Huddled together in soaking wet leotards, singing to distract themselves, dozens of kids and their coaches survived a direct hit by a tornado Wednesday in their Oklahoma gymnastics studio basement — without a single injury.
Aim High Academy, a non-profit, faith-based gym for underprivileged kids in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, was destroyed by Wednesday's storms that battered Oklahoma and Arkansas. But the 50 gymnasts and five coaches there made it out alive, despite the roof's collapsing in.
"It's a miracle," said founder and Executive Director Jennifer Patterson. "God was watching over Aim High Academy."
Patterson got a tornado warning on her phone and heard sirens around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and immediately shepherded her gymnasts, who range in age from 4 to 14, and coaches to the basement for shelter. About 20 minutes later, the tornado hit.
Speaking Thursday next to the remnants of her studio, where uneven bars, furniture from coaches' offices and a stray stuffed animal were strewn among debris, Patterson told NBC News she had just done an emergency drill the day before.
"I had just reminded all the coaches our plan in case of severe weather," she said. "I had just reminded them of that yesterday. Never in a million years did I dream that this would happen."
Tulsa fire Capt. Toby Houck said Patterson saved lives by acting quickly. When his firefighters heard that the roof of a gymnastics academy had caved in, they raced to the scene, expecting the worst.
"We didn't even know the place had a storm shelter," he said. "That's just all the more praise to the owners of the place. They were proactive, they heard the storm sirens, had practiced it before."
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Once downstairs, kids were quietly playing with one another, older ones holding younger ones on their laps, Patterson said.
Minutes later, the roof collapsed, sending water cascading right where the kids had been practicing their gymnastics minute before.
"You heard this big bang, and then you heard a lot of rumbling. The lights went out immediately. And that's when the kids got really scared," Patterson said. "They started screaming and crying."
To calm them down, a coach who had brought a guitar started singing prayer songs with the kids.
"Our kids were amazing. They followed instructions. They were there for one another. Our older girls really took leadership roles and loved on the young ones and reassured them," Patterson said.
Jamarie Wilson, 12, had been squeezing in one of her final practices before a state gymnastics championship before the storm.
"You could feel your body almost lifting up and your ears popping, and you could hear the furniture moving back and forth," she said. "The water started to run down the stairs. It was just unimaginable."
Firefighters carried each girl out one by one, covering them in blankets and coats and protecting them from the glass and debris on the floor, Houck said.
"Nobody was hurt with that much devastation. To me, it's amazing. We really didn't expect that," he said.
Patterson, who started the gymnastics program more than 10 years ago, went upstairs to find her studio destroyed after the storm passed.
"I personally lost it for about 30 seconds, a minute — then I realized I've got to be strong for the kids," she said.
Parents also credited Patterson with keeping the kids safe.
"We didn't ignore the sirens. It's just a blessing. So many of our girls would have been standing right there," said Judi Wilson, Jamarie's mother.
A GoFundMe page has been created to raise money to rebuild. As of Thursday afternoon, nearly $20,000 had been raised. In the meantime, gym studios around Tulsa have opened their doors to the kids to practice for their state meet Friday.
"After all this, these girls have got to go perform and do their very best," said Sharmien Watkins, an Aim High trustee.