Tornado-battered Okla. school buries first victim

1:28 PM, May 23, 2013   |    comments
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Antonia Candelaria was a student at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.(Photo: family photo via AP)

(USA TODAY) -- The tragedy at Plaza Towers Elementary took a new turn Thursday with the first of seven funeral services for the children killed three days earlier when a tornado smashed the school to pieces.

An unrelenting band of storms pounded the area Thursday, drenching battered homes and schools as well as those who gathered to mourn Antonia Candelaria, 9. Pictures of the smiling Antonia filled the chapel.

The horrifying tale of death at the school haunts the families of students.

Kelly Nichols remembers running up to the front door of Plaza Towers to retrieve her 9-year-old son, Ethan. She gasped when she saw the school's front glass façade had been pulverized, the roof ripped off, walls punched in, and a car flipped inside the main hallway.

The tornado that mauled through town moments earlier had pummeled the school. Ethan was inside.

"That was the worst moment," Nichols, 36, said days later as she picked through the ruins of her home, two blocks from the school. "I've never felt fear like that in my life."

STORY: Profiles of those who died

FULL COVERAGE: Tornadoes devastate Oklahoma

Unlike past tornadoes, this one burst into town just past 3 p.m., when students were still in class. School officials made the difficult, though oft-rehearsed, decision to keep students on campus rather than release them into the path of the storm.

Seven of the 24 people killed by the tornado were students at Plaza Towers, including at least four third-graders who huddled in the same area as Ethan, a second-grader, Nichols said.

Briarwood Elementary, less than two miles west, was equally damaged by the storm but no students died there. Neither of the schools had safe rooms.
Antonia Candelaria

Antonia Candelaria was a student at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.(Photo: family photo via AP)

Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said the district launched its crisis plan as soon as officials learned of the impending severe weather. The district exceeds the number of required tornado drills it performs each year, she said.

"When our children are at our schools, they are in our care," Pierce said. "When it was time to shelter, we did just that."

School officials haven't released details of what happened inside Plaza Towers on Monday. But interviews with parents whose children attend there offer a glimpse into those terrifying moments when an EF5 tornado roared into their classrooms.

Kristopher Lawson, 33, had just gotten home from work when the TV stations started to warn of a large tornado forming in the area. He hopped in his car and sped across the street to Plaza Towers to get his son, Chandler, a second-grader, who was in the back building. A school official told him they were keeping the students at school but he was free to get him "at your own risk," Lawson said.

Lawson got Chandler from his classroom and told him to run to the car. They sped off to Lawson's father's home across town, which has a storm shelter.

The decision to get Chandler was an easy one, he said.

"I wanted him with me, no matter what," Lawson said. "I'd feel horrible if I'd left him in there."

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