Oklahoma tornado: The lucky lost their homes. The unlucky lost their lives

Stay or flee? Pick up loved ones or take cover? The choices made in the moments after the tornado warnings sounded were a matter of life and death

Moore, Oklahoma

When the sirens started their ominous song shortly after lunch, Pete Prieto barely looked up. “Here comes another hailstorm, whoop-de-doo,” he remembers saying to himself. And when his wife, Diane, declared she was worried enough to drive to the school to pick their two kids up early, he sighed. “They are going to be fine,” he told her.

Diane didn’t listen. Because she didn’t listen, their children, Monica 10, and Lavontey, 12, are still living. Because she didn’t listen two other children in the school she didn’t know but for whom she felt the same maternal urge to protect when peril came are still living. And because she didn’t listen, so too is Pete.

No one can know how many decisions were made by residents all across the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore as Monday’s monster tornado bore down from the west. Decisions made just before the sky began to spin, big or small, bad or good, often made in a flash. Decisions that, for many, were in fact life or death.

Larry Harjo had rehearsed this moment in his mind before. With his twin brother and their wives, he ran to the hospital at the end of his street. “We were directly centre of the hospital and we could hear the cars hitting the building, so we knew it wasn’t going to be nice,” he recalls. “Thump, thump, thump. Loud thumps. Ceiling tiles falling everywhere. I thought it was going to cave in on us.” They made it through. The house they had fled did not.

When decisions are made, luck can be good or bad. Megan Futrell, a teacher off work for the year after having a second baby, also jumped in her car to fetch her elder child from school. In her case, outrunning the twister was impossible. It was almost upon her when she rang her husband on her mobile phone, dashed into the 7-Eleven petrol station on SW 4th Street and took shelter in its locker freezer. Rescue workers were to retrieve her body, still grasping her baby, a few hours later. The 7-Eleven and the freezer locker had no chance against the storm’s wrath.

For some it wasn’t even about doing the right or wrong thing if they didn’t know what was coming. More than 24 hours after the tornado’s impact, Brian – he withholds the family name – cannot find his father. The house he lived in has gone, but there is no body. He thinks he may have been driving down Santa Fe Avenue at the moment the tornado passed over it. “We are going to have to grieve on our own,” Brian concedes, his face creased with pain. “I have to assume...” He doesn’t complete the thought.

It wasn’t long after his wife had gone that Pete Prieto, 31, was looking at the sky and got the message. A fleeing flock of birds flashed by and there, suddenly, was the tornado, black and furious, right before him. He sprinted into the house and into a cupboard and padded himself with pillows and blankets before, boom. “The force knocked me backwards. So much stuff was going up my nose and into my mouth, I couldn’t breathe. I will never forget the noise.” The house had been destroyed and Pete was buried. “I really thought that that was it, I was going to die,” he says.

Diane had made it safely to the Plaza Towers Elementary School just before it took a direct hit. She held tight to the foot of a lavatory stall, shielding her children and the two other pupils as best she could. Minutes later all four were being pulled from the wreckage of the building where the bodies of seven children would later be found. She made another flash decision. With her two kids, she ran back home. The house was gone; there was no sign of Pete.

A piece of concrete pinning him down, Pete was conscious but he wasn’t shouting. He had been like that for over 30 minutes and he was losing hope, trying to fend off a panic attack. “I didn’t want to waste my breath by calling out and I was trying to stay calm. I could hear other people screaming. They were the worst kind of screams.” But then he heard a voice he knew. It was Monica, his daughter. “That was when I yelled at the top of my lungs, I probably used the very last of my breath.”

Pete is telling this story after he and his family have made it to a Red Cross relief centre set up in a Methodist church and adjoining gym on SW 199th St just a few blocks from the tornado gouge. He is in pyjama bottoms and he has had first aid for bruised muscles in his thigh and injections for the nail that went through his foot. He and Diane have nothing left, not even their wallets. The house, both their cars, all their clothes are gone. But because of what Diane did, everyone is alive.

“It’s devastating to lose everything, but we are together,” says Pete.

And he has some advice for those who may not take weather warnings seriously. Do. Like Diane.

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