Rock Center   |  May 24, 2013

Oklahoma teacher: After tornado, ‘the crying stopped’

In an exclusive interview with Rock Center’s Kate Snow, the principal and members of the faculty of Plaza Towers Elementary School describe the deadly tornado that turned their Oklahoma school into a debris field. The teachers recount the disaster that left seven students dead.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> week in this country. earlier this week we were there, in moore , oklahoma , where we saw just what an ef-5 tornado did to the town and the toll it took in human lives. kate snow start of us tonight from there, and she has spoken with the principal at the elementary school where they suffered the most devastating losses.

>> reporter: you haven't been back here?

>> no. this is my first time.

>> reporter: this was her school . amy simpson was the principal , responsible for 497 young lives .

>> this is my office right here.

>> reporter: she grew up here in moore , has been with the school district for 19 years, the past 5 at plaza towers elementary.

>> i think that's my desk.

>> reporter: right there?

>> if i look in the drawers, i'll know what's in there.

>> reporter: excruciating to be back here. children's books, stuffed animals, tattered lives. each a surreal reminder of what was lost. it was the last week of classes, monday morning, amy was helping the sixth graders get ready for their graduation ceremony.

>> they were going to walk into a song, and we were practicing that and finding the right spots.

>> reporter: prek teacher linda patterson and her aid kaye johnson were working on report cards, and 6-year-olds were concerned about the weather. four miles east at district headquarters, suzie pierce was writing a speech for her retirement party and keeping a close eye on severe thunderstorms popping up on radar.

>> a little alert and the little red dot appeared on the weather map .

>> meaning possible tornadoes?

>> possible storms.

>> there it is.

>> reporter: every principal got an e-mail telling them to prepare.

>> if you can't get below ground, get out of its way.

>> reporter: you got on the loud speaker .

>> got on the intercom, told them all, get into your places.

>> reporter: they know what that means?

>> they know exactly what that means.

>> reporter: what does it mean?

>> hallways, bathrooms, the safest places in the building.

>> reporter: the kids had been through the drill so often, erin showed us the position the kids knew by heart. how did you keep them calm?

>> they are just calm.

>> reporter: were they talking? playing games?

>> we were singing.

>> reporter: what were they singing?

>> abcs, twinkle, twinkle little star .

>> reporter: the tornado that touched down was an f-5, wind skraechs 200, maybe 300 miles per hour. for ten minute, they hunkered down. do you hear it coming, erin ?

>> yeah it would get louder, and you would think it would be about to hit and it would just get louder and just louder.

>> reporter: by that point, teachers were using their own bodies to protect children. in the final seconds before impact, amy simpson got on the intercom. what were the last words you said on the intercom.

>> it's here.

>> reporter: she ducked into a bathroom and the tornado smashed into plaza towers elementary.

>> you could hear the air duct crash down and the pipe and that's when i started to yell.

>> reporter: what did you yell?

>> just in god's name, go away. go away. and i yelled it four or five times. and then it was gone.

>> reporter: these are the images captured just after the tornado ripped plaza towers elementary apart.

>> plaza towers elementary, absolutely took a direct hit from the tornado .

>> can you show me where you were?

>> i was right here.

>> reporter: under the sink.

>> yeah.

>> reporter: amy pushed debris off her head and climbed out. most of the walls around her were gone. the bathroom is the only thing left.

>> i know.

>> reporter: do you know how lucky you are?

>> yes.

>> reporter: for a fleeting moment, she thought maybe everyone was okay, but then she rounded the corner and saw where linda patterson 's pre- k class had been moments before.

>> i'm hearing the child underneath saying i can't breathe, because i had weight on her.

>> reporter: what flew on top of you?

>> a wall, 2 x 4s, a car.

>> reporter: a car?

>> a car was there on top of all of this debris.

>> reporter: the kindergarten teacher, erin , snaps this extraordinary photo. linda and her aide were both under that car. the lower half of linda 's body was pinned.

>> i don't think any of the weight of the car was on me, because the wall was on top of me, and it was bracing the car from me.

>> reporter: you understand how unbelievable this sounds.

>> i wasn't feeling any of it. my feelings were for those kids underneath me. and i could tell they were okay.

>> reporter: they are still talking to you?

>> um-hum. they were still talking.

>> reporter: you got a car and a wall and then you and kids under you?

>> um-hum.

>> reporter: you saved their lives.

>> yes, she did.

>> i did what -- that's what i needed to do. that's where i needed to be.

>> and i came around and saw the car -- i'm sorry. all i could see was linda 's head, and the outpouring of people. i don't know where they came from. all these people running, men with gloves and crowbars and shovels.

>> reporter: with her legs trapped under the rubble, linda yelled for them.

>> you can't step on top of the wall that's on top of my legs. i helped them get the two children under me out. i can't move from waist up. i'm lifting.

>> reporter: your legs are underneath the wall.

>> i let the little girl out and hand her to the man and said her name is cheyenne.

>> reporter: amy realized she hadn't seen any third graders come out. one of the classes talked by mrs. doan . belongings where she left them.

>> instructional manuals.

>> reporter: she was just finished her second year and just found out she was pregnant. suzie pierce says jennifer and her students were trapped under a collapsed wall.

>> she is over them like this and somebody under her. one little boy has his arm around this arm and one has his arm around the other, where she is holding them like that. and they are holding on to her.

>> reporter: and what are they saying?

>> the little boy said, i can't breathe. i don't want to die. and they pulled ms. doan out and that little boy . talking to her.

>> reporter: and the other?

>> she was hearing crying and crying and crying, and then after the tornado , the crying stopped. and what she said was that the crying was horrible, but when it stopped, it was worse.

>> reporter: seven children died here, pinned under the debris.

>> they were all there. and their friends.

>> reporter: jennifer doan was eventually carried out of horror, suffered multiple injuries, but is still expecting a baby. her friends say she's been told about the deaths of the children and is overcome with grief.

>> god makes some choices for hus long before, and he had a plan long before. and those little ones -- there was no control over it. there wasn't a safer place. there wasn't a better place . there wasn't anything different than ms. doan could do.

>> reporter: incredibly, briarwood elementary, nearby, was also destroyed on monday, but no one died there. all the teachers in the moore school district followed procedures that have been in place for generations. most tornadoes happen later in the day when kids are already home and in oklahoma , the threat of severe weather is the norm.

>> a parent said to me, if we canceled school every time there was threat of a tornado , we would have no school in may.

>> exactly. we would be out mid-april every day there is a threat. we wouldn't go to school past easter.

>> reporter: but questions remain. moore had one school destroyed by the giant tornado in 1999 . but there were not reinforced shelters in every school . why wasn't there a shelter in this particular school ?

>> we don't have shelters in any of our schools, except the two schools where fema has assisted us. we are probably the fastest growing district, and as we build and build, the money has gone for classroom space.

>> reporter: there's only so much money in school budgets, at a time when districts face unprecedented challenges.

>> six months ago, we were talking about newtown, talking about sandy hook and how to equip all of our schools with bullet proof glass and centralized access, controlled access .

>> reporter: all of which cost money.

>> all of which cost money.

>> reporter: yesterday, teachers reunited with students. there were hugs and tears and an unexpected gift from a child who wanted to thank them.

>> one of my little buddies who was under me, he came up and gave me a tiara, because he said i was his princess. and he gave ms. patterson one too.

>> reporter: each of us told us they are still numb.

>> when i stop moving and sit down, it all comes back. so keeping myself busy has been the best thing for me. but speaking for myself, i know probably i'll still in shock.

>> reporter: you having bad dreams ?

>> no. i haven't really slept.

>> reporter: as we walked through the wreckage, amy discovered a diploma for one of her sixth graders.

>> it was right there on my desk. i had a table that had all of the trophies on it that we would be presenting.

>> reporter: soon the bulldozers will come to clear away the school , but memories of what happened here will nerve bver be erased.

>> kate snow reporting from moore , oklahoma . for those wanting to help the people there, we put information on our website.