Oklahoma tornado: The storm was a monster - even for Tornado Alley

Residents of Moore are used to severe weather patterns – but the strength of Monday’s twister left them shocked and awed

The people of Moore know a twister when they see one. On 3 May 1999, an EF-5 storm tore through the Oklahoma suburb, killing 36 people and injuring 583. So when a dark, spinning cloud appeared in the skies to the southwest on Monday afternoon, they were prepared - or so they thought. The tornado touched down at 2.46pm.

Lando Hite, an exercise rider and caretaker at the Celestial Acres horse training facility, had been readying to weather a regular storm when he realised what was coming. His experience of living in Oklahoma's “Tornado Alley”, he said, had likely saved his life: when the wind seemed to die down suddenly, he knew danger was imminent, and took refuge in a stable.

“I jumped into one of the [horse] stalls and they collapsed on top of me,” Hite, still shirtless and caked in mud, told local news station KFOR later. “It was unbearably loud. You could see stuff flying everywhere, just like in the movie Twister.”

While the storm wreaked havoc on Celestial Acres, across town in the Warren Theatre's IMAX auditorium, 25-year-old James Dock was sitting down to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. As the movie began, its noisy sound effects were joined by the sound of something heavy bouncing off the roof of the cinema. “I thought it was hail,” Dock told the Los Angeles Times. Just before 3pm, the manager came into the theatre and asked patrons to retreat to the hallway for shelter.

By that time, the tornado had crossed the nearby Newcastle neighbourhood, and been upgraded to a category EF-4 storm, with wind speeds of 200mph or more. Elderly Moore resident Barbara Garcia was sitting on a stool in her bathroom, hugging her dog as the twister struck. The lights went out, and she felt the stool rise up off the floor. When she came to, she was covered in debris, lying beside an upturned stove in the rubble of her home. “I hollered for my little dog, and he didn't answer,” she said.

Ben Holcomb, 28, lives 15 miles from Moore and has been a storm-chaser for six years. He followed the tornado from beginning to end. “As soon as it formed, it was obvious that it would be a monster,” he told The Independent. “I could tell by how fast it developed, how intense it looked - and the fact that it was heading right into a very heavily populated area. I love chasing storms, I love the power of nature, but I don't look forward to the destruction that comes with it. This is absolutely the worst tornado I've ever seen, by far.”

As the twister bore down on Briarwood Elementary School, pupils took cover under stairs, desks and bathroom sinks. Teachers shielded the children; one lay on top of her own son to protect him from falling debris. The wind peeled the walls and roof from the building but, remarkably, no one was killed. Plaza Towers Elementary, struck minutes later, was not so lucky. Though some older pupils had been evacuated to a nearby church, those from kindergarten to third grade were still huddled in the building as it succumbed to the storm. Trapped in the basement as the water pipes burst, seven children were found drowned beneath the rubble of the school on Monday evening.

The tornado passed over the Warren Theatre at 3.25pm, and dissipated not long afterwards. When the moviegoers emerged from the cinema, said Dock, “Mud and debris were covering everything. The marquee of the theatre had been torn off of the front, and there was broken glass everywhere.” A bowling alley had been completely destroyed, he said, “the medical centre looked torn in half, and there was a car sticking out of it.”

By Tuesday morning, the death toll was estimated at 24, with further fatalities feared. More than 140 people had been injured. There was a glimmer of hope for Barbara Garcia, who found her dog in the rubble during an on-camera interview with CBS News, apparently uninjured. “Well I got God to answer one prayer to let me be OK,” said an emotional Garcia, “but he answered both of them because this was my second prayer.”

Story of the destruction: The tornado’s path

1 Spinning cloud spotted around 45 kilometres south-west of the centre of Oklahoma City at 1.54pm.

2 Tornado touches ground at 2.46pm local time, heading north-west. At this point, it is a Category 3 storm, with wind speeds above 150mph. The mile-wide twister would eventually cover 20 miles in around 40 minutes.

3 Shortly afterwards, Lando Hite narrowly survives being crushed after seeking refuge in a stall at his horse farm. “I jumped in and they collapsed on top of me,” he says, shirtless and covered in mud. “It was unbearably loud; you could see stuff flying everywhere, just like in the movie Twister.” Hite sets several of his horses free before taking cover.

4 By 3pm, the tornado has reached the suburb of Newcastle. It is now a Category 4 storm, characterised by wind speeds in excess of 200mph.

5 Roughly 11 minutes later, the storm has travelled the 5.5 miles to the Briarwood Elementary School, which takes a direct hit. The walls and roof are blown off the building but miraculously no one is killed. The pupils remain inside and take cover inside bathrooms, and under stairs and desks.

One parent describes how a teacher protected his son: “The teacher held their heads and bricks were falling all over the kids. She got her arm injured. One of the boys on her other side got a big gash in his head, but he’s OK,” he says. Another member of staff is able to save her own son from harm.

6 Sweeping north-west, the strengthening winds flatten an entire neighbourhood between Penn Lane and Santa Fe Avenue. Oklahoma City is built on hard ground and many houses in Moore have no storm basements.

7 Minutes later, another elementary school, Plaza Towers, feels the full force. “The walls were pancaked,” Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb later told ABC News. Police spokesman Sergeant Gary Knight confirms that at least seven children have died, all of them drowned.

Rescue crews work through the night searching for survivors amid the devastation, passing the injured down a human chain to a hastily established first-aid centre in the car park. Fourth- to sixth-grade pupils are evacuated to a local church, while the younger children from kindergarten to third grade are kept inside the building. Bodies of adults are found on the school lawn. One man tells how he helped to pull a car off a teacher and found her underneath with three children she had shielded with her body.

8 At around 3.25pm, the tornado strikes the Warren Theatre, which, unlike other buildings in the area, remains standing. It too becomes an emergency triage centre. At the Moore Medical Centre, the 200mph winds sweep dozens of cars from the car park into the main entrance.

At around the same time, cars on Interstate 35 are picked up and  flung into a pile around the central reservation. A family of four with a baby are reported to have been  killed near 4th Street and Telephone Road after they try to take refuge in  a freezer.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'