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Siblings survive havoc of EF-5 twister

Siblings survive havoc of EF-5 twister

Neighborhood debris is scattered across Moore, Okla. after being struck by an EF-5 tornado on Monday. Photo by James Coreas / Editor in Chief

Siblings survive havoc of EF-5 twister
May 22
15:51 2013

Nadia Hill / Managing Editor and James Coreas / Editor in Chief

Keith Dennis heard the sirens wailing from two miles out, patiently listening and waiting for his sister’s voice to reassure him she was alive. She was wrapped in blankets, padded by all of her pillows and huddled under a foam mattress topper. The wind screamed and windows shattered. He knew she was rain soaked, alone and in shock.

Dennis picked apart his sister’s life, one scrap at a time, and looked over as her neighbors did the same. The buckled brown wooden beams were piled across the bleak landscape for miles after one of the deadliest tornadoes in Oklahoma history destroyed homes and took lives.

At 2:56 p.m. Monday, 16 minutes after a tornado warning was issued for the area, an EF-5 twister ripped a 12-mile path across southern Oklahoma for 40 minutes, with winds peaking at 210 mph. The storm killed 24 people, seven of them children after two elementary schools collapsed – Plaza Towers in Moore, Okla. and Briarwood in Oklahoma City. More than 120 were injured and sent to local hospitals for treatment.

“I thought I was dead. I just kept telling him I loved him and hoped for the best,” Dennis’ 22-year-old sister Sarah Torrey said. “I just feel incredibly lucky to be alive. There are lots of people without loved ones. I’m glad to be here and all of my family’s safe.”

Torrey lives in Moore, Okla., a suburb 11 miles south of Oklahoma City hit the hardest by the deadly tornado. Some neighborhoods crumbled while others remained untouched, and 20 of the dead were from the city of 56,000. Monday’s tornado was eerily reminiscent of Moore’s infamous May 1999 storm, another EF-5 cyclone with 302 mph winds. The storm killed 42 people and traveled the same path as this year’s tornado.

This time, Dennis sat a mile south of the town, inching closer to his family, watching cars, homes, rain and hail get thrown in all directions. After the warning was issued, he immediately called Torrey to make sure she stayed safe. She didn’t pick up. He called six or seven times and when she finally answered, Dennis said it was too late to make it to a shelter. They mentally went through everything in her house that could protect her, and she wound up in the house’s center hallway with pillows, blankets, a foam mattress topper and her small dog.

“We had cell reception the whole time so I was able to talk her through it,” Dennis said. “Then she was able to verbally tell me on two or three occasions, ‘I can hear it, I’m starting to hear it.’ She said it’s getting closer, it’s getting louder, that she could hear it. And by then of course I could hear it on the phone.”

Sarah Torrey carries out her belongings form her damaged house Tuesday afternoon in Moore, Okla. Torrey stayed protect by wrapping herself and her dog with a mattress in the hallway of her house. Thousands of survivors were left homeless the day after a massive tornado in Moore. The current death count is 24 people. Photo by James Coreas / Editor in Chief

As the mile-wide tornado descended on the house, Torrey put her phone on speaker and sat it next to her. She clutched her dog as the storm tore through her home. Dennis heard all the noises in the background and continued to talk to her, even though she wasn’t responding. When she came back on the line, Torrey was just taking deep breaths. Then it was all over.

“I just laid there with my dog in my arms and he told me to stay calm and talked me through it,” Torrey said. “Then I crawled out the window to try and find anyone that was trapped.”

Dennis watched the tornado cross I-35 and gave his sister the all clear to go outside.

A recent nursing school grad, Torrey felt compelled to find and help anyone she could, after determining she was fine. While she was checking on her neighbors, Dennis was trying to drive into her neighborhood to find his sister and assess the damage. It took more than an hour for them to reunite but he eventually found her at 10th and Telephone Streets, a major intersection in town. He jumped out of his truck, hugged her and they immediately went back to her house, which was in shambles.

“You feel like you’re shopping for your own stuff again,” Dennis said. “Our first intention was to get extremely valuable stuff like a computer and safe. Now we’re trying to figure out what’s left.”

While Torrey was able to salvage a few things like electronics, clothes and her grandmother’s jewelry box, others were not so lucky. Search and rescue wrapped up Tuesday night, more than 24 hours after the tornado struck, with the death toll stabilizing at 24. Initial reports had it at 91 with 70 children injured.

Moore resident and Air Force veteran Jonathan Barrow had lived in his house for five years with his wife and 2 1/2-year-old daughter when it was leveled by Monday’s tornado. Before he was able to alert officials of his and his family’s whereabouts, his home was marked with an “M,” which means those who live there are unaccounted for.
Barrow was performing surgery at Norman Regional Health Clinic when the storm hit. After the chaos subsided, he said he immediately began to treat walk-in patients.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Barrow said. “My wife lived through May 3 but she said it’s bigger than that was.”

A nearby bowling alley where Oklahoma Natural Gas employees would host their annual work party for the last five years was also demolished. Gas worker Dawnita Dumas walked through the rubble and drizzling rain, shocked by the damage and lamenting the loss of her company’s bonding site.

“I lived through all three tornadoes, including May 3, and I decided to stay in Moore,” Dumas said. “And I’m still going to stay in Moore. I’m more devastated by the kids than anything. This is definitely worse than anything.”

Nearly 48 hours after the tornado struck this close-knit community, the damage is clear, estimated at about $2 billion, according to the Oklahoma Insurance Department.

President Obama expressed his concerns for the people of Moore, and guaranteed aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To help victims of Moore and others affected by the recent severe weather in north Texas, Red Cross is accepting donations. Churches in and around Moore were accepting donations of food and clothing, and groups in surrounding towns were organizing drives to collect basic necessities.

Serve Denton, a nonprofit in Denton, took donations all day Tuesday and will be sending relief packages to Moore. Contact them at servedenton.org.

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