Nation Nation Now

Tornado cleanup: Muddy headstones, a tilted Jesus, a stray photo

MOORE, Okla.--The Moore Cemetery was full of life on Wednesday.

Hundreds of volunteers, clutching shovels, rakes and trash bags, marched down SW 4th Street to go to work in this vast, normally flat grassland where the city has buried its dead since the late 1800s.

The far south and west sides of the cemetery border what is now a disaster zone. As far as the eye can see, the ground is caked in trash and rubble left by Monday's monster tornado. Except there are keepsakes mixed in too -- a stray photograph, for example,  gleaming in the sun amid jagged bits of concrete, spears of battered wood, mud and crushed grass.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

A few blocks to the southwest, across the path of destruction, is what was Plaza Towers Elementary School.

The volunteers met at a community center and walked in line, carefully avoiding downed power lines on the red-mud-covered sidewalk.

It's the first opportunity many of the volunteers have had to help in the storm's wake, and they jumped at the chance. They want to do something, they say. Anything.

The city called for volunteers. It was well understood that in the coming days, the tornado's victims could be buried at the cemetery, and the volunteers wanted the site -- one of two cemeteries the city of Moore operates -- to look nice. As nice as it could, anyway.

MAP: Path of destruction

Other volunteers gave out tetanus shots to those who would be picking up debris. Some cooked food, or passed out water.

On this day, Moore Cemetery smells of upturned dirt and, in other places, the sweet aroma of cedar wood as chain saws are roaring, cutting through wrecked trees and other debris. White tufts of a cottonwood tree are floating through the air near the cemetery.

Sherry and Mike Carpenter live in Moore and said they called the city, asking for any volunteer opportunity they could find. Their home was unscathed, but for the grace of God, they said. A few blocks away, homes were badly damaged.

On Monday, the Carpenters got in a pickup truck and outran the tornado, driving to Oklahoma City and going into a Home Depot to wait out the storm. Mike had looked out the window at home before he left and saw debris flying. As he drove, he saw a stove pipe in the air.

There's debris in his yard, he said, but that's about it. He saw smoke coming from the nearby Plaza Towers school -- though, at first, he didn't know what building it was. "My heart just dropped," he said, when he realized it was the school.

Today, with blue skies and warm weather, "I didn't care if I was cleaning toilets or picking up trash; I just wanted to help," he said. "That's the Oklahoma spirit."

He and his wife were awed by the number of volunteers, he said. "I knew there were going to be people, but I didn't think it'd be this many."

The Carpenters raked and picked up debris around the grave of Elmer E. Tracey, a World War II Army veteran who was born Nov. 17, 1920 and died April 27, 1958.

"I wish there was more I could do," Mike said.

"I've already done my crying," Sherry said. "But I know there's going to be more."

A black headstone for Jose Transito Rocha (Aug. 15, 1936-July 27, 2011) is covered in mud. A black metal cross with a silver Jesus is tilted, and Jesus has mud on his face. A short time later, it had been fixed, the cross back in place, with a flowered wreath still attached. 

Nearby, Sharon Johnson and Debbie Moore were walking through the cemetery in yellow shirts and hats. They are volunteer chaplains with the Oklahoma Disaster Relief Chaplaincy, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Johnson said she had helped break the grim news to the families of two dead children, both third-graders at Plaza Towers. The chaplains, who had brought the families to a Baptist church on Tuesday to tell them, didn't know it at the time but the families — and their children, later identified by the medical examiner as Nicholas McCabe and Emily Conatzer — were best friends.

The families' grief was palpable, said Johnson, who talked with the boy's father. "He kept saying, 'He was my only child, he was my only child. … He was just saying, 'He's gone.'"

Johnson said she and other chaplains are trained to be professional, but it's hard. 

"I held up really good, and then I went outside where there was nobody, and I cried," she said.  

ALSO:

Hundreds attend funeral for Hofstra student shot by police

New York Mayor Weiner? Most women say no thanks, poll finds

Friend of Boston bombing suspect questioned in triple homicide

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Comments
Loading