One Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., family hugged each other in a bathroom while another hid in a stairway closet as a monster tornado ravaged everything in its path.
When the mile and a half-wide storm finally passed Moore, Okla., on May 20, both families emerged from their small hiding places to provide help for survivors at a nearby elementary school in the aftermath of the EF-5 tornado that killed 24 people, including seven children at another area school.
“I’ve got to get to the school,” Master Sgt. Jason Crosby told his wife, Master Sgt. Jennifer Crosby, after the 72nd Medical Operations Squadron medic got his first glimpse of the devastation and heard the screams from Briarwood Elementary School. “There are kids there.”
A day earlier, Tech. Sgt. Rhonda Stockstill and her husband Lendle were dodging another tornado as they drove home from her in-laws near Tulsa.
“I’d like to see what a tornado looks like,” her husband said.
“No, you don’t,” replied Stockstill, a 72nd Medical Operations Squadron surgical services flight chief.
A day later, her husband got his wish. Stockstill realized a tornado was on its way while she was at work and warned her staff members to hurry home.
“I’ve been in this weather,” she said before running to her truck. “I know what it feels like. I know what it sounds like. Y’all need to get home. Now.”
As Stockstill dodged gawkers and slow-moving traffic on her drive from Tinker AFB to reach her husband and parents at her house, the Crosbys were on their way home from a doctor’s appointment in Edmond, north of Oklahoma City. Their 16-year-old daughter Caitlyn was soon released from school in Del City 12 miles away and drove home with her younger brother Landon, while getting periodical weather updates from her parents on her cell phone.
She made it home by 2:50 p.m., followed by her parents a few minutes later. The family had just made it into the bathroom five minutes before the tornado struck at 3:15. Kaitlyn and her parents prayed aloud for the family’s safety, and 11-year-old Landon covered his ears as he repetitively recited “The Lord’s Prayer” in Psalms 23.
“Our big concern was not being able to protect our kids because at that moment, we were helpless,” Crosby said.
“My body was so sore the next day from holding them so tight,” his wife added. “I was so scared they might be ripped from us if the walls were taken. That was my main concern – making sure I was holding them tight, especially (Landon) because he was on the outer wall, and I felt that would be the first to go.”
Meanwhile, hail pounded Stockstill’s truck and wind gusts were getting stronger as she arrived at her house minutes before the tornado.
“Get in the truck!” she screamed to her awaiting family.
“There’s not enough time,” her father Leroy Terry answered. “Get in the house.”
They retrieved their dogs and joined Stockstill’s mother, Brenda Terry, in the closet under the stairs, with blankets and pillows surrounding them.
“We hear a grumble that was really more like a growl, and we just hear it getting closer and closer,” Stockstill said. “Then, we knew it was over us because we could hear the wood snapping. The glass didn’t just break, it exploded because of the pressure. It was almost like a large airplane as it’s gearing to take off. Add a large growl and an industrial wood chipper as it’s grinding, like it’s picking up your house and putting it through a large wood grinder.”
After the sounds of violence subsided, they slowly emerged from the closet, first the men, then Stockstill, still in her airman battle uniform, and her mother. The downstairs master bedroom was largely undamaged, compared to the rest of the house, so Stockstill placed her mother and the dogs there. “Mom, just sit on the bed,” she told her. “You don’t want to see what’s outside.” But she followed the rest of the family outside anyway and screamed when she saw what was left of the neighborhood.
They could hear gas pipes hissing and another sound they couldn’t identify.
“As we walked down the sidewalk, it got louder, and we were trying to figure out what was that sound,” Stockstill said. Just as we crossed over to the front of the garage, my husband yelled, ‘It’s the school! It’s the kids!’”
Stockstill immediately ran in between houses toward the school and found everybody in shock. She began encouraging teachers to move their students and others to a safe area when a man told her there were “two dead babies in the road.”
Stockstill said she walked in that direction and saw her father standing on rubble, searching for a baby. A few minutes later, he whistled, alerting her that he found an injured woman.
She grabbed her medical bag and found an elderly lady, bleeding profusely with a traumatic brain injury and fractured leg Stockstill said. After wrapping the victim in a thermal blanket Stockstill determined that she needed a (cervical neck collar) and spine board.
As she walked back toward the emergency vehicles to retrieve the supplies, Stockstill found a woman clutching something in a blanket. Thinking it was one of the two babies the man told her about, she tried to convince the woman to seek medical attention. However, she wouldn’t because the baby her father was searching for was her 4-year-old daughter, who was later found dead under rubble a few houses down the street, Stockstill said.
“It was also (the woman’s own) mother we were packaging up to take in the truck,” she said.
By the night’s end, Stockstill and her family helped a rescue effort that uncovered 101 people alive, including seven or eight on their own street.
When the tornado passed the Crosby house, they thanked God for keeping them safe and for strength to prepare themselves for what they were going to see outside of the bathroom door. Caitlyn’s room was hit particularly hard. All her clothes were ruined, but a bigger blow was not being able to find a scrapbook her grandmother made for her 16th birthday a month earlier. It was found a day later in the garage with minimal water damage.
The family walked outside, and Crosby’s thoughts turned to the school 75 yards from his house. So he also ran toward the school and began pulling people out of the rubble.
“When I got to the school, there were heroes everywhere,” he said. “Fortunately, God’s hands were on that school, and there were some injuries, but no one was killed. I got to see a community of people who could care less at that point about their houses and what they’d just lost. They wanted to make sure all of those children and teachers were OK.”
Four days later, the Crosbys moved into a rental house, and Stockstill and her family temporarily lived in base housing before they eventually moved into their new home June 17.
Many families were still in the process of rebuilding or finding new homes when disaster struck the Oklahoma City area again less than two weeks later. On May 31, a second EF-5 tornado twice the size of the Moore tornado touched down between El Reno and Union City, about 40 miles west of the base.
Tornadoes are given a rating on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale by the National Weather Service. An EF-5 tornado has winds higher than 200 mph.
Since the tornadoes, families like the Crosbys and Stockstills have had their hearts warmed by reactions from not only their Tinker family, but fellow Airmen worldwide. A trio of Airmen from Dover Air Force Base, Del., showed up four days after the storm to help Stockstill and others salvage items from their destroyed homes.
Some 72nd Medical Group members appeared with a truck of groceries. They took up a collection of AAFES gift cards to replace some of the uniforms lost in the tornado, while others called with emotional support. Maj. Julie Terry, a family practitioner, took Caitlyn shopping to replace the clothes she lost in the storm.
One former Tinker Airman ran 3 miles to check on the Crosbys and brought something that couldn’t be measured in the aftermath of one of Oklahoma’s most devastating natural disasters. He brought hope.
“I was thinking we were going to be here spending the night,” Jennifer Crosby said. “None of our cars were drivable, except Caitlyn’s, and mine was blocking hers. I wasn’t thinking rationally that we could walk out of the subdivision, so in my mind, we were stuck. When I saw him, I felt hope. I knew if he got in, we could get out.”
But perhaps the most meaningful for Crosby were the six words he heard from his supervisor when he returned to work. “You’d be so proud of our Airmen,” Maj. Isabella Alvarez, flight chief of the family health clinic, told him.
After the tornado, their medics piled in a truck and drove to the entry control point in Moore and worked until 3 a.m., digging through rubble, looking for survivors and treating injured survivors. They were back at work for their normal duty day a few hours later and returned to Moore that afternoon.
“The way the Air Force, as a whole, has taken care of us, the way Tinker Air Force Base has taken care of us, has just been amazing,” Crosby said. “I get chill bumps to think I work for an organization that in a time of distress like we were in, I don’t have to worry about anything because they’re going to make sure that we, my wife and kids have everything we need.”
Even in the devastation after the tornado, Stockstill saw signs she believes were evidence that her faith played a role in her family’s survival of the trauma that spring afternoon. A cross remained on the wall in a house almost completely destroyed. The Bible remained untouched at the top of the stairs, above the closet where her family huddled together.
“Can good things come out of devastation? Absolutely, but you have to make sure you have the right mindset,” she said. “Did we have a rough first couple of weeks? Absolutely. I think I cried for a week straight, but even though I cried, I knew we were going to be OK. We went through shock, crying, anger, all of the stages. But then I had to thank God that I was alive because you can rebuild things. You can’t rebuild someone’s life.”
Two EF-5 tornadoes in less than two weeks more than satisifed Stockstill’s husband’s curiosity. He no longer has a desire to see a tornado.
“No, he said that was enough,” Stockstill said.