NEWCASTLE, Okla. — "I found them! Whoo-hoo!”
Digging through debris in what once was her bathroom, Kala Leger rejoices. She has recovered something of great value — not jewelry, not her wedding dress or baby photos, but handwritten Bible lessons.
Each Thursday night, she and 30-plus Christians filled every corner of this 2,100-square-foot home — now a mass of broken bricks and tattered, wet insulation — to worship and work. They crafted the lessons for children at their congregation, the Southwest Church of Christ in nearby Oklahoma City.
Less than 48 hours earlier, their house was one of the first hit by a tornado that intensified as it plowed eastward toward Moore, Okla. There, it wiped away entire neighborhoods, toppled two elementary schools and killed 24 people — 10 of them children.
As the warning sirens screamed, Leger and her husband, Jason, rushed their own children — McKenzie, 14; Madison, 11; Jett, 10; and Hutton, 3 — into a tiny concrete bunker next to the house. On his phone, Jason Leger filmed a massive funnel as it formed down the street. Then he shut the door and prayed.
Branches, pipes and car parts clattered against the door, knocking loose the exterior latch. Jason Leger jumped to brace it, feeling pressure throughout his body, a sensation he describes as “being immersed in mashed potatoes.”
The kitchen wall fell and smashed the bunker’s vent, covering the family in dust. The single light bulb illuminating the shelter burst.
“We’re OK, we’re OK,” Kala Leger yelled as she held her children, unable to hear her own words — and wondering if they were true. “Four minutes, just four minutes,” she thought to herself — the time she’d been told it takes for a tornado to pass. It likely was much shorter, she said. It seemed like eternity.
Finally, the storm was gone. The house was too; they knew it. Jason Leger resumed filming and opened the door. Panning across a field of devastation, he said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Wow.”
The video caught the attention of international media. As the sun set, TV networks interviewed Jason Leger in his yard. Viewers commented on the “eerily serene” quality of his voice as he quoted Job, the Old Testament figure who lost his sons and daughters to “a great wind.”
Jason Leger, a deacon of the Southwest church, said he didn’t intend to question the divine. As he stood among overturned cars and strewn Bible pages, stripped of his worldly possessions, he was keenly aware that, “at that moment, it was just me and God.”
“Why did this happen? Why an elementary school? Why little kids?”
Jennifer Simonds flutters between anger and thankfulness as she grapples with those questions.
God “kept me alive and kept my kids alive,” says the 26-year-old kindergarten teacher, who attends the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City with her husband, Colby. The couple met as students at Oklahoma Christian University, next to the church.
The May 20 storm attained EF5 status, cutting a swath of destruction more than a mile wide, as it moved from Newcastle to Moore, where Jennifer Simonds teaches at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Parents had picked up all but six of the 22 students she teaches during afternoon kindergarten. She made sure the remaining students were in the “duck and cover” position. As the storm got closer, one of the girls asked her if a train had come in the building.
Jennifer Simonds remembers the lights flickering, the sound of breaking glass, the taste of dirt in her mouth as she yelled “we’re going to be fine!”
“I kept praying ... that if anything was to happen, it would happen to me,” she says. “When it was all over ... I sat up on my knees and realized that, on my back, was an upside-down SUV.”
Rescuers pulled the sport utility vehicle away from the teacher and her students. Paramedics took them to a hospital in nearby Norman. They all survived but later learned that seven third-graders, ages 8 and 9, had perished when a wall collapsed on them.
Colby Simonds raced from his work and walked through block after block of debris to reach the school, only to learn that his wife was at the hospital. The couple reunited about five hours after the storm.
Remembering the devastation he saw, “I don’t know how anybody walked away from that,” Colby Simonds says.
Now Jennifer Simonds sips frozen coffee left-handed at a Starbucks in southwest Oklahoma City, en route to get a new driver’s license. Hers was lost in the storm. So was her car.
Her right arm, no longer in a sling, is still stiff. Her T-shirt, bearing the logo of Plaza Towers Elementary, covers most of the “road rash,” as she calls it — scratches and gashes suffered as she shielded her six students.
They call her a hero. So does her husband. She calls herself blessed.
“Although it’s horrible, and I don’t understand why it happened,” she says, “God put his hand on us and he protected us so that we could walk out of there … and see our family again.”
•••••• “One thing about a disaster — it removes all boundaries and borders.”
Danny Benefield, an elder of the Oakcrest Church of Christ, talks as he works, arranging tables in the church’s gym so it can serve as a relief center.
Near the storm’s path of destruction, houses of faith overflow with help. At the massive Baptist church and tiny storefront churches in Moore, volunteers form assembly lines and make sandwiches next to banners offering free food to victims and relief workers. Regardless of denomination or doctrine, “everybody is here to serve Christ,” Benefield says.
Outside the Oakcrest church’s building in Oklahoma City, about four miles north of the destruction, members unload bottled water and canned goods from passing cars. Inside, high school students sort through donated clothes on the church’s pews.
Here, in Tornado Alley, disaster relief is a way of life, Benefield says, adding that Oklahoma City showed the world how to respond to a crisis — with compassion and self-sacrifice — after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.
The 900-member Oakcrest church served as a relief site after a May 3, 1999, tornado that also devastated Moore. In the years since, the congregation has become a well-oiled machine for relief. When the director of a church-supported disaster ministry calls Benefield’s cell phone and offers to coordinate the church’s relief efforts, the elder politely declines.
On the north side of Oklahoma City, members of the Memorial Road church also are lining up rows of canned goods and organizing relief teams — for Moore, Newcastle and communities damaged by other recent tornadoes, including Shawnee and Luther.
The 2,200-member church’s newly anointed director of disaster relief, Joe Crawford, was a recipient of the church’s relief efforts in 2011, when a tornado ripped apart the house where he, his wife and four daughters lived in Cashion, Okla.
“Every phone call I’m getting now is the same phone call I made” two years ago, Crawford says as he writes on a dry-erase board in the church’s fellowship hall, jotting down the names of available van drivers for relief teams.
Beyond immediate needs, storm victims call with questions about insurance claims and counseling. Crawford remembers their concern. This storm will impact their lives for years to come, he says.
“I know how to move trees,” he says. But dealing with shock and trauma is equally important. The church plans to build relationships with storm victims, to help guide them through the rebuilding and healing process.
“We don’t want to go down, clear their house, give them bottles of water and leave,” he says. “We’ve got to come up with a system that’s long-term, or we’re just moving rubble.”
•••••• “This is God on earth — the Lord’s church.”
Kala Leger talks to a TV reporter as she watches nearly 50 volunteers from the Memorial Road church and Oklahoma Christian University sift through the remains of her house.
After they’ve salvaged what they can, the volunteers move on to a house across the street. As the group’s coordinator, Woody Loden, tears down what’s left of the Legers’ home with a front-end loader, the family watches.
“I kind of thought I’d be bawling,” says their 10-year-old son, Jett, “but not yet.”
They mourn the losses in their spiritual family, the Southwest Church of Christ. A member, Brandon Smith, lost his brother in the storm, Jason Leger says. They also regret that they weren’t able to salvage the paperback Bibles they use during Thursday night devotionals. Each participant had one with his or her name on it.
But they can buy more Bibles, Jason Leger says, and the weekly studies will continue, uninterrupted by the storm. In less than two weeks, he plans to accompany members of his church on a mission trip to Peru.
When asked if he wonders why God allows tornadoes, Jett Leger simply shrugs and says, “God has a purpose for everything.”
Job, whom Jason Leger quoted as he surveyed the ruins of their home, also questions God in the Old Testament story. Though he receives back from God twice what he lost, he wants to know why his heavenly father allowed tragedy to befall him.
God answers Job “out of the storm,” according to the Bible story. The answer, though lengthy, points to the Lord’s power, wisdom and control. Put simply, he is God, and he is with you.
Colby Simonds says he saw evidence of God’s presence as he and his wife returned to Plaza Towers Elementary.
They searched the remains of her classroom, looking for her belongings and salvageable school supplies. Though the school is gone, Jennifer Simonds plans to teach again this fall.
Originally, “it probably said ‘God bless this home’ or something,” he says.
After the wind, after the rain, after almost unimaginable devastation and death, the broken piece bore only one word — “God.”
Tears flowing, Colby Simonds says, “I just know he was there.”