May 1999: The Oklahoman

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
May 4, 1999, Tuesday CITY EDITION
‘They Were in the House That’s Gone’ Victims, Volunteers Flood Area Medical Centers

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Melissa Nelson, Staff Writers

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 8

LENGTH: 873 words

Outside Hillcrest Medical Center, sirens wailed as ambulances
kept arriving Monday night.

Frazzled medical workers helped old men and women, heads and
knees covered with bandages, into wheelchairs. Nurses and doctors
rolled bloodied babies and young children inside on stretchers.

As the television boomed with reports of deadly tornadoes, Tony
Lawson sat in the emergency room – sweat and shock covering his
face.

“Luckily, it just went over our house, but it took our
daughter’s house,” Lawson, 39, said.

Lawson found his daughter, grandson and a friend amid the
remains of their destroyed home. He rushed them to the hospital and
wasn’t sure how badly they were injured.

“All I know is they were in the house that’s gone,” he said.

The scene was repeated Monday night at hospitals throughout the
Oklahoma City area. At least nine were confirmed dead by hospitals,
and more than 350 patients were treated.

Area hospitals jumped to “code black” and a disaster mode during
the chaos of the multiple tornadoes.

Southwest Medical Center reported more than 75 injuries and four
fatalities. Midwest Regional Medical Center reported two
fatalities, and more than 75 patients with minor to severe
injuries. Patients varied in age from 1 to 98. Baptist Medical
Center reported nine minor injuries, including eight from gas fumes
and a head injury.

Norman Regional Hospital spokesman Grant Farrimond confirmed one
fatality and said at least 50 patients were admitted by late
Monday. Flying glass accounted for many of the injuries, he said.

At Hillcrest Health Center, 2129 SW 59, more than 150 patients
were crowded into the emergency room, outpatient surgery, inpatient
surgery unit – even the cafeteria. At least two fatalities were
confirmed, and hospital officials said there could be more.

Integris Southwest Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said,
was “full… with a lot of head and neck injuries.”

“We were ready to accept mass casualties,” said a spokesman for
Integris Southwest and Integris Baptist Medical Center, which
called in more than 400 extra staff members to take casualty
overflows from other hospitals if needed.

Trucks with makeshift gurneys, ambulances and medical flights
overwhelmed the emergency room at Midwest City Regional Medical
Center as hospital workers struggled to organize the chaos. Victims
and volunteers inundated the hospital.

Air Force Pilot Jonathan Clements’ son, Dejean, 4, was among the
dozens treated at Midwest City Regional.

Clements had cradled Dejean as the tornado roared over their
home on Tinker Air Force Base. But later, as natural gas fumes
settled over the base, Dejean became dizzy and started vomiting. At
Midwest City Regional, paramedics gave Dejean oxygen, and he later
left the hospital dazed but uninjured.

As the night wore on, family members searched frantically for
wives, husbands and children at the hospital. Volunteers also
flooded the hospital, but many were turned away. The hospital’s
parking lot overflowed, and ambulances struggled through the
congestion to deliver tornado victims.

Paramedic John Griffith directed the vehicles to the circular
driveway as sirens wailed through the night. A few seconds later,
two pickups with injured people wrapped in blankets and strapped to
makeshift gurneys speeded through the entrance as an ambulance
stalled, blocking a section of the drive. Volunteers struggled to
push the ambulance out of the way as medical staff triaged the victims.

At Hillcrest Medical Center, hospital officials worked
feverishly to flip through handwritten pages listing the injured,
including young children who did not know their last names.

Distraught relatives kept rushing through the sliding-glass
doors, hoping to find their loved ones. A father described his
13-year-old son and told of a gash on his head and his broken
teeth. Another man came searching for his 78-year-old mother. A man
in bare feet, his shoes lost from running through debris, came to
find his brother.

“Every one of them was gone,” the man said of the homes in the
neighborhood he had left. “Every one of them.”

Ruth Hensley, a registered nurse visiting Moore, hid under an
Interstate 35 overpass during the storm. She then helped a
paramedic bring a mother and her 11-year-old son to the hospital.
The mother had a fractured leg, while the boy’s shoulder was
severely cut.

“They were in a house that was totaled,” Hensley said. “The
little boy said he flew up in the air and his mother caught him and
held him down.”

As Lawson waited in the Hillcrest emergency room, shock suddenly
gave way to a painful reality: His injured grandson Matthew
Chapman’s fourth birthday is Wednesday, and all his presents were
wiped away by a tornado.

But Lawson promised the boy will get a birthday party, even if
his home no longer exists.

“Fortunately, my wife and I hadn’t had a chance to get his
presents yet, so at least he’ll get a couple of things,” the
grandfather said.

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
May 5, 1999, Wednesday CITY EDITION
Storm Damage Evokes Images of War Zones

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Melissa Nelson, Staff Writers

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1170 words

For Mitch Morris, a 40-foot-long, 72-passenger school bus told
Midwest City’s story Tuesday.

The monster that ravaged this community picked
up the bright yellow bus and threw it nearly two football fields. A
Chevrolet S-10 Blazer was flung further.

“It threw ‘em everywhere,” Morris said of the 30 vehicles that
were behind his auto shop waiting for engine repairs.

“See that white Chevy? That brown Ford? That upside-down
Cadillac?” he said, taking a break from shoveling glass. “Every car
we had down here is totaled.”

But the vehicles were hard to spot amid the destruction all
around Morris’ Auto Machine and Supply at 5704 SE 15.

Every direction he looked, Morris saw tattered wood, cracked
bricks, ripped shingles, soaked insulation, broken glass, twisted
metal, smashed street signs, uprooted tree branches and piles of
debris where motels and restaurants, apartments and a church stood
just the day before.

From his shop’s front door, he stared across a grassy field
brushed clear of houses by a funnel cloud.

All along SE 15, commercial structures were destroyed. An
appliance store. A motorcycle shop. An auto auction. A tire
business.

“About the only thing I could equate it to was pictures you see
of a nuclear blast in Japan,” Morris said. “It’s probably one of
the scariest things I’ve seen.”

It looked as if a giant broom descended from the sky in Midwest
City, sweeping everything, from four-story hotels to rows of
houses, into piles of dust.

Along Interstate 40, a Comfort Inn, a Clarion Inn and a Hampton
Inn were destroyed, as were a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and
the Bristol Station restaurant. Also sustaining damages were a
Conoco store, an abandoned gas station, Rose State College and
Hudiburg Chevrolet.

Loren Thompson, a National Guard rescue worker, said he had seen
this type of destruction only once before – in the battlefields of
northern Iraq.

The Hampton Inn was a mountain of rubble. Mangled cars filled
what was the hotel’s second story. Rescuers used license-plate
numbers to track down car owners’ relatives.

“The people who were staying here, they’ve got to be somewhere,”
said Cecil Frymire of the Midwest City Police Department.

The scene was the same at the Comfort Inn next door where many
of the people staying in the Hampton Inn ran for cover moments
before the tornado struck. Frymire and others feared they would
find victims beneath the rubble.

In the neighborhood behind the hotels, Thompson and his team of
rescuers used their hands to dig through rubble. In one home, they
found the body of a young boy.

James Hill wandered through the destroyed neighborhood looking
for the home of his sister, Tamika Jackson. He last heard from her
around 6 p.m. Monday. He tried to locate her throughout the night.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Law enforcement officers ordered Hill to leave the area before
he could find his sister’s home.

Only the smallest things survived the tornado: pantyhose boxes,
VCR tapes, Band-Aid tins, stuffed animals and oven mitts. Anything
larger seemed to be blown to shreds.

A Southgate, Mich., couple, William and Margaret Pollock, picked
the Comfort Inn to stay in Monday night on their way to visit a
daughter in Albuquerque, N.M. They survived the tornado by hiding
in a bathtub.

Their champagne-colored Buick Riviera was just one of the
out-of-state license plates in the inn’s devastated parking lot
Tuesday. California, Georgia, Virginia, New Mexico, New York, Texas
- all represented drivers who found themselves at the wrong place
at the wrong time.

“We’re fortunate that we’re not hurt,” Margaret Pollock said.
“The unfortunate thing is now you have the problems with insurance.”

Not far from the motels, the tornado wreaked havoc on apartment
complexes, including the Center Place Apartments, where Howard Cote
lives.

“It sounded like a bunch of planes taking off at Tinker,” said
Cote, 43, who sought cover in a bathroom with his wife, Eileen. “It
got real dark out – and just started roaring real loud. It just hit.

“I felt like we were getting bombed.”

Basil D. Gomes stayed with the Cotes after his apartment
complex, the Aquarian Gardens, was struck.

“We thank God we’re alive,” Gomes said. “We can start over
again.”

Up the road, a Nissan pickup was parked upside down in front of
the Sooner Baptist Church, which appeared to be a total loss.

At a strip shopping center not far from the church, Ponderosa
Pawn and the Second-Hand Sports store just missed the tornado’s
destructive wrath. However, Stevens’ Appliance – the store at the
end – was wiped out. Rubbish covered disheveled washers, dryers and
refrigerators.

Fortunately, Dale and Patty Stevens left work at 5:30 p.m.
Monday – on time for a change.

“It was almost like you didn’t know where you were at,
everything was so torn up,” Dale Stevens said later.

“It was terrible… like walking into a war zone,” his wife said.

Patty Stevens won’t soon forget the look on her husband’s face
when he saw his uninsured business in shreds.

“Oh, God,” she said. “It was like his heart dropped to his feet.
You think of 15 years of hard work, and it’s gone.”

In a nearby neighborhood, Phyllis Whitehead picked up trash
blowing in her yard. A large piece of metal hung from a power line,
clanging in the wind. A dented Interstate 40 sign, blown across the
countryside, sat beside her house at 1300 Buena Vista. A car hood
rested in her bathroom window.

“We’re blessed,” said Whitehead, unconcerned about the roof and
water damage to the year-old, red-brick home. “The Lord took good
care of us.

“My flowers were just gorgeous,” she said. “But it doesn’t
matter. It’s just material things. A lot of people lost a lot more.”

Indeed, flat earth replaced many homes. Some people lost their
lives.

Whitehead’s next-door neighbor, Charlie Collins, 38, and his
son, Chris, 17, hid in a concrete-protected bedroom as metal shot
through their living-room glass.

After the tornado passed, the father and son ran through the
neighborhood, rescuing two people from a storm cellar buried under
debris.

On Tuesday afternoon, birds chirping outside the Collins house
could be heard through missing windows in the den. Charlie Collins
reflected on how much damage was done so quickly.

“It lasted not even 30 seconds,” he said. “We could just feel it
coming.”

In neighboring Del City, Jerry Jackson said his neighborhood
around 5112 SE 50 looked like Nagasaki, Japan.

“The storm happened and we just wandered through the streets,”
Jackson said. “We were afraid to leave our home and afraid to stay.”

He and his wife, Nelda, were forced to spend Monday night at
First Southern Baptist Church’s shelter.

“We never really did sleep,” she said. “We just listened to our
radios and held hands.”

Staff writer Andrew Gilman contributed to this report.

May 6, 1999, Thursday CITY EDITION
Junk Yields Gems

BYLINE: This story was written from reports by staff writers Bobby Ross Jr., Melissa Nelson, Meri McManus, Amy Greene and Christy Watson.

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1062 words

As the damage estimate from Monday’s deadly tornadoes doubled,
thousands of Oklahomans dug through the mess of their ravaged
homes Wednesday.

Amid the devastation, victims salvaged tiny mementos like
diamond anniversary rings, family photographs and Barbie dolls.

Brian Colhmia sat amid the rubble of his grandfather’s Del City
home holding a handful of engraved pens. His grandfather, Gustia
Miller, 75, died trying to protect Colhmia’s grandmother, Dorothy,
who was in critical condition Wednesday awaiting heart surgery.

“We aren’t looking for anything of value because there’s
insurance for that,” Cohlmia said. “We are looking for mementos.”

But most of the people picking through piles of splintered wood,
shattered glass and water-ringed mattresses didn’t find much to
take home – even if they had one.

“Start from scratch and go on – it’s all we can do,” said Steve
Ruddell, who plans to rebuild his Midwest City home. “I’ve been
here 33 years. I can’t leave.”

While victims searched for priceless possessions, the
Southwestern Insurance Information Service, an insurance industry
trade group, more than doubled its estimate of the Oklahoma City
area’s insured losses.

Losses could be as high as $ 500 million, said Jerry Johns, the
insurance group’s president. That estimate was up from a $ 225
million figure given Tuesday and could rise again, Johns said.

In 12 counties hit by tornadoes, more than 10,000 homes, mobile
homes, businesses and apartment buildings were reported destroyed
or damaged by county civil emergency management directors. Those
counties are Oklahoma , Grady , McClain , Cleveland , Lincoln ,
Pottawatomie , Kingfisher , Logan , Noble , Creek , Tulsa and Caddo .

Monday’s deadly tornadoes killed at least 38 Oklahomans. Five
more people were killed in Kansas and another person died Tuesday
in Texas, making this the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak since
1985.

While the big numbers tell the story, little people like Marcus
Allen tell it better.

The Del City boy celebrated his sixth birthday April 29. On
Monday, he cowered under a mattress as his family home was
decimated. On Wednesday, he searched the muddy debris for his
birthday presents.

He was gleeful after finding a remote control, but discovered it
didn’t work. He most wanted to find his Sorry board game.

“But I think all the pieces were probably blown away,” he told
his dad.

His mom, Michelle, found her diamond anniversary ring.

A few houses down, in a neighborhood where 700 homes were
destroyed, Bob Douglass dug in the mud for Barbie dolls.

His granddaughter will rejoice when she is reunited with the
dolls, said Douglass, who not only lost a home but also a friend,
Robert Siano. Siano, 28, was killed when the tornado ripped through
his Moore home.

All that was left of Julie Quirk’s home was the foundation. But
she wasn’t worried about that. Her father, Ronald Perkins, was
crushed in the tornado and remained in critical condition Wednesday
after two surgeries.

In the debris of Perkins’ home, his family found his golf clubs.

“Dad played golf every day,” she said.

In south Oklahoma City, Bernard Calamug used his bed frame to
climb to the remains of his second-story apartment at Emerald
Springs Apartments. Calamug was among thousands of people allowed
to go to their homes for the first time since the tornadoes hit.

Calamug found Navy uniforms and shoes but not the one thing he
needed most – his wallet. While his spirits were high, others
weren’t.

Daniel Harpster spouted expletives as he moved each board and
chunk of debris in front of his home.

Later, he balanced on a ledge, hung on to a cord and threw down
food from his pantry.

“Try to find the hard drive – to hell with everything else,” he
yelled down to friends and family sorting through rubble below.

Harpster lost most everything and, like most of his neighbors,
didn’t have insurance.

Outside the barricades, Debbi Morgan waited for her sister to
arrive so the pair could start sorting through debris.

Morgan’s sister, Sandee Coffee, hoped to find a hope chest with
photographs inside.

In Midwest City , Verlyn Marchbanks focused on finding his cat
“Tigger” and his big-screen television. The family was out of town
when the twisters struck Monday night, and they’d had a major
argument over whether the cat would be left inside while they were
gone.

“Finally, I used my authority and said we were leaving her
outside,” Marchbanks said. “Thank God we did.”

About 1 1/2 hours after Marchbanks, his wife and their two
daughters returned, they found Tigger under a pile of debris.

But there was no sign of the big-screen television he’d bought
less than a year ago. Just as he’d decided the storm must have
carried it away, he found it – laying in the middle of the floor
with everything on top of it.

His 15-year-old daughter, Amber, said the cat was the only thing
she was desperate to find in the rubble.

“I really didn’t care about the possessions,” she said. “It hurt
to see what was taken, but we have each other, we’re here, we
survived.

“We’ll make it. We got each other.”

In Bridge Creek , where 11 people died, tears of joy streamed
down Pam Kreager’s face when her father triumphantly uncovered a
picture of her oldest son, Corey.

But then, Kreager turned and stared once again at an empty area
where dog houses for Dusty, Ranger and Coda once sat.

“I had pictures of my dogs with Santa Claus. I can’t stop
thinking about my dogs,” Kreager said.

Neighbors found two dogs dead, but couldn’t tell which ones they
were. The other is missing.

Her sons will soon leave for their grandparents’ house in
Missouri, while she tries to recapture a sense of safety ripped
away by the twister.

“I can’t think of being alone right now. I’m scared of being
alone. I’m terrified of the dark. What do you do after this? I
don’t know where to call, where to go,” cried Kreager, who is
staying with her parents in south Oklahoma City.

She has no plans to rebuild.

“I can’t even imagine coming back here to live. I love it here.
It was my dream home. But all I can hear is the sound of breaking
glass. I couldn’t live here again.”
Staff writers Danny Boyd and Mark Hutchison contributed to this
report.

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
May 7, 1999, Friday CITY EDITION
Ordeal Discourages Victim Wounded Woman Struggles to Tell Tale

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 14

LENGTH: 304 words

“Oh, God, it was so terrible,” Angela Todd said Thursday as she
struggled to tell her story.The tornado victim, 29, lay in a hospital bed at Integris
Southwest Medical Center.

Scratched face. Bandaged neck. Fractured right shoulder. Broken
left hand. Two right fingers facing possible amputation.

“We were watching TV, and the TV said to go hide for shelter,”
the south Oklahoma City woman said, moaning from pain.A relative held Todd’s 4-year-old son, Devin, beside her bed.
His face had large scratches. His grandmother, Ruby Meyer, pulled
up his T-shirt and showed many more. Three days after the
nightmare, the little boy still seemed unsure what had happened.

Son, mom and boyfriend, Curtis Sumrall, had hid in a bathtub.

“And then it hit. The roof was the first to come down. And I
remember we kept getting hit and hit,” Todd said.

A neighbor’s car fell on them and apparently helped save them.
They hid underneath the car as the barrage continued.

“My boyfriend kept telling me to, ‘Go under. Go under.’… I
couldn’t breathe. We were suffocating from the debris and something
hit us again.”

Whatever hit them threw her across the neighborhood, dropping
her four houses away.

It was there that she watched a man die.

The man kept hollering, “Please, help me. Please, help me.” But
no one could.

Eventually, her sister Ellen DiBonto found her and helped dig
her out of rubble. Her niece, Missty DiBonto, rescued Devin.
Sumrall also was hurt, but not severely.

Todd was asked about her outlook for the future. She paused for
a long time.

“There’s a lot of people worse off than me,” she finally said.
“But I tell you, right now, I don’t have much hope. I worked so
hard for what little stuff I have, and I’m just kind of angry it’s
all gone, truthfully.”

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
May 7, 1999, Friday CITY EDITION
Doctor, Daughter Feel Tornado’s Impact

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 14

LENGTH: 277 words

Dr. Dale Askins, emergency room director for Hillcrest Health
Center and Integris Southwest Medical Center, spent Monday moving
his 19-year-old daughter into an apartment.The family unloaded the last piece of furniture about 3 p.m.

But Kelly Askins never got to spend the night in Emerald Springs
Apartment 600, No. 74.

About 6 p.m., Dr. Askins heard tornado warnings. He quickly
called his wife, Dana. She called Kelly and told her to come home,
about a mile and a half away, and get in the basement.Kelly made it home about 20 minutes before a tornado wiped out
most of her apartment complex at 12500 S Western, across the street
from Westmoore High.

Meantime, Dad was at work, dealing with a major medical disaster.

“I did call home and knew she had gotten home,” he said. “It
made it a lot better.

“It was tough,” he quickly added, describing the real-life “ER.”
“We had lots of kids. We had several fatalities.

“I pronounced three people dead at Southwest before I went back
to Hillcrest and had two die.”

Thursday, on his first day off since the tragedy, Dr. Askins
drove a red Ford Explorer pulling a trailer back to Kelly’s
apartment. He saw firsthand the wasteland created by nature’s wrath.

They came to take Kelly’s furniture back home. While many nearby
apartments were reduced to rubble, hers sustained only broken
windows, ceiling damage and a stick that pierced a wall.

“My old roommate lives around the corner, and all her stuff is
gone,” Kelly said.

Dr. Askins pulled the foot-long piece of wood out of the wall
and handed it to his daughter.

“Here, Kelly, you should keep this,” he said.

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