45 Seconds In Oklahoma
Editor's Note: Last May 3, 75 tornadoes struck five states killing more than 40 people in Oklahoma and Kansas. The main tornado that swept through Oklahoma stayed on the ground a full hour and destroyed much of what stood in its way for 30 miles. Contractor David Liszeski and his family found themselves in its path. We set out to interview Liszeski and write our own story, but after he sent us his notes, we didn't think we could do better. How can he be so sure of the times? "I was intensely aware of everything that happened," he told us:
5:30 p.m. - Looked at neighbor's plumbing, two doors down from our home. Contracted a job for 3 p.m. the next day to clean the washing machine drain line. Headed for home.
5:45 p.m. - My wife, Wendy, left me with our three children while she went to the laundromat to dry a quilt that would not fit in our dryer.
6 p.m. - Started to rain and I went outside to check the roof that we had repaired the Friday before. It looked great!
6:10 p.m. - I turned on the news. A tornado was on the ground in some other far away city. No alarm for our community.
6:45 p.m. - Wendy returned home and ordered pizza for a quick dinner after a hectic day.
7 p.m. - Wind picked up and moth-ball sized hail dropped from the sky. My daughter, Taylor, was getting scared.
7:15 p.m. - Pizza arrived, but our eyes were glued to the TV weather report. A lot more hail.
7:20 p.m. - Tornado sirens went off. We heard from the TV that a tornado touched down at I-240 and Sunnyland. That's just around the corner from us.
7:30 p.m. - Wendy's parents called to tell us to head for cover. I was already busy cleaning out the hall closet and lining it with pillows when they called. Not even thinking, I placed the pizza, still unopened and hot, on a shelf above. In went Taylor, 9, then Stephen, 2 1/2, then Wendy cradling Nick, 5 months. There was hardly any room for me.
7:35 p.m. - I grabbed my military issue helmet and jacket and got as far in the closet as I could with my body over my family, and held on to the closet door.
7:40 p.m. - We heard the roar of the tornado, which sounded like jet engines.
7:41 p.m. - As the roar got louder, we started calling on the name of the Lord, "Oh, Lord Jesus," and the louder the roar, the louder we called.
7:42 p.m. - The lights went out. Then the windows blew out with a shatter, then the whole world was twisting and thrashing around us and on top of us. Forty-five seconds of high winds, debris and deafening sounds so intense that I didn't know whether we would survive. At the apex of this fierce storm, a great peace came over me; whatever was going to happen, I was going to accept it.
7:43 p.m. - The roar started to lessen. With my eyes still closed, I reached and felt Taylor's head, then Stephen's, then Nick's and finally my wife's. With my glasses torn from my face by the flying particles, it made for difficult vision. When I opened my eyes, I could see the tornado leaving our subdivision.
7:44 p.m. - Once I felt it was safe enough to move, I took off my battered helmet. I wiggled out of my jacket, and crawled up through the angled opening of what was left of our closet. I stood up and watched the tornado rip apart Del City. My wife called out and said, "Quick, the baby's getting crushed." I grabbed the dresser that had been thrown on top of us and rolled it out of my way with both hands, grabbing sheet rock fragments and splinters of 2 by 4's. I unburied my family and grabbed Taylor, who was shoeless. With much concentration we meandered through the ruins of our home out to the street. Wendy carried Stephen and Nick out.
I could see our next door neighbor crawling out from what remained of his home of 21 years. He looked like a mouse crawling out of his hole. Across the street Miss Pitts was trapped inside. After my family was safe I rushed to the remains of her house and crawled over part of a tree and helped her out through the bay window safely to the street. The whole time, severed gas lines hissed away; the threat of an explosion was imminent.
I found two red-haired girls frantically removing debris from where I could hear cries of "Help! Help us!" I joined neighbors in grabbing large sections of sheet rock, 2 by 4's, 2 by 6's and junk from who knows where. Finally, a mattress was uncovered and I carried out a scared, crying, but unhurt, little boy to the street and put him in the care of my wife. From that same pile of debris, we rescued a pregnant lady, two small children and their grandma.
I went to the next house, then the next until we had all neighbors accounted for. Then it was time to get my family out of there before their eyes could see anything morbid.
8:01 p.m. - We started for the main street and saw a neighbor driving his truck with no glass and riding on the rims. I flagged him down and asked if he would take my family to Mary Gettle's, a mutual friend of ours. He agreed and I brushed the glass off his seat and put my family inside. I kissed my wife good-bye and watched them leave the subdivision.
With my family out of harm's way, it was time to continue offering help. I crossed over to S.E. 43rd Street where I saw my first casualty. Another guy and I placed a poncho over the body of the elderly women whose face was gone. Turned out she was claustrophobic; she was in her closet, but had her head sticking out.
In the next house, we found a man with his ribs bashed in. I directed the medics to his side. From house to house I went. Then I ran into a girl who I had gone to college with, and learned that she was now a physician's assistant. I said, "Follow me," and directed her to where the medics were stationed. A medic handed me a flashlight and said, "Hold this light and gather the wounded to this spot." I called out, "Bring the wounded here! Bring the wounded here!"
More search and rescue took place. Upon leaving a residence we put crossed timbers in the driveways to signal to others that the place was empty. It was getting dark and became more difficult to locate people. Soon we could only locate people by listening for their cries for help.
10 p.m. - I wound up at the command post of Tinker Air Force Base and reported in since I am currently serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserves as a utilities superintendent. I've been with the 5075 Civil Engineer Squadron since 1989 and my training has always been, if there is a disaster, report to your unit. I was told they had more than enough help so I started for Mary Gettle's house.
11:30 p.m. - Before leaving the base I went to the gym, which was serving as a shelter, and signed a roster so someone would know I was still alive. I grabbed some water that the base staff was handing out and headed for my family.
Midnight - I arrived at Mary's house, but my family was not there. Mary was already at a shelter when they had arrived. So I called my in-laws and learned that my family was staying with another friend.
12:30 a.m. - I found my family safe.
1 a.m. - I took a shower and tried to get some sleep in my generous friend's bed.
After that long evening of events, my life changed drastically. No house, two service trucks destroyed and the family van ruined. But my family was safe and everything else was a bonus. So many decisions had to be made and people to call.
For some reason, I thought to call Richard Boyd at the Oklahoma PHCC and let him know that I was hit. He said he'd get some guys together and help me out. Within an hour of calling him, he got back to me and asked where the help should go to meet me. I could hardly believe the response from guys I didn't even know.
They came with trucks, with trailers eager to help in any way. Not only did PHCC send people to help, but also paid my dues for the year ,and gave a tornado relief check of considerable size. Street Mechanical, Minor Mechanical, Century Heating and Air and Ray's Sewer Service showed up to help me shift through the rubble. I was touched by this genuine human effort from the association members and staff.
My church family also played a pivotal role in making sure our every need was met in many ways ,including meeting our immediate needs - such as toothbrushes, razors, shaving cream, etc. - and offering all the love we could stand. Guys from my reserve unit also came out and helped dig through the rubble. We were able to salvage things and put items in storage.
Help came from many places. Calls were coming in and letters mailed to us. I couldn't believe the clothes that were given to us. I live in a fine state with great people. I belong to fine groups of people. I'm so touched I think my writing is getting bad. Enough for now.