My Real Life Tornado Survival Story

April 22, 2018

 

I have heard people say of the weather in Oklahoma, “If you don’t like it, just wait a minute”. Like most Oklahoman’s I’ve been a part of days where you just couldn’t quite pin down what season Mother Nature was trying to produce. What’s her deal anyway? Brutally Hot Summer’s in the 110’s, Humidity you could cut with a knife, Bone Chilling Winters of Ice with Gail force winds sweeping across the plains knocking the very zest of life right out of your Sooners or Cowboys Starter Jacket wearing self. 2 days of Spring. 4 Days of Fall. For this Oklahoman, wouldn’t have it any other way. 

 

We currently find ourselves at the cusp of the storm season where Oklahoman’s anticipate many days and nights of overexceptionalizing the weather paired with days when our meteorologists literally save lives with their work. It’s a difficult season for some who have lost loved one’s, it’s an exciting season for those who are humbled by the best of what Mother Nature can throw at us, and it’s almost a right of passage for Oklahoman’s to withstand another season in Tornado Alley. 

 

Growing up in Oklahoma you’re used to it. I grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Located in Payne County, right between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It’s a College town and home to the Oklahoma State University Cowboy’s. As a kid we were accustomed to the Tuesday testing of the city’s tornado sirens.

 

If you’re not familiar with Tornado sirens here’s what they look and sound like from a test just a few weeks ago. 

 

In our house we were use to having conversations at the dinner table about “what we would do if there was a tornado”. Many Oklahoman’s have storm shelters underground but we didn’t. Our plan involved going to the most interior room in our house. This happened to be our bathroom. As a child I never thought I’d find myself there, but as life tends to do, other plans were in store. 

 

What follows is a true story. The images, news articles, and videos are from the actual event. I had conversations with all involved almost thirty years after it happened and have infused some of their memories as well. I’ve decided to tell it in the form of a scene to try and capture some of the drama felt that day. There are very vivid pictures still in my head all these years later and the following account is accurate with the events that occurred that Spring Day in May.

 

 

The Storm System that would eventually unleash devastation on Stillwater, OK as Reported by Mike Morgan.

 

Scene

 

May 16th, 1990, Early Spring, Payne County 

 

Stillwater, OK

 

Cul-de-sac, Small Duplex, Brick Construction, Shingled roof, Small Pathway separating two units with doors to entry directly across from one another. On either side of the pathway extends a short brick wall up to the exterior of either garage. Family affectionately and creatively refer to this as, “The Brick Wall”. 

The Interior of the house is small. You enter into a small living room. There is a small galley style kitchen to the right with shag carpet on the walls and just big enough to fit a small dining table. Proceeding through the living room there is a long narrow hallway extending about 15 feet. Hallway ends at a master bedroom to the front, two small bedrooms to the left, and a small bathroom to the right that butts up to the neighbors unit. 

 

Mom 

Amanda - 7 years Old

J Bryson - 4 Years Old

Garrett - 3 years Old 

Ron - The Neighbor

 

Sirens wailing. Mike Morgan, a slickly dressed handsome looking weatherman on TV, uses words like “Rotation”, “Circulation”, “Hook”, “Severe”, “Life Threatening”, “Core”, “SuperCell”, “Doppler”, “High Velocity”.

 

TV coming in and out of service. Lightning in the distance. Slow roll of thunder.

 

Mike Morgan, listing off counties in Oklahoma that should seek “immediate shelter”....Logan, Noble, Payne, Lincoln, Creek. 

 

Mom               You all grab pillows and blankets off your beds and get to the bathroom.

 

Amanda, J, Garrett pile into the bathroom. Mom comes in last positioning her body as a barrier between us and the door. Amanda, J & Garrett are small enough to all get into the bathtub. Amanda puts blankets on the bottom of the tub and pillows over the top as she holds tightly to her younger and much smaller brothers. Sirens continue to wail. 

 

Mom               Amanda, are you here?

 

Amanda          Yes. 

 

Mom               Bryson, are you here?

 

J Bryson         Uh huh. 

 

Mom              Garrett, are you here?

 

Silence. Power flickers and is now off

 

Mom             Garrett?!

 

Garrett          innocently, like a child reciting a Bible verse Dear God, please keep my family safe. 

 

Wind seems to be getting stronger. Sirens still wailing. 

 

Suddenly it’s quiet. It’s an eerie feeling. Very sterile. Like outer-space. 

 

Like a crescendo in a concerto the winds begin to increase. Increase. Increase. This isn’t a familiar sound.

 

Not a high whistle but a howling, violent, whipping noice. The noise. A terrifying sound. It’s very quickly becomes loud. Intermittent slams, claps, crackles, stomps, and crashes make it hard to even hear each other. 

 

Mom             Amanda, what is your phone number?!

 

Amanda        fighting tears

 

Mom            slight panic, now yelling Amanda, what is your phone number?!?!

 

Amanda       now quite scared and having to scream over the noise 405-372-3830!

 

Mom            Bryson, what is your address?!

 

J Bryson         starting to cry, struggling to remember, but reciting correctly 718 Redbud Court

 

From the sliver of space between the mattress J sees the bathroom door begin to shake. It begins to rattle. The entire house shakes. Sounds of glass shattering fill the air. There’s a pull. Like the downward fall on a rollercoaster gravity seems shifted. It feels as though the house might explode and then like it is just going to be pulled from the earth like a scene from Wizard of Oz. It’s seems as if a freight train is on a collision course with the small bathroom. It’s so deafening. Screams as the pressure causes our ears to burn with pain. Fireworks. Light flashes from behind the door and continues to pound against the frame. 

3-year old Garrett prays. Eyes tightly shut, hands woven together, he prays. 

 

Silence. The most silent silence

 

Mom is petrified. Can’t move. Unable to make a decision. 

 

All kids crying.

 

Beat

 

Beat

 

Beat

 

Beat

 

Beat

 

The sound of footsteps over glass 

 

Ron              Wanda, you guys okay?! 

 

Mom            pensive  Yes.

 

Ron             Be careful stepping out. There’s glass everywhere. Have the kids wait. 

 

Ron opens the door to the bathroom. Stunningly bright. Mom exits and returns with shoes for kids. The roof is damaged and completely gone over the front part of the house. The sunshine beats down on the ruin left behind. Many things are just completely missing or unrecognizable. Walls, Doors, Beds, Toys, Furniture, Small Kitchen Appliances. 

 

Mom          assertively composed to the kids as they put on their shoes  Don’t move.

 

Mom returns and mom and kids navigate a maze of rubble and hazard.  Like three ducklings following their mom to safety.  Other neighbors shout warnings as power lines whip and flair against the ground creating sparks that seam to explode from the ends of the flailing lines.   Mom and kids reach safety and in a matter of minutes are whisked away with instructions to listen to their Grandma.

 

Blackout 

 

 

 Reporting on the May 16th, 1990 Stillwater Tornado.

 

Those are the memories I have. I was only 4 years old so they live as just small GIF’s or flashes in my memory perhaps inspired by the countless times this story has been retold amongst family and my own imagination. I specifically remember the bathtub, my little brother being so calm and praying, the door practically coming off its hinges. The sounds. I still remember those sounds that were so different than anything I have heard before. I have very vivid memories of the moment we emerged. We looked straight up to sky. It was stunningly beautiful. Seemed like the bluest blue I’d ever seen and I didn’t understand how such beautiful skies created such devastation. I remember the oddities that among all that was lost that day our washer and dryer were fine, they were just in our backyard. Our entire garage was gone but our car remained completed untouched. Additionally, our neighbor Todd who shared the other side of the duplex, was left unscathed. His side of the duplex remained untouched. It’s amazing Mother Nature can be so devastatingly precise. 

 

My sister, the oldest, now lives in Ohio with her family. I talked to her on the phone and she remembers being at softball practice and the practice getting called short because of lightning and rain. She remembers my mom telling us all to get blankets and pillows and get in the bathtub. She was eight so her memory is a bit more specific. She remembers my mom asking if each of us three kids were there. Almost like an instinctual “role call”. She remembers young Garrett not answering and just praying, reaffirming my account. She really helped fill in some gaps from after the storm. Our neighbor Ron had come over to check on us and told my mom to get shoes on us because of all the debri. Amanda confirmed the strange experience of looking up from inside our house at the sky. 

 

 Me and my Big Sis

 

When I talked with her she kept reintegrating how protective she felt of her two little brothers. She just wanted to “protect us”. Love my sister. Tears well up in my eyes thinking about her at just 8 years old being our “protector” in the face on an oncoming, what would later be categorized as an F3, Tornado. She didn’t seem to remember the sounds and the noises like I did. She said she was really just focused on shielding her brothers. She’s incredible. Perhaps another post about her and some of the heroic moments she’s had in her life will follow. 

 

When I asked my mom to recount this day her tears told the story. Even three decades later the memory of that day is still raw. Her recollection is still captivating. My mother has a flair for the dramatic but she was quick to point out how much she even surprised herself in the calm, matter of fact, way she handled the situation. I’m proud of her. She said her instincts took over and she knew she needed to keep her children as safe as possible. She remembers the noise very much like I did. She described it like a “Freight Train”. She also described a very similar memory that I had in regard to the pressure, and the feeling you were being “pulled” at as the door rattled inside it’s frame. The way my sister described my Mom asking questions was accurate. My mom confirmed she kept repeatedly holding pillows on top of us in the bathtub for protection and continuing to quiz us on things like our Phone Number and Address. When I asked her why she did this she responded: “I thought for sure I might be hit with debris or sucked out of the bathroom. I thought if something happened to me I wanted you kids to be able to repeat some of these important details about who you were and where you lived.” 

 

 My mom, me, and my little brother Garrett.  Mom is sitting on "The Brick Wall"

 

Garrett is 15 months my junior. Irish twins if you will. His memories are much like mine, highlights and brief flashes of small moments. He confirmed mom gathering blankets and pillows and putting us in the bathtub. He remembers walking out of the bathroom and seeing the sky. He mentioned a specific toy. He had a light up pistol. He remembers that as the storm moved in the pistol lit up on it’s own from where is was resting on a side table. A toy he would never see again. He also remembered searching. Searching for his toys in the backseat of our Grandma’s car and she circled the neighborhood over and over. He also remembers the door. This image of the door seems to be a pervasive memory for us all.

 

 

The days following I’m sure were rough for my mom. The day after the storm she describes the scene: “The National Guard were there and we weren’t even allowed to go to the house without showing identification. Your Uncle Bobby and Aunt Judy were there and helped go through what we could salvage. I remember your Aunt Judy’s sister had sent $100 and I remember how important that was in that moment. The Salvation Army was also there providing food and meals for those of us that were displaced.” For the next several months we lived with my grandma as our landlord rebuilt our side of the duplex. 

 

 Photos of the damage from the May 16th,1990 Stillwater Tornado

 

 

Over the following days there was a “great exchange” in Stillwater as neighbors tried to reunite possessions, trinkets, and memories with their rightful owners. On occasion, a few pictures would show up that had been found miles away that brought light back into a dark moment. My mom remembers several such instances following the aftermath. I can’t imagine how my mom felt about losing so many memories. When I asked her she simply said, “We escaped with our lives. That was more important”. In a day and age where photos were stored in boxes and not hard drives I don’t have many pictures of my childhood and like my mom, I’m okay with that. I don’t remember being affected in any particularly harmful way although my mom did say that while we lived with our Grandma that every time the garage door would open we would run and hide thinking another tornado was on the way. Perhaps the innocence of our youth was our best healer. 

 

 News Footage from the actual tornado that destroyed our home. The Apartment Complex being reported on is right down the street from our home at 718 Redbud. Ct. 

 

As an adult, I now realize it’s a story of survival. I don’t think me or any of my siblings realized the gravity of the situation as children. Now as a father I can only imagine what must have been a terribly traumatic event in my mother’s life, bunkering into a bathroom with three small children with an F3 Tornado bearing down. Oklahoman’s are tough and I’m so blessed to live in state where the average joe on the street is kind and well intended. Additionally, I’m convinced we have some of the best forecasters, storm chasers, and meteorologists in the world. 

 

Wishing each and every person out there a safe a secure storm season. When I was discussing this post with my sister she said something interesting. The most anxious she was during the storm was not knowing what was going to be on the other side of the door when we got out. Isn’t that just a perfect picture of the human condition? She knew it was going to be different, she new there was perhaps pain and disappointment, but it didn’t prevent us ultimately from coming out the other side together as a family. As survivors.

 

That Tornado in May took the life of one individual. As I researched this day in my history I found that it had a different ending for another. His name was Taylor Bradley, he was 4 years old on that day. He was heading with his mom to a friends on N. Briarwood St. to seek shelter. A roof from a block away flew through the air and crashed into the passenger side of the car Taylor was still in killing him. Taylor and I were both 4 years old on that day. 

 

Months away from my son’s 4th birthday it’s hard to wrap my mind around a life cut so short. I couldn’t help but reflect on what he might have been like today in his early thirties. Perhaps a lot like me. A family, a golf habit, and perhaps a kid or two. I bet we would have been brosephs. My heart goes out to his family and I dedicate this small moment in my memory to his. Although I’ve never met you we’re linked forever by this day. I’ve shed some tears for you and your family and I can’t wait to meet you some day Taylor. Although I’ve just learned your story today, I thought, perhaps from above you should know; my wife and I bought our first house in Stillwater seven years ago. It’s location: 2210 N. Briarwood St. 

 

Actual News Article from May 16th Tornado in Stillwater

 

In closing, celebrate Mother Nature’s beauty, cherish those you love, and keep safe humbling yourself to nature’s unbridled indifference. 

 

Please consider commenting and sharing. I appreciate your engagement and I cherish the opportunity to hear your story! 

 

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