Tragedy of tornado hangs over softball World Series
Published: Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Just 20 miles away from obliterated Moore, Okla., the college softball world is celebrating the culmination of its season this week and next with the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
For the players from Oklahoma University in Norman, located just six miles from Moore, the tragedy has hit hard.
"It has been very trying on our team," said Sooners coach Patty Gasso. "We're humbled that we may be able to bring some joy to some people. We hope they get lost in what we're doing."
After the tornado carved a 17-mile path of destruction on May 20, Gasso told her players to gather as much of their Sooner gear as they could to donate to the people who suddenly didn't have anything more than the clothes they wore when catastrophe struck.
"There was a feeling of helplessness," she said. "How do we help? What do we do? It never felt like it was enough. Your heart just broke."
Many of the survivors moved into housing on the Oklahoma campus. Gasso and her team reached out to a softball team in Moore called "Bring It." They invited the team to come to their first super regional game.
"It was rained out, but they came anyway," Gasso said. "It was pretty special to spend time with them."
One of the players on the youth softball team was not there. Nine-year-old Sidney Angle was one of the children killed when the tornado leveled Plaza Towers Elementary.
"We've learned a valuable lesson about life in the last 10 days," Gasso said.
The horrific tornado also inspired the Arizona State and University of Washington softball teams to reach out to survivors this week.
And the devastation in Moore hit close to home for University of Florida softball coach Tim Walton, who pitched for OU during his college days in Norman. The family of Walton's wife, Sam, still lives in nearby Edmond, Okla.
One who rode it out
Near the corner of Southwest 10th Street and Ridgeway Drive in Moore, Kenneth Sack is looking at the house where he used to live. A lot of things in Moore are past tense these days. This is where he used to live, that's the car he used to drive, those are the clothes he used to wear.
On this day, Sack wears an Iron Man T-shirt and jeans. He is talking with two representatives from State Farm Insurance who are doing everything they can to help Sack and his mother, who lived in a house that is now a pile of broken memories, get their lives back.
It will be a long journey. But Sack is one of the lucky ones.
"I had just gotten home from work and I didn't think I could make it to my grandmother's house," he said. "So I rode it out."
Sack, 30, went into a closet as the tornado arrived on May 20 and hoped for the best. His house crashed down around him, one of more than 2,000 homes that were destroyed when an EF-5 tornado ripped through this town.
"Everyone says it sounds like a train," he said. "I didn't hear a train. The best way I can describe it is, remember those old Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners and the noise they made? Imagine that … only a thousand times louder."
Sack survived the twister that traveled 17 miles with winds up to 200 mph. There were 24 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary, who died in the tragedy. Officials have yet to put a number on the damage that this town incurred and it may be a long time before they know just how costly it was.
His grandmother, Mary Taylor, lives less than a mile away. She and Sack's mother went to a safe room, but the tornado missed their home.
"We heard some noise, but it passed over us," she said. "We said, ‘There it is!' "
And she starts to tell stories. One is about a man who raced through the flying debris to get his daughter at Plaza Towers, one of the two elementary schools totaled in the tornado. After carrying his daughter to safety, he realized both his arms were broken.
Another is about a young girl she used to know from the neighborhood. She didn't make it.
"These little kids," she said. And behind a pair of sunglasses on a cloudy day, she begins to weep.
A dirty smell to the aftermath
Survivors showed up on Wednesday morning to once again look for anything they can salvage. On Tuesday, Moore police went to Plaza Towers to search for backpacks of the children who were exposed to the terror.
The school's rubble is now surrounded by a large fence that has become a memorial, adorned with black ribbons and flowers. People have left stuffed animals and footballs next to the fence. What is left of the school, one of three in the path of the tornado, is about to be bulldozed to the ground.
A lone police officer on a motorcycle crawls along slowly down Southwest 10th Street to keep an eye on possible looting. The Daily Oklahoman on Thursday carried a story about 63-year-old William Sass, who perished when his trailer was lifted into the air and slammed to the ground. Looters found his tool box and made off with the tools.
Several trucks pull up and dozens of people in orange T-shirts hop out of them. They are members of Samaritan's Purse, a relief organization started by evangelist Billy Graham's son, Franklin.
They have been on the scene to help since the day after the May 20 tornado. There are thousands of volunteers from dozens of organizations on the ground.
Lois Long came from Thornton, Iowa, making the 11-hour drive with her husband.
"Any help we can give," she said. "Mostly, we're loving on the people."
And then she stops talking.
"Time to go to work," she said.
But where do you start?
For as far as you can see there is devastation.
On many of the crushed homes, residents have spray-painted the house number on what is left. One reads, "1013 Thank God!" Several residents have written "Don't Bulldoze" on their homes because they're not done sifting through the rubble for cherished items.
Others have taken plywood and scribbled "Taking Contractor's Estimates" on them, but there is a roadside sign that blinks "No Solicitors" as you get near the stricken neighborhoods.
"We're getting by on prayers and laughter," Sack said.
Throughout the neighborhood, giant trucks are being loaded with debris using scoops attached to cranes. Hundreds of workers with red vests have started the process of renewal.
On Southwest Fourth Street, several churches have set up tents offering hot meals and thousands of bottles of water that are stacked like cordwood throughout the city. In front of one church, a sign has been erected that reads "Celebrate Recovery."
That street is almost a dividing line. To the south are what used to be neighborhoods. To the north are the businesses that only felt the periphery of the tornado.
Leonard Patterson, who manages Country Club Cleaners, is trying to fix a water leak. The windows are smashed and he is working with limited power. Any items brought into the store have to be sent to the plant in Oklahoma City. A few stores away, the sign for Jerry's Foods has been damaged. A few feet away, the roof has been blown off a gas station.
But it's across the street where the real damage occurred.
"I'm from Myrtle Beach, S.C., so I've seen some hurricanes," Patterson said. "But nothing like this."
He can look out his door and see the mess left behind. The wind is blowing hard and twisted metal that once was a building is creaking with every gust.
There is a smell to the aftermath. It smells like dirt. So much ground was unearthed and splattered all over houses and cars. On one road, there is a gray Hyundai that looks like it was dropped off a cliff. In the driveway, a green Dodge truck has had its windows blown out. Cars that were lifted in the air are upside down, some of them on top of other cars.
And those are the cars that can be found. Jim Moody of Norman hid in his car under an overpass when the storm approached but his sister-in-law is still looking for the car she parked to go to work that fateful day.
And everywhere, there is trash. Piles and piles of trash. Even in the areas that weren't destroyed, there are broken limbs sitting next to the roads and hundreds of bags filled with debris.
Softball players pitch in
After the monster tornado, Arizona State players gathered tubs of food back in Tempe and delivered them along with money to the Red Cross when they arrived in Oklahoma City.
Washington's players visited Moore for three hours to help with the cleanup.
All the players in the tournament were given blue state of Oklahoma stickers to wear on their helmets.
Florida's Walton was at OU when the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed by Timothy McVeigh, killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of six.
"I pitched that night," Walton said. "You didn't realize the magnitude of it until you drove through it a few days later. It was a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. And I was a coach at Oklahoma when the tornado hit (Moore) in 1999. We went and helped out a family of one of our players who lost everything.
"We were glued to the TV for three days (when the latest tornado hit Moore) like everybody in the country. My daughter was scared, thinking something might happen to our family."
Walton said he plans to take his team to Moore to see the devastation at some point while the team is in Oklahoma City.
"If anyone can rebuild, it's the people out here," Walton said.
Among the volunteers helping out in Moore on Thursday was former Florida wide receiver David Nelson, who lived for five years in Edmond and is now a member of the Cleveland Browns.
But he said his group had to leave Moore at one point Thursday when tornado sirens were sounded. A tornado touched down briefly near Perkins, which is about 65 miles from Moore.
"It was devastating to see all of that destruction," Nelson said. "I have family members who lost a house."
On Wednesday night, thousands of fans showed up at the Chesapeake Arena to try to heal and help. They were attending a concert organized by country music star Blake Shelton, who is from Ada, Okla.
The "Healing in the Heartland" concert included other Oklahoma natives such as Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Miranda Lambert. Pop star Usher also performed.
At night's end, they had raised $3.7 million for the United Way. But there was yet another reminder about how volatile this part of the country's weather can be. Concert goers had to brave a severe storm to make it to the arena and only 20 miles away meteorologists were monitoring potential funnel clouds from another storm, just as Oklahomans did again Thursday afternoon.
Chesapeake Arena is home to the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA. Their star Kevin Durant donated $1 million to the relief efforts.
The money keeps pouring in, but Moore will need time to rebuild.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, softball teams hoped they could be a distraction, maybe a little comfort to those who have been through so much. But even their event is being played with a sense of uneasiness.
All the players, coaches and staffs have been briefed on evacuation plans should severe storms head toward the ASA Hall of Fame Softball Stadium.
"We hope this event helps with the healing process," said Michigan coach Carol Hutchens.
It will take time.
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.