Gut instinct took over as tornado roared

In the face of terror, townsfolk's quick choices saved lives
2013-05-26T00:00:00Z Gut instinct took over as tornado roaredThe Associated Press The Associated Press
May 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

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.

God guided her

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, a machinist, was at work about 10 miles away in Oklahoma City. Cindy, who runs a day-care 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 cellphone. 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.

saved by her child?

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 nine-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.

Little Bit Angel

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."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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