them and we practice them and we practice them,” Simpson said. “We analyze them” for what could go better next time.
As the weather worsened, giving way to what at first seemed like it would just be a severe thunderstorm, parents flocked to both schools. Simpson remembers grabbing one frantic father by the jacket, asking him to calm down so as not to scare her children.
Then the sirens came.
She said she wasn’t fearful even then, putting faith in her teachers’ and students’ knowledge of keeping safe in a twister. Simpson walked the hallways to see that students and teachers were positioned as they should be. She remembers telling teachers in the preK wing to stop looking at radar and weather maps on their phones.
The only thing that was out of her reach: the building where 2nd and 3rd grade classes gather. (Neither her school nor Briarwood has a safe room.)
“It is separate from my main building,” Simpson said. “I did not walk down that hallway.”
The weather already was wild and wet and hailing, she said, and she knew her teachers knew what to do. So to keep from going outside as the weather broke down, she chose not to inspect that wing of the school.
A 5th grade teacher told her he saw the storm, she recalled. “I got on the intercom and said ‘It’s here.’” Simpson then climbed into a bathroom with four other women.
All safe at one school
At Briarwood, Shelley McMillin described a similar experience. Her school, of a different design, lacked hallways. Students are grouped in buildings connected by outdoor breezeways, so they climbed under desks, desks that would eventually catch and hold the weight of the cinderblock walls that buckled under the tornado’s winds.
She remembers leaving her own hiding place after the storm passed and into the school’s front parking lot. Where cars had filled it moments before, it had become empty.
One by one, she saw groups of children emerge from the school with their teachers, with help, in some cases, from first responders and anyone in the neighborhood that had raced toward the school after the storm passed.
“I was counting heads,” she said. “Everybody was accounted for.”
Somehow, she managed to hold on to the school’s box of emergency contact information cards for students.
They needed to start calling families, she said, but there was no phone.
‘In God’s name, go away!’
“As things started to shake, the first thing that you hear is just barely anything. Right before a tornado...it’s just completely still. As it got closer it got louder.
I did not feel the walls moving,” Simpson said. “I did feel things trickling down on me. Those things became chunks of things.”
Some people were screaming. Some were quiet.
“At that point I believe, that’s the only time that I yelled. I said ‘In God’s name, go away!’ I said it about four times. And then it was gone.”
Then she remembers stepping over a sink to get out of the bathroom to go see about her kids. What she saw: The whole neighborhood was gone. Men and women were running to the school with shovels and crowbars.
The youngest children, preK and kindergarten, were out first. Then she saw that the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders were all taken from where the building once stood and went to a nearby church. Then her husband arrived and she told him to go find out where her 2nd and 3rd graders were.
The heap of a building was so rearranged, “he couldn’t tell what was what,” Simpson said.
“After several minutes—you have to forgive me on the time frames—the first responders and those that were in the neighborhood started talking quietly around themselves, starting to decide the best way to help the rest out,” she said. “The rest of the evening was a nightmare. What started off as a normal day at Plaza Towers turned into a horrible, horrible thing for seven families.”
In the days since, Simpson has been to six funerals. The last one is this Friday.
“We will rebuild,” said Robert Romines, an assistant superintendent who will take over the district at the end of June. “Our No. 1 priority, however, is to take care of the families who have lost so much.”
PHOTO: A teacher’s classroom sign sits on a desk propping open a door amid the wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School, in Moore, Okla.—Brennan Linsley/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.