MOORE, Okla. – The tragedy at Plaza Towers Elementary took a new turn Thursday with the the first of seven funeral services for the children killed three days earlier when a massive tornado smashed the school to pieces.
An unrelenting band of storms pounded the area Thursday, drenching battered homes and schools as preparations took place to honor little Antonia Candelaria, shown in a family portrait with a beaming smile and white sun hat.
The horrifying tale of death at the school haunts the families of all the students.
Kelly Nichols remembers running up to the front door of Plaza Towers to retrieve her 9-year-old son, Ethan. She gasped when she saw the school’s front glass façade had been pulverized, the roof ripped off, walls punched in, and a car flipped inside the main hallway.
The tornado that mauled through town moments earlier had pummeled the school. Ethan was inside.
“That was the worst moment,” Nichols, 36, said days later as she picked through the ruins of her home, two blocks from the school. “I’ve never felt fear like that in my life.”
STORY: Profiles of those who died
FULL COVERAGE: Tornadoes devastate Oklahoma
Unlike past tornados, this one burst into town just past 3 p.m., when students were still in class. School officials made the difficult, though oft-rehearsed, decision to keep students on campus rather than release them into the path of the storm.
That decision turned deadly at Plaza Towers. Seven of the 24 people killed by the tornado were students at the school, including at least four third-graders who huddled in the same area as Ethan, a second-grader, Nichols said.
Briarwood Elementary, less than two miles west, was equally damaged by the storm but no students died there. Neither of the schools had safe rooms.
Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said the district launched its crisis plan as soon as officials learned of the impending severe weather. The district exceeds the number of required tornado drills it performs each year, she said.
“When our children are at our schools, they are in our care,” Pierce said. “When it was time to shelter, we did just that.”
School officials haven’t released details of what happened inside Plaza Towers Monday. But interviews with parents whose children attend there offer a glimpse into those terrifying moments when an EF-5 tornado roared into their classrooms.
Kristopher Lawson, 33, had just gotten home from work when the TV stations started to warn of a large tornado forming in the area. He hopped in his car and sped across the street to Plaza Towers to get his son, Chandler, a 2nd grader, who was in the back building. A school official told him they were keeping the students at school but he was free to get him “at your own risk,” Lawson said.
Lawson got Chandler from his classroom and told him to run to the car. They sped off to Lawson’s father’s home across town, which has a storm shelter.
The decision to get Chandler was an easy one, he said.
“I wanted him with me, no matter what,” Lawson said. “I’d feel horrible if I’d left him in there.”
Nichols was home when the TV stations showed tornado touching down and headed her way. She had attended grade school at Plaza Towers, was head of its Parent Teacher Association and knew the routines that school officials practiced for sheltering students on campus during storms.
She decided to leave Ethan in school rather than get him.
“I figured the kids will be safe in school,” she said. “I didn’t think (the tornado) could do that to a school.”
She jumped in her pickup truck and drove north, away from the path of the storm. When she returned, her neighborhood had been transformed into an unrecognizable landscape of flattened homes. The school was a clump of debris and rubble. As she ran to the school, its principal, Amy Simpson, ran out, screaming for help, Nichols said.
Nichols entered through the main entrance on the north side of school. To her right, in what once was the teacher’s lounge, one teacher, Linda Patterson, was pinned under a wall still clutching a pre-kindergarten student in her arms. “They’re going to get you out, Linda,” Nichols told her. Down the hall, a teacher’s aide was screaming in pain, a pile of cinderblocks pinning her to the floor, she said.
Nichols made her way back to the back building where Ethan was. The building housing the 2nd and 3rd graders had collapsed onto itself, she said. Neighbors were pulling shivering, crying students from the rubble and handing them down to others. She helped calm some of the students. Still, no Ethan.
“I kept saying, ‘Where’s Ethan? Where’s Ethan?'” she said. “All that mattered was getting him out.”
One of Ethan’s teachers, Jackie Hester, climbed out of the rubble, her hair matted in blood. Nichols asked for her son. “He’s coming,” Hester told her.
When Ethan finally emerged, his face masked in blood from a small cut over his eye, Nichols pulled him into a massive hug. “I just lost it,” she said. “I never felt so helpless in my life.”
As the storm approached, Ethan said teachers herded the students into an interior hallway and huddled them next to the wall. They crouched into the defensive positions they had practiced – knees on ground, head bent toward knees, hands clasped over head, he said. Then the storm roared in.
“Loud like a freight train,” Ethan said. “It spun me around. The third graders got buried under debris.”
Seven children in the building didn’t make it out, according to the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Six died of suffocation, trapped under the rubble, according to the office. A seventh, 8-year-old Kyle Davis, was killed by a stone or beam that fell on his neck.
Nichols said she was perplexed by early reports that students drowned in a basement because Plaza Towers doesn’t have any. But water was pouring in from a main break into the collapsed building Ethan had been in, she said.
As they waited for paramedics, Nichols said Ethan was unusually calm. He chatted with other students and, at one point, wandered away from her. He had walked over to hug Hester.
Except for a few sleepless nights immediately after the storm, Ethan has been normal, Nichols said. But someday soon, he’ll be faced with the severity of what happened.
“Once he realizes who’s not coming back next year, it’ll hit him,” she said.