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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Updated: June 8, 10:38 PM ET
Oklahoma tragedy striking up close

By Marty Smith

MOORE, Okla. -- It is 6:10 a.m. on a late-May day in central Oklahoma, and the predawn air on the outskirts of Oklahoma City sags with humidity and emotional exhaustion. The scent of mildew hangs heavy on a breeze that buoys a sea of tattered American flags, whipping lazily at half-staff to remind the world of an indomitable resolve.

Darkness hides the staggering devastation. But day will soon break, and the sun's rays will reveal block upon city block of indiscernible rubble, precious memories scraped into nondescript piles of a harsh new reality.

On May 20, an F5 tornado packing 200-plus mph winds cut a two-mile wide, 17-mile long swath directly through this town, killing 24 people in its wake. The storm's wrath is shocking: 13,000 homes destroyed; 33,000 people in some way affected; a monetary damage estimate of $2 billion.

For miles, homes are wiped clean off the foundations; entire neighborhoods reduced to concrete lily pads in a sea of rubble, each speckled with linoleum or tile or the occasional cinder block border. The massive scope of the storm makes the remains of these homes' frames seem like a pile of toothpicks, strewn from here to the horizon in every direction.

There is so much debris that one can't distinguish exactly where one pile ends and the next begins.

A flag still flies over a scene of devastation in Moore, Okla.

Proper context is earned in situations like this. Unless you see it in person, you cannot fathom the sight. At 4:30 in the morning on May 30, I felt overwhelmingly compelled to see this at dawn, to witness the breaking sun reveal the heartbreaking truth.

Ten days had passed since the storm hit. You'd swear it was 10 minutes.

At dawn I stood with trembling hands and butterflies at the corner of Telephone Road and Kings Manor, just off of I-35 South in Moore. As the sky brightened, I first noticed a home, up and to my right. Its roof was caved in, and the foyer had fallen onto the walkway. In its front yard flew an American flag, higher and straighter and prouder than most any I'd seen. The pole that held it aloft was crooked. The flag was not.

Across Telephone Road stands what is left of Moore Medical Center. Every window is blown out. Siding panels are ripped off. Those that remain are pockmarked, presumably by flying debris. Its parking lot is an automobile graveyard.

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Walking through here is harrowing. Each step uncovers someone's dear memory. There is a children's book tucked in a pile of brick, soiled by the wash and the wind. Some research reveals that the book is "Zack's Alligator." It may have originated four streets over. It is impossible to know.

The nose of a blue speedboat, flanked by a flattened red sports car, points skyward atop a pile of mangled metal. In the yard beside the boat rests a white Ford F150 pickup truck. Its engine is ripped clean out. There is a dented white conversion van in the front yard across the street. It appears to have rolled over several times. On down the road a refrigerator sits on a street corner, freezer door wide open, revealing its contents: ice cream, fish filets, pancakes. The gas station on the corner is gone.

Local churches serve as Memory Recovery Centers. If someone finds a photograph during the cleanup, they can take it there in hopes that its owner might be reunited with a precious moment in time.

A tornado does not play favorites. The path of destruction proves its arbitrary approach. On one side of the street a home has no roof and the windows are blown out. Its lawn is littered with Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets and whey protein powder. At the edge of the lawn near the street, two large flags attached to PVC posts wave furiously from left to right. On its tan brick exterior, written in white spray paint, is a message of undaunted resolve:

"We Will Survive. Thank God."

Cars Moore
A jumble of cars and debris tossed together by the tornado that hit Moore, Okla.

The home across the street is virtually untouched.

As I drive past this particular scene, I see a gentleman speaking with an insurance claim adjuster in his driveway. His home is damaged. Not destroyed. He is wearing a Richard Petty Motorsports cap, a "9" stitched into one side, a "43" into the other. I pull up alongside him and introduce myself. He says his name is Larry and asks, "What the hell is Marty Smith from ESPN doing here?"

I explain to him that five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson would soon appear at the Lowe's just up the street a piece to distribute supplies and support to the townsfolk, and that he should stop by for some sorely needed supplies, and maybe a photograph and an autograph. I offer him a ride. He pauses.

"No. I still have a home," he said. "Look three doors down … "

He points to a neighbor's home. It is worn out.

"They have nothing left. I do. Let's leave the supplies to the people who really need it."

I was floored. What a tremendous display of selflessness.

That's one dynamic that permeates this community: Everywhere you look, there is genuine concern for your neighbor. It is inspiring. Volunteers walk the streets to distribute water and snacks. Church groups line the streets to clear debris.

You learn a lot about people in times of strife.

As we stand on a street corner, trying to process the moment, a little black car drove through. Painted on its windows was a reminder of another recent tragedy: "Pray 4 West." Amazing.

Down the road a bit further is a brick home with soft yellow trim, door number 662. On the garage door to the left, another message of resolve is written in black spray paint:

"Took Our Home -- Not Our Heart."

A sign of hope and determination.

I met a wonderful lady named Sheri Vera. She and her mother, Barbara McCampbell, came to Lowe's to meet Johnson. She told me the story of her cousin, Waynel Mayes, a teacher at Briarwood Elementary, and how Mayes managed her class in the storm.

Mayes knew the school was going to be hit, Vera said. She knew it was going to be big. So she asked the children to get under their desks and distributed a musical instrument to each child. From underneath their desks the children began to sing, louder and louder and louder above the roar of the twister.

"She had them sing 'Jesus Loves Me,' and they sang it and it got louder," Vera said. "The louder it got, the louder they got. And she said, 'Now, when we can't outsing the roar anymore, you can scream. But you can't scream until it gets so loud that you can't outsing it.' "

When it hit, Vera said, it lasted a long time. And when it was finally over, Vera said Mayes recalled everything being very black. The wait lasted a very long time. When they were ready to get out of the rubble, they realized they were trapped.

"Her kids were like, 'OK, Mrs. Mayes, what do we do now? How do we get out? I need you to come get me out.' She goes, 'Well, honey, I can't get you out, I'm stuck, too. We're going to have to wait for heroes, and you're going to meet some real heroes.'"

And as only a child could do, Vera said one of them said the sweetest thing ever:

"They go, 'Oh! Kevin Durant?!' "

My, how precious. And innocent.

When local men doing a good deed rescued the class, every child was accounted for. When the last child ran into her parents' arms, Mayes sat on the street curb and broke down.

"She said 'I just lost it,' " Vera said. "I said 'That's OK, you're allowed to.' "

After I spoke with Vera, a man approached me. His name was Richard Whitthorn. He told me he'd been a Moore resident since 1964. He'd held it together pretty well over the past week, he said. Then he saw a public service announcement that included several NASCAR drivers, as well as Johnson's wife, Chandra. Chandra is an Oklahoma native who grew up two hours east in Muskogee and attended the University of Oklahoma, just 10 minutes south in Norman.

Whitthorn told me when he saw Chandra on the television, he broke down and wept.

As we spoke about it, he broke down again.

I met a gentleman named Tad Agoglia. He is fascinating. He made a pile of money at a young age as an entrepreneur, but gave up his business six years ago to help people after disasters.  He founded the First Response Team of America, a disaster relief group that arrives immediately following a storm to assist those in need.

He is now chairman and CEO. First Response Team of America studies weather patterns and anticipates when a disaster may hit. It then mobilizes to the area. Agoglia's group is often there before the storm hits. When it does, the team clears roads, moves downed trees and arranges infrastructure to ease the way for rescue vehicles.

A guitar hang on the fence outside Plaza Towers Elementary School. Among the things written on it: "This guitar was destroyed when May's F5 tornado killed the ears it wanted to play to. It's perfect. It just does not want to play again."

Agoglia explained to me that many communities don't have the necessary resources for rescue and recovery. So he shows up. He was in San Diego during the wildfires. He worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Gustav and the oil spill, and in Joplin, Mo., in the tornado aftermath there. He worked in Haiti. He's seen some things.

For all the hurt he's seen, Agoglia is amazed by the optimism and sense of community after disasters. Seeing places like Moore band together in hope, despite the overwhelming loss, is what fuels him.

Following Johnson's two-plus hour goodwill initiative at Lowe's -- at which he was joined by Chandra, as well as several members of the Oklahoma football program and NASCAR president Mike Helton -- Agoglia drives him through the worst-hit area of town until they reach the epicenter of the aftermath: Plaza Towers Elementary School.

The school is destroyed. People mill about. Many place messages and mementos within the holes in the fence. There are stuffed animals and flags and signature crosses covered in messages of hope. T-shirts and flags wave in the wind. Over to the left hangs a guitar. Written on it in Sharpie is a heartbreaking message:

"This guitar was destroyed when May's F5 tornado killed the ears it wanted to play to. It's perfect. It just does not want to play again."

The Oklahoma National Guard works the chain-link perimeter. Just inside that perimeter stand seven crosses bearing the names of the seven children who died here.

At this moment, the magnitude hits. Standing at the fence line, alongside an old weathered cross, Johnson tells the story of meeting a young boy earlier in the day who had been in Briarwood Elementary on May 20.

Moore Oklahoma
Seven crosses, representing the deaths of seven children, stand on the lawn at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Fear, Johnson said, was still readily noticeable in his eyes.

"You could still see fear, or whatever the emotions are that follow it, still in his face and his eyes," Johnson said. "It's still with him. That's scary. Adults, we don't want anyone to lose a life. We all have a little different opinion about it, but an innocent kid … you just freak out."

Johnson goes on to ponder what it sounded like, how it felt knowing the storm is bearing down upon you.

"It scares me to see all of this," he said. "And then to know this loss of life, it's … worse."

My takeaway from this scene is an odd sense of equality. What everyone was was a group headed in a million different directions. What is, is a group all pointed forward.

And that, fundamentally, fosters the deepest of empathies within me.

There are moments in this life that chip away at your granite, which reshape who you are and remold who you will be. Some are strife. Some are heartbreak. Some are euphoria, some acceptance.

This was one of those days for me.