Editor's note: These survivor vignettes were written by staff writers at the Tulsa (Okla.) World newspaper.
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'It was our first house. And now it's gone.'
Next door to Plaza Towers Elementary School, Nicholas Davis' 6-year-old woke up from a nap.
“Daddy,” she said, “I'm scared.”
Davis looked outside and saw a tornado so wide that it seemed to take up the whole horizon.
“If we had stayed in the house,” he said, “I don't know if we would still be here.”
So Davis put his daughter in the car along with his 18-month-old twins and raced for the Southwest Medical Center, where his wife and other nurses were pushing patients into the hallway.
“It was our first house,” Lauren Davis said. “And now it's gone.”
Police tried to keep residents and media out of the neighborhood Monday, making the Davis family turn back a couple of times.
“We snuck in a back way,” Lauren said. “It's our house, why shouldn't we be able to see it?”
Moore police explained that gas leaks and debris still posed a safety risk, especially with nails and broken boards littering the muddy ground.
It was a risk Davis was willing to take, salvaging a bag full of toys, birth certificates and the footprints that were taken at the hospital after their children were born.
“Things can be replaced,” she said. “But these things can't.”
— Michael Overall
Daughter to mom: 'A tornado is coming, you have 10 minutes'
Moore resident Marie Braham got a message from her daughter Samantha Evans, a senior meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma: “A tornado is coming, you have 10 minutes.”
She grabbed her three pugs, her son and her daughter who attends the junior high where she works, and prayed her other children would be safe as she headed to Norman.
They looked back as they turned south on the highway, and saw it: the wedge tornado.
They cried and prayed that her girls on lockdown at Moore High School would be OK, that their house would be spared.
They were lucky. The tornado blazed a path a few blocks from their home. A friend's house is half gone. The farm where one of her daughters works after school is obliterated.
“We're pretty grateful considering what everyone else has lost,” Braham said.
On their way back to check on the house Tuesday morning, they saw power lines knocked over leading to their addition, Summit Ridge.
“It looks like someone just took their hand and went like THAT,” she said, sweeping her arm.
She's lived in Moore 22 years, but this was her first time seeing a tornado so close.
Evans was 7 when the 1999 tornadoes devastated Moore. It led to a lifelong fascination with meteorology, her eventual career choice. She was out storm chasing Monday when she sent her mother the message.
— Cary Aspinwall
Woman rode out twister in storm cellar with dachshund
NORMAN, Okla. — Juanita Wright sat inside the makeshift shelter at Norman's Journey Church on Tuesday, a sandwich and Sprite nearby, her beloved dachshund, Daisy, at her feet. The two of them rode out the EF5 tornado that ravaged Moore together.
“I live on Pinewood between Eastern and Sunnylane,” Wright said. “I've got a little storm cellar in my garage. The three TV channels gave us a wide time factor to get ready, if you ever are ready. I was pretty ready.
“At about two o'clock it hit, and the weather man told us to be underground because it's deadly. Daisy and I got into our shelter down there, with two little radios on different channels. They kept saying it was headed toward Eastern.”
Wright survived the May 3, 1999, twister. She would have to survive another just as deadly.
“The one before sounded like a train and kind of moved quick. But this one didn't. This one started sounding … I can't even explain how it sounded … But by the time it got over our house, it almost popped my eardrums. It was like an earthquake. It shook us, even with all the concrete around us. ...
“It was just a horrifying experience.”
— Guerin Emig
In rubble, woman finds what she's looking for: mom's ashes
Within 15 minutes of digging in the rubble of her home, Shelly Gotcher found what she was looking for — her mother's ashes.
“This is devastation,” she said while standing in the center looking around her.
Her daughter, Monica Gotcher, came to help her parents retrieve clothes, photos and essentials they need.
“The ashes were No. 1 and everything else is a plus,” she said.
The Gotchers moved into the Moore home two months ago and took shelter in a neighbor's cellar.
The patriarch of the family — Shelly's father — refused to go into the shelter.
The 73-year-old rode out the storm in a bathroom and became buried under the house.
“We came out and just saw his hand,” said Monica Gotcher. “We dug him out and got him into a chair until we could get him to a hospital. They had to staple his ear back to his head, he had broken ribs and staples in his forehead. But he's going to be OK.”
When the family returned to the home Tuesday, they found Shelly Gotcher's smashed car with an American flag posted on it.
“I know it's monumental and meaningful, but that is my car,” she said. “I don't appreciate someone doing that to my car.”
— Ginnie Graham
Man shot close-up video of twister, then hid in bathtub
NORMAN, Okla.— Ronnie White was willing to tell his story. OK if he got a cup of coffee first?
After what the southeast Moore resident went through Monday, he deserved whatever he wanted, and all the time he needed.
“I live on Southeast 6th, behind the old hospital. There isn't anything there no more,” White said in the breakfast area of the New Life Bible Church shelter in Norman Tuesday.
“Me and my brother were taking video of the tornado. It was two houses behind us. We realized we needed to get inside as soon as we could. We covered up in the bathtub, and it hit the house like a bulldozer.
“I've been through two tornadoes. This was the worst.”
Worse than the one that struck the same region May 3, 1999.
“My mother and father-in-law lost everything. They moved to Cordell,” White said. “I lived in Newcastle back then. I'm recently divorced, so I moved in with my mom and brother. Been there ever since. Until now.”
White carries a grim reminder that it could have been so much worse.
“We lost a girl across the street, a kid's mom,” he said. “We had to dig her out, and she didn't make it. Their three vehicles went through their house. One hit the oldest boy. He had a big gash on his face. But his mom didn't make it. I think she was the only person on the street who didn't make it.”
White said it took him three hours to get out of Moore Monday night. He eventually found himself near New Life in north Norman.
“The people here found us when we were letting our dogs use the restroom,” he said. “I got an hour of sleep last night. I drank a whole pot of coffee, just trying to think of what we're gonna try to do today.”
— Guerin Emig
Dogs survive storm, safe in kennel covered by dry wall
Katie Bowen always puts her miniature Dachshunds in a kennel before going to work at an Oklahoma City hospital.
Usually, the kennel sits by the back door, where there was nothing recognizable left after Monday's tornado. With a stormy forecast, her husband had suggested moving the kennel to an inside hallway.
After the storms, Bowen sneaked into the neighborhood Monday afternoon to search for her pets, ignoring police who told her to turn around.
“The dogs are all we care about,” she said. “Nothing else in the house matters.”
Lifting some boards, Bowen heard a bark. And she dug faster.
“Help,” she called out. “I need help.”
Nearby officers rushed over, lifting a piece of dry wall off the kennel.
“There's not a scratch on them,” Bowen said. “They didn't even get wet or dirty.”
— Michael Overall
'We saw dust and debris flying around in the sky'
NORMAN, Okla. — Lorenzo Beard was at work in El Reno when the deadly EF5 tornado blew through Moore Monday. One son, Lorenzo Jr., was in downtown Oklahoma City.
But the two others? Steve and Newton Beard were home, in the same neighborhood as Plaza Towers Elementary.
“I was outside for a while, watching it form up the street,” 19-year-old Steve Beard said.
“It started roaring like a train would. We saw dust and debris flying around in the sky. I told Newton, 'Let's get into the bathtub.'
“We did and put a mattress over us. From there, we just waited while we heard the debris hitting our house and all of the windows busting out. Glass was everywhere. After about 30 seconds it ended and we got up and looked around. Everything outside was all cleared out.”
Including, tragically, Plaza Towers, the three boys' old school.
“They all walked,” Lorenzo Sr. said. “It was within walking distance.”
“Now, one of my friend's mom works there. But she's OK,” Steve said. “He said she's just hurt. She's a teacher.”
The Beards' home emerged better than most.
“The back of our house got busted up pretty bad, but the houses around us had collapsed completely,” Steve said. “From our house you can see three houses still standing but the next two were cleared away.”
“We've got to go back to get our windows boarded up and our roof covered. There's a whole in the roof now. It's all torn up,” Lorenzo Sr. said. “I just don't know when that's gonna be.”
— Guerin Emig