MOORE, Okla. — When Josephine Owings heard the shriek of tornado sirens Monday afternoon, she scooped up her "babies" — her tiny lap dogs, Emma and Harley — and took shelter in her bathroom.
Her cell phone rang. It was her daughter-in-law, Chasidy Artrip, who feared that Owings’ three-bedroom home was directly in the path of the massive tornado that minutes later killed at least 24 people in and around this Oklahoma City suburb.
"Mom, get out of the bathroom!’’ Artrip yelled into the phone. She told Owings, 62, a slender, red-haired woman, to take shelter under the stairs.
Just as Owings and her dogs huddled under the staircase, "the whole house started moving and lifting," she recalled outside the ruins of her home Tuesday.
"I thought it was going to lift me right out with it," she said.
Instead, the two-story rental home was torn off its foundation and ripped into splinters. Less than a minute later, all that remained was the stairwell. And beneath it lay Owings and her dogs, alive and unscathed.
"I could hear the whole house collapsing around her," said Owings’ son, Randy Artrip, 40, who had called his mother after she dropped her cell phone in her haste to flee the bathroom, then retrieved it.
Artrip stayed on the phone with his mother throughout her ordeal, telling her to be calm and to pray. "She told me she was pinned. I told her everything was going to be OK," he recalled.
Artrip sped in his truck to his mother’s flattened home. But a passerby — "all I know is his name was Trey," Owings recalled — had already pulled her out from under a pile of debris by the time he arrived.
Owings was still rattled Tuesday; she said she couldn’t sleep Monday night because she kept reliving the storm. She picked anxiously through the rubble as her son, daughter-in-law and other family members slogged through mud and debris to salvage water-logged fabric rolls from the seamstress business she ran from her home.
Torrential rains pounded the wreckage at midday, leaving a coating of mud and slime amid the destruction. The street was clogged with engorged insulation and damp roofing.
Once-towering hardwoods had been stripped of bark and leaves, reduced to spectral forms sprouting bare limbs.
Owings’ granddaugher, Kay Lewis, 18, retrieved family photos, damp but largely intact inside a sturdy box. Other family members found sewing materials and a flat-screen television, slick with mud, but possibly salvagable.
Owings tiptoed through torn insulation and shattered beams to collect a box of Christmas decorations. "Everybody gets a stocking this Christmas!" she announced.
Her daughter-in-law gently chided Owings for not fleeing the house when the first tornado watches were issued Monday — and for trying to take shelter in her bathtub. Owings said she was sewing a shirt and monitoring TV weather reports when she heard that the tornado had touched down across Interstate 35 directly behind her house on South Howard Avenue in Moore.
"It was right on top of me so fast — I didn’t even have time to pull the comforter over my head," she said.
Amid the wreckage Tuesday were the remains of Owings’ car, a crimson 2003 PT Cruiser, its windshield shattered and its chassis crunched. "It’s totalled," Owings said, shrugging.
Her granddaugher, Lewis, comforted her, telling Owings how relieved she was to see her alive. Lewis said her other grandmother, her aunt and uncle, and a cousin all lost their homes Sunday to storms that ripped through Newalla, about 20 miles east of Moore.
In fact, Randy Artrip had been helping a family friend salvage items from a storm-damaged house in Newalla Monday when he called to check on his mother as the deadly tornado bore down on Moore. It packed winds of more than 200 mph and carved a swath of destruction 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long, according to emergency officials.
Owings said this was her third tornado, including one in 2003 that damaged another house in which she was living. But that storm was a mere breeze compared to this one.
"They say a tornado sounds like a train when it comes through," she said. "Uh, uh. It sounds a whole lot worse."