By Allen G. Breed/The Associated Press
MOORE, Okla. — They say you should never make a big decision when you’re emotional. But what if there’s barely a moment to think and a life-or-death choice looming?
In those last horrifying minutes before the EF5 tornado struck, there was no time for reflection or regret. Just questions needing answers, right now.
Does a pregnant woman go to find her daughter, or protect the life growing inside her?
Does a husband risk his life to go back for the family pets?
Do you listen to a spouse on the other end of the telephone, or to the little voice in your heart?
With death staring them in the face and adrenaline coursing through their veins, the citizens of Moore were faced with the biggest decisions of their lives, and they had nothing to go on but gut instinct amid raw terror.
As she ran from room to room, Cindy Sasnett prayed to God for help and cursed herself for not being better prepared.
“What was I thinking?” she remonstrated herself for not insisting they build a storm shelter. “We should have had one. If anything, for the children.”
The day of the tornado, husband Jim Sasnett, machinist, was at work about 10 miles away in Oklahoma City. Cindy, who runs a daycare out of their 1,600-square-foot home, had six charges that day, including her 2-year-old grandson, Jack.
About an hour and a half before the storm hit, parents of four kids had come to retrieve them. The fifth, Rob Willis, was on his way from Edmond to get 2-year-old Cade, but was stuck in traffic.
The couple had talked about installing a shelter after devastating tornadoes struck Moore in 1999 and again in 2003. But lack of funds or just rank procrastination always seemed to conquer the fear.
Now, Cindy Sasnett was petrified.
She called her husband, and he told her it looked as if the storm might turn away from their home. But she couldn’t get over her feelings of unease.
She was looking to another source for guidance.
“God, it’s here,” she prayed. “What do I do, Lord?”
She raced into their bedroom, where she kept her mother’s ashes. As she stood in the doorway, a little voice said, “No. Go.” She ran to a closet, then to a hallway, and confronted the same whisperings.
Suddenly, she heard the television announcer say that the tornado was heading for her area, and that no one without a shelter could survive. She grabbed the children and said, “Come on, babies. We’re going.”
Dirt and bits of leaf pelted the 50-year-old grandmother as she strapped Jack and Cade into their car seats. Cade looked up and pointed.
“Look,” he shouted. “Tornado!” Jack joined in.
She slammed the SUV into gear and raced up the street ahead. Glancing over her shoulder, her eyes clouded with tears, she thought how strange it would be to survive the storm, only to die in a car crash.
Now, Jim was her guide, on the cell phone. Watching the storm’s progress on TV at work, he told her to head toward Sunnylane Road, turn right, then go south.
Cindy circled until the radio announcer said it was safe for Moore residents to return. When she got back to the house, every room in which she’d considered taking shelter was demolished.
A couple of hours later, Rob Willis came staggering up the street. He wrapped her in a bear hug and thanked her again and again for saving his only child.
Cindy wants two things to come from their experience. She hopes Jim will fully accept Jesus into his life.
And she wants their next home to have a shelter.
Leslie Paul knew that her son was safe.
Husband Scott, an Oklahoma County sheriff’s deputy, had been wanting to spend more time with the kids. So on Monday, he took 4-year-old Hayden with him to the command center off Interstate 35 at SW 29th Street.
But 7-year-old Addison was at Oak Ridge Elementary. Not yet sure where the tornado was headed, Leslie jumped in the car and went to get her daughter.
She didn’t get far.
Alarmed by the deteriorating conditions and eight months pregnant, Paul decided to take shelter at Crossroads Cathedral, just east of Santa Fe Avenue. When she arrived at the reinforced choir room at the building’s center, a couple hundred people were already huddled there.
Emerging from the church after the tornado had passed, she found the roads choked with debris. On foot, she headed out on the 9-mile trek to the school.
Addison and her classmates had ridden out the storm in the hallways. The tornado caused only superficial damage, and the kids were moved to the cafeteria to await their parents.
As she waited, a classmate’s father arrived to retrieve him. Addison overheard the man telling the boy that his mother had been killed.
Finally, after four hours, Leslie Paul made it to the school. A teacher brought Addison out, and the two fell into each other’s arms, weeping.
“Mommy,” Addison sobbed. “My friend’s mommy got sucked up by the tornado. And I was afraid that that would happen to you, and that I would never see you again.”
The two held each other hard for about 10 minutes. Then they headed out, Addison clutching her mother’s hand tightly.
They had walked for a while before Leslie was able to raise someone on her cellphone to come pick them up.
That evening, Addison talked animatedly for two hours about what had gone on at school. Then, suddenly, she broke down in tears. She cried for more than an hour.
When the family returned to their home on Tuesday, there wasn’t a wall standing. Leslie Paul had gone to rescue Addison, but the little blond girl may have ended up saving her.
Digging through the rubble for something that might help comfort Addison, they found one of her favorite dolls — a Raggedy Ann.
Scott and Leslie Paul shared a birthday Friday — he turned 30, she 27. They celebrated at the Oklahoma City hotel provided by their insurance company.
Addison’s little sister is due in June 10. The Pauls plan to name her Faith.
It was correctional officer Scott Evenson’s first day back to work after a lengthy illness, and he was tired after his overnight shift. Returning home around 9:15 a.m. Monday, he fixed 2-year-old Macie a bowl of Cheerios, munched on a bagel and then slipped off to bed.
He and Kimberly, eight months pregnant with their second child, were renting her grandparents’ old home on South Broadway, not far from I-35 and the massive Warren Theater. They’d been in the house about two years, and had come to love it there.
The man across the street worked at Sara Lee, and would come by with gifts of fresh-baked bread; another neighbor was generous with his tools. The brick cottage was just a three-bedroom starter home, but the young couple — he’s 26, she 27 — one day hoped to have the money to buy it.
While Scott slept, Kimberly strapped Macie into the car to run some errands, despite the ominous warnings on the radio. She drove to the post office to mail her student loan payments, then went to drop off her Netflix movies.
Not long after reaching the house, her weather alert radio sounded. She woke her husband.
The man next door had invited them to use his underground shelter. Scott Evenson handed Macie over the chain-link fence and headed across the street with his wife to gather as many neighbors as they could.
By then, his mother, his sister’s boyfriend and their 8-month old son had arrived. Their home had nearly been hit by Sunday’s tornadoes, and they decided it would be safer here.
When they finally made it to the shelter, Scott Evenson noticed that one family had brought their two dogs, and he decided to go back for his. Odie, a 4-year-old pit bull mix, and Sammy, a 5-year-old dachshund, were both pound puppies.
The dogs were frantic. Each time Evenson got close, a loud noise would send them fleeing in the other direction.
How much longer could he do this? After a couple of minutes, he gave up and went outside. Pausing on the deck, he looked at the jungle gym they’d just bought for Macie from Craigslist. Swinging on it was her favorite thing in the world.
He’d just decided to make one last effort to corral the dogs when he looked up and saw a mass of mud, branches and leaves swirling his way. Hustling to the cellar door, he yanked it shut and shouted: “We’re going to lose it all.”
Macie cried as her ears popped under the intense pressure. Scott Evenson hung on a nylon rope to keep the door shut as his wife huddled with the others in silent prayer.
When the danger was over, it took the group several minutes to free themselves. A 10-foot sycamore bough had fallen across the shelter door.
As they clambered across the debris pile, Macie spotted a Cabbage Patch doll that had been ripped in two. She scowled at her father when he refused to let her take it.
Scattered about were pages of religious sheet music from Kimberly’s years of piano competition. In what had been the kitchen, a soggy book was open to the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
Miraculously, Odie emerged from the destruction and came over to his master. They dug and dug, but could not find Sammy.
On Thursday, they got a report that a dachshund had been recovered in the area. The description didn’t quite fit, but they went to the shelter anyway — it was not Sammy.
Kimberly’s aunt is letting the family stay in a home she owns up in Norman until they decide what to do next. Scott Evenson says it’s doubtful his in-laws will rebuild.
Macie still doesn’t talk much, But every once in a while, her mother will hear her daughter mumble the word, “Sammy.”
Marianthe Bagensie was hunkered down at her office on Tinker Air Force Base when her phone rang. Her husband, Scott, was stuck in traffic on I-35, near 89th Street, heading toward the tornado.
“What are you doing there?” she asked, incredulous.
“I’m heading home to take care of the dogs and cats,” the air traffic control specialist replied.
With older son Alexander serving in Afghanistan with the Air Force and 20-year-old Zack preparing to leave the nest, the seven animals had become more precious than ever to the couple. But Marianthe had just lost her mother and grandfather in one horrible March week, and she wasn’t ready to lose Scott.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t be stupid.”
Scott Bagensie’s first thought was to pile the animals into the car and try to outrun the tornado. But when he heard that the storm was bearing down on the Warren, he knew that wasn’t an option.
Using Milk Bones, Scott easily lured Apollo, a hound-pit bull mix, and Night Song, a shepherd, into the bathroom and closed the door.
The four cats weren’t so easy.
At 16, Hunter went docilely into the master bedroom closet, followed by Chaser, Alexander’s white Siamese. But twins Jade and Ying Yang, who weighs in at nearly 14 pounds, were under the bed and weren’t coming out without a fight, so Bagensie left them to fend for themselves.
Animals as safe as he could make them, he went outside to find debris already swirling in the air. He was starting to panic when he spotted a man waving from a garage two doors down.
“We have room in the shelter,” the man shouted. “Come on over here.”
Bagensie was the last of the 10 people to get inside. Not five minutes later, everything went dark.
Marianthe Bagensie tried in vain for more than an hour to reach her husband. Finally, she got through.
“The house is gone,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she replied. “You’re safe.”
When Bagensie made his way through the wreckage to the bathroom, the two dogs were wagging their tails at him. He found Hunter perched on a pile of clothes at the far corner of the closet.
By Tuesday, all were safe and accounted for.
Scott Bagensie says he would do the same thing all over again, “I value my animals that much.” Much as she loves them all, Marianthe isn’t sure it was worth the risk.
She glanced over at the garage where Scott had finally taken refuge.
“I probably wouldn’t be standing here right now if I had lost him,” she said as she stood in front of the mangled home. “It’s just too much. It’s just too much. … He is my other half.”
Shirley Parrish tries not to be a burden to others.
When macular degeneration began stealing her eyesight, her boss at the gasket company where she’d worked since the 1970s would send his son to drive her to the office. But in December 2010, she retired, unable to suppress the guilty feeling that “everybody was babysitting me.”
No longer trusting herself to maneuver the Chevy pickup in the driveway, the 80-year-old widow relied on her son, Eldon, to take her places.
She and her late husband, Wayne, had never built a shelter. Every rain had always left water standing in the backyard, and they figured the conditions weren’t right.
So as Monday’s tornado approached, Parrish simply grabbed Little Bit, her 12-year-old dachshund, and headed to her bedroom closet.
She left the television turned up high so she could follow the weather reports. She didn’t hear neighbor Steve Flynn pounding on the door to invite her into his backyard bunker.
A few miles away in Norman, Eldon’s wife Shari Parrish was leaving work to go be with her mother-in-law when her husband called. Stay put, Eldon said, and he called his mother.
When the phone in her bedroom rang, she emerged from her hiding place, cradling Little Bit in one arm.
Go next door to the shelter, Eldon told her.
She didn’t hesitate. But she had had both knees replaced, and as she scrambled to get up the concrete step of her neighbor’s house, she stumbled and fell.
“Help me,” she screamed, still clinging to her dog. Flynn emerged, picked her up and led her to the bunker.
In the midst of the tornado, the bunker’s metal door flew off. “Good Lord,” Parrish prayed. “Why is this happening?”
Afterward, Flynn helped her up out of the hole.
She set Little Bit down on the driveway. The tiny dog just stood there, staring at the gutted house and whimpering.
“June the 3rd, I would have been here 47 years,” the snowy-haired woman said as she surveyed the pitiful sight under a blazing sun Thursday.
Going through the debris, Eldon found a 3-foot-high yard angel he’d given his mother a couple of Christmases ago and stood it up in front of the house.
“I’ve got a lot of angels,” his mother said. “I’ve got one great big two-legged one right over there.”
When he ran the Wal-Mart store in Tulsa, Adam Stutzman had a 45-minute commute to and from home. After they moved to Moore to take over the Neighborhood Market there eight years ago, he made sure to get a house close enough that he could go home for lunch with Susan and the kids.
After lunch Monday, the Stutzmans decided to check 13-year-old Alyssa out of school early so they could all go to an assembly at North Moore Elementary. Coleton, 10, had gotten straight As and was receiving a superintendent’s award certificate.
By the time the ceremony ended around 2:30, Moore was already on high alert. Knowing his family would be safe in the shelter they’d installed beneath their garage three years ago, Stutzman decided to head over to the store on SE 4th Street to make things were all right.
A group of roofers was already there, fixing leaks from a storm system the day before. Susan knew there was no use in arguing with the company man.
The 35-year-old store manager wasn’t there 15 minutes before the sirens began blaring.
Stutzman and his “associates” are a well-oiled machine. Without waiting for instructions, they began ushering customers to the meat room behind the deli — about 65 people altogether. The temperature in the room is kept just below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and Stutzman’s staff distributed white butcher smocks to help keep the refugees warm.
They left the store’s front doors open, in case anyone else might need to seek shelter. As he stood in the doorway, Stutzman watched as an old man unplugged an electric scooter, climbed aboard and rolled up the bread aisle toward him. Almost as soon as the man was safely inside, the storm was upon them.
Standing watch, Stutzman could hear the skylights popping and see ceiling tiles lifting up from the storm’s suction — but, surprisingly, when the storm was over there was limited damage.
Outside, it was a scene of devastation. The Church of God out back was half collapsed, and nearly an entire neighborhood was gone, home alarms beeping out of synch in an eerie half-harmony.
“It was just so mind-blowing, how lucky we got,” he said Thursday. “It could have been us in the rubble.”
Back home, Susan Stutzman had been listening to the news and feared that the store had been hit. It was about an hour before her husband could get word to his family that he was OK.
She knows he’ll make the same decision again.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed