Storm cellar drama: Holding back the Oklahoma tornado

OKLAHOMA CITY — First, the lights went out. Then the storm cellar trembled as if the twister was trying to yank it out of the ground. Dan Garland, 65, and two other men gripped the door handle, their faces pinched in concentration and their arms straining to hang on as the tornado threatened to pry it open.

Twelve lives were at stake — 10 people, including Garland’s 91-year-old mother, and two dogs.

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" screamed Garland’s wife, Rebecca.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

Here in the region known as Tornado Alley, the threat of twisters looms every spring. In 1999, one smashed into the adjacent suburb of Moore and killed 46 people. It also coiled down SW 149th Street, where the Garland family lives. Their home was spared back then, but it was a close enough call that the family decided to build a storm cellar.

On Monday, as the sky lurched from sunny to stormy, Rebecca had a feeling they might need to use it.

She moved her purse and laptop to the tiny space, which is located to the side of the Garlands’ 2,500-square-foot home. Tornado sirens started to yowl. The Garlands climbed down the metal ladder into the cellar with some neighbors. Suddenly, silence.

Dan took the opportunity to run next door, where his mother lives. Her dog, Daisy, refused to budge and at first she did too. Somehow, Dan persuaded his mother to rush with him back to the cellar. More neighbors joined them. Maybe a minute before the twister whirled through, they slammed the door shut.

MAP: Path of destruction

The tornado was a monstrosity in so many ways. Rating: a top-of-the-scale EF-5. Wind speed: 200 mph. Death toll so far: 24, including nine children.

In the cellar, Rebecca sensed its fury. The twister whirred like a drill. It made the ground quake and Rebecca’s ears pop. She hugged a neighbor. She wept. Even so, she snapped a photo of her husband and the two men pulling on the door handle. The ordeal lasted several minutes, though it felt to her like hours.

Again, silence. The tornado had pirouetted elsewhere. When Rebecca peered out of the cellar, she realized that it had spared their lives, but not much else.

SW 149th Street had been transformed into a scrap yard, with 5-foot-tall piles of wood chunks, knots of electrical wires and toppled trees. Rebecca looked toward her house and saw only a mountain of debris. Her mother-in-law asked: Can we check on my home?

"You don’t have a house, honey," Rebecca told her. "It’s gone."

Daisy, who never made it into the shelter, died.

Until nightfall, the Garlands mostly wandered around nearby Moore, a speed bump on the tornado’s 20-mile path. The city of 55,000 people had a ghostly quality. Here, a boat was perched atop the remains of a house. There, bowling pins stood upright in a collapsed bowling alley.

The Garlands spent the night with their son, who lives nearby. Rebecca, 63, woke up before sunrise, sobbing.

On Tuesday morning, they returned to SW 149th Street. Rebecca wore a borrowed pink shirt and pajama bottoms as she pawed through the rubble. Rain pelted her face and muddied the ground and showed no signs of subsiding.

"It’s just stuff, you know, and I’m thinking of the little kids at school and their parents," Rebecca said. "They’re going to have to bury their kids."

Still, it was wrenching to see what little remained of their home. A ceiling fan, its light bulbs intact. A hat box that belonged to Rebecca’s grandmother. And a Tin Man, part of Rebecca’s collection of “Wizard of Oz” figurines.

ALSO:

Officials vow to rebuild Moore after tornado

A devastating tornado, a desperate search for friend

As Oklahomans reel from twister, they recall May 3, 1999

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Carcamo reported from Moore, Okla., and Powers from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed from Moore.

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