MOORE, Okla. – Ten-year-old Kai Heuangpraseuth will return to a new Plaza Towers Elementary in the fall, built on the same spot where seven of the boy’s schoolmates died last year after a top-scale tornado reduced it to a pile of rubble.
Christopher Legg will not be there, but his mother says perhaps her son’s death will hurt a little less if last May’s tragedy in Moore helps lead to safer schools.
One year after the deadly tornado carved a 17-mile path through the heart of this Oklahoma City suburb and killed 24 people, deep scars remain – especially for families who lost loved ones and children traumatized after riding out the fearsome storm inside two elementary schools.
Neither Plaza Towers nor nearby Briarwood Elementary had an underground shelter or tornado safe room, so when the tornado bore down, with winds speed exceeding 200 mph, the students huddled into hallways or crammed into bathrooms or closets. Most of the child victims died after a massive wall collapsed and suffocated them.
Kai, who was plucked from the school’s rubble by a police officer in a moment captured by an Associated Press photographer, is excited about the new school, but still troubled by bad weather and certain loud sounds.
“He’s still got his triggers,” said Kai’s mother, Jacalyn Russell, who plans to move back into the Plaza Towers district this summer. “It’s not really the rain. He likes the rain. It’s more the wind, and sounds that sound similar … like the trains.”
Even the slightest turn in the weather can cause anxiety and fear for the surviving Plaza Towers students, who have been attending classes at a refurbished junior high since the storm, Principal Amy Simpson said.
“We try not to say ‘tornado’ around here,” said Simpson, who rode out the storm with five other staffers in a small bathroom. “Just the word scares them.”
Even the continuous outpouring of cards, gifts and well wishes from students across the country brings fresh reminders.
“The hardest part about that is that the kids are reminded each time someone gives something to us that their friends are gone,” she said.
Nine-year-old Haley Delgado carried a pair of headphones around with her for months to block out the sound of the wind, which reminds her of the EF-5 tornado, mom Athena Delgado said.
“We still have them, but she doesn’t still use them,” said Delgado, whose 10-year-old son Xavier Delgado also was in the school that day.
Xavier gets apprehensive when Oklahoma’s unpredictable weather takes a turn for the worse, Delgado said, but mostly he thinks about the friends he lost.
“Those were his classmates who died,” Delgado said. “He still misses his friends.”
For some Moore families, the chance to watch their child return to school ended on May 20.
Danni Legg, mother of 9-year-old Christopher, says it has been “bittersweet” to watch the community recover from the storm. The neighborhood surrounding Plaza Towers was one of the hardest hit, with homes flattened to the foundation and reduced to piles of splintered debris that stretched for miles. Today, brand-new homes pop up on lots that have long since been cleared, many by the thousands of volunteers who arrived to help.
Legg has found some comfort by pouring herself into advocating for more storm shelters in schools and launching a political campaign for the state House.
“If more shelters can come out of this, it will be worth it for Chris,” Legg said. “Yes, seven children’s lives were lost, but if half a million Oklahoma students and staff can be protected, it will make this hurt a little less.”
A safe-room shelter is being constructed into the new Plaza Towers Elementary School, where Kai reunited recently with Moore Police Officer Travis Muehlenweg, a four-year veteran who helped pull the third-grader from under the collapsed wall.
“Thanks,” Kai told the officer and then moved in for a hug. They walked across a field to get a closer look at the new school. “It looks huge,” the boy said.
“Maybe I’ll see you there,” the officer responded. “I’ll come over.”