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Teacher, funeral director share intimate view of tornado tragedy

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MOORE, Okla. — Preston and Nikki McCurtain are exhausted.

It’s been a week since a massive tornado tore through this Oklahoma City suburb, leaving thousands homeless and 24 dead, including 10 children. Seven were students at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where Nikki McCurtain was about to finish her first year as a fourth-grade teacher.

As Nikki grieves — one of her 26 students lost a sibling, and she knows the children who died — her husband helps others with their pain. He manages Moore Funeral and Cremation in this wounded city.

The funeral home has had about half a dozen funerals in the last few days — for free.

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“They owe us nothing,” Preston said. “It’s a tragedy, especially with those kids.”

The McCurtains’ eyes, already red with sorrow and weariness, filled with tears. Nikki, 29, wore a T-shirt with Oklahoma on it, bearing the words “Together we stand strong. 5.20.2013.” She wears a red, white and blue ribbon on her chest in memory of the children. Preston, 31, sits with her but must leave periodically to comfort families.

The body of 9-year-old Sydney Marie Angle, a Plaza Towers student, lay in a sanctuary down the hall, her funeral set for the next day, Memorial Day. Her family and friends signed her casket with markers. “I’ll see you soon, baby girl … Mommy.”

Sydney’s photo showed a brunet with an angelic smile. There was a flower arrangement made to look like a softball because Sydney — “Sydney Bear” to her family — played for a team named Bring It. She was to be buried in her softball uniform.

“It’s been the hardest week of my life in this business,” Preston said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s just — I’ve buried children before. I’m not saying that’s not hard. But this is harder.”

The morning of the storm, Preston had an ominous feeling. They had taken shelter a day earlier when tornadoes hit the state. Forecasters said Monday would be worse. He drove to his boss’ house, which has a storm shelter.

At Plaza Towers, Nikki and her 26 students were reading “The Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis when the principal warned them by intercom to take shelter. They were on the chapter where Aslan, the lion, begins to sing in the darkness, bringing Narnia into existence. Sometimes, his voice seemed to be that of the Earth itself.

Nikki had talked to her students that morning about what to do in a tornado. They’d been through the drill before. Get in the basement. Or a cellar. A bathtub if you don’t have anywhere to go underground.

Her phone rang; it was Preston.

“He said, ‘It’s coming; it’s going to hit you,’” Nikki said. She told him she was scared. Then her phone went dead.

Plaza Towers had no storm shelter. Nikki and other teachers took their students to a bathroom, where they all huddled on the floor.

“We were trying to keep the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders and special-ed kids calm,” she said. “There was a lot of crying going on. Everyone was kind of in panic mode.”

The teachers were getting news on their phones from family and friends. They knew the school would take a direct hit.

“Everyone was praying out loud,” Nikki said. “Some people were on the phone with their husbands, their loved ones, saying goodbye.”

The floor started to vibrate. The twister roared. So did the walls as the tornado tore the school apart.

“God help us!” people yelled. “God save us! We don’t want to die!”

Nikki prayed for a Scripture to get her through. Psalm 91:4 came to mind: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” She recited the verse aloud.

“I was praying really loud,” she said, “and at that moment the tornado was above us, and I felt the hand of God on my back like a soft pillow, and I knew I was going to be OK.”

When the storm passed, the walls were gone. “There’s nothing around you, and it’s wet and rainy and muddy,” Nikki said. “People are shivering because it’s raining and cold.”

The children crawled out over the rubble. Some had head wounds; teachers tried to find paper towels.

At his boss’ house, Preston saw on television that the tornado was heading for Westmoore High School, less than three miles from Plaza Towers. As soon as it passed, he drove as fast as he could toward Plaza Towers. When he couldn’t drive any farther, he parked and started running.

“Once I saw that storm go by, I thought, man, this is it. She’s gone,” he said. Yet in the back of his mind, he felt she would be OK.

As Nikki hunted for bandages amid the chaos, her husband ran up to her.

“There were a lot of injuries, a lot of crying and weeping, but in the middle of that, I was so happy to see him,” she said.

The last few days have been extremely trying for the McCurtains, who have been married for five years. “We’re both grieving,” Nikki said. “He’s dealing with the families … and my students lost siblings. They lost everything. I’ve been crying every day, and he’s my hero.”

The last few nights, Preston said, the couple has had no energy to do anything but sleep. “We don’t talk,” he said. “We’ve been very drained. Just exhausted.”

Then he left the room to help another grieving family.

Last Thursday, Plaza Towers students gathered at Eastlake Elementary School to say goodbye for the summer.

Nikki gave her students gifts and hugs. She hugged their parents too. She would do anything to save those children, she said. She loves them.

She has returned to her destroyed classroom, where the military broke open her desk so she could get into the drawers. She salvaged some stickers and stamps. She found some of the children’s writing assignments and a photo of her and Preston.

“There are times when I cry,” Nikki said. “There are times when I feel so much pain and heaviness. But I’m also really, really thankful. I know it’s going to take a lot of time for me to feel normal. … I’m trying. I’m trying the best I can to focus on the people who need things.”

hailey.branson@latimes.com


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