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Local News

May 21, 2014

Memories of Edmond tornado still haunt first responders

Edmond — A year after Edmond first responders arrived at tornado-ravaged Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven students died, it’s still not easy for them to discuss their actions.

They say they’re not heroes, that they were just doing their job. Firefighters, police officers and others from across the metro responded to the Moore elementary.

On May 19, 2013, a tornado touched down in east Edmond and tracked east-northeast, damaging homes, the soon-to-be-opened Mercy Edmond I-35 hospital and toppling numerous trees.

A greater threat for severe weather was on the horizon.

At 3:01 p.m. on May 20, 2013, the National Weather Service issued a tornado emergency for Moore and south Oklahoma City. Spotters were tracking a large and extremely dangerous tornado near Newcastle. Radar showed it was moving northeast at 20 mph.

“This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation,” the NWS stated in its warning. “If you cannot get underground, go to a storm shelter or an interior room of a sturdy building now.”

At 3:23 p.m., the tornado was located near Moore.

Edmond Firefighter Lindy Simpson was at home, less than a mile south of Plaza Towers where his wife Amy Simpson is the principal. Lindy had picked up their children Roarke, 11, and Scarlet, 6, and put them in a neighbor’s storm shelter. He prayed for Amy’s safety, knowing she would remain at the school.

“When I knew it was going to hit Plaza Towers, I sent a text to Amy to tell her they were going to be hit,” Lindy said. “Then I hoped God wasn’t ready for her to be home yet.”

At Plaza Towers, parents were picking up their children during the storm. Some came too late to leave so they took shelter with students and school personnel. Principal Amy Simpson was sheltering parents calmly so other students would not be upset.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t hit either of us,” Amy said. “I knew Lindy would take care of our children.”

Amy walked the hallways checking in with students, teachers and other school personnel. She spoke briefly on the phone with Lindy and told him they were taking tornado precautions. The call did not last long. He told her it would hit their house or the school.

When Lindy knew the tornado was north of 19th Street — their home is south of it — he left their children with a neighbor, got in his truck and headed toward Plaza Towers.

In the city, entire neighborhoods were reduced to piles of debris. Images showed fire and smoke. The sulfuric, rotten egg odor added to natural gas was in the air. Survivors and the walking wounded were emerging from shelter.

At Plaza Towers, walls and ceiling had collapsed. Lindy noticed a civilian standing on a wall holding two arms, those of two children trapped in the rubble. Not knowing where his wife was or her condition, he helped rescue those two children.

While Lindy was working, his cell phone was going crazy. When he had a chance to stop and check, he saw a message from a fellow Edmond Fire Department member. Many Edmond firefighters and police officers were headed toward Moore.

“He and many others were very concerned about mine and Amy’s well-being,” Lindy said. “I told him where I was and what the situation was. From that point the Edmond Fire Department wasn’t going to be stopped until they reached me and my wife.”

At some point in the chaos, Lindy found Amy.

“Lindy and I just needed to see each other,” Amy said. “Right after, Lindy asked me what he could do. I told him I hadn’t seen my second or third graders. He went straight back there and got to work rescuing students and teachers. I stayed up front to direct the younger students and some teachers.”

Wearing street clothes, Lindy worked the third-grade hallway, where students sheltered. He started digging through the rubble, finding children and teachers. He started pulling them from the debris and out to safety. Parents and residents were showing up at the school wanting to help. Lindy calmly explained what needed to be done to keep them safe and to maximize their efforts.

Members of the Edmond Fire Department were assigned the excruciating duty of handling the seven children who died there that day.

“They did it with extreme professionalism and, more importantly, they did it with care,” he said. “Those families will never know these men, but I know they are grateful for the sacrifice they made to handle such a grave task.”

Lindy said he is proud of Amy’s actions. She is a school principal, not a first responder, he pointed out. She had no training for an event of this magnitude. She attended the funerals for seven children whom she loved.

“She carried a heavy burden for that, but her and her teachers had the kids exactly where they were told to have them by the emergency officials who drew up the tornado preparations,” Lindy said. “They all did everything they could plus some.”

Amy said she has confidence in her husband’s ability to assess horrible circumstances. She said his Fire Department training was instrumental in locating, rescuing and caring for the students and staff.

“I’m sure his experience from May 20 has been one of the most horrific scenes he has worked,” Amy said. “He has been very supportive of me, Plaza Towers and of our community during this past year.”

The events of May 20, 2013, will most likely be the worst thing she will ever experience, Amy said. She said she will always remember the direct help the Edmond Fire Department gave that day.

“Seeing the many EFD personnel on scene gave me comfort,” Amy said. “Knowing the men, personally, who cared for the seven children we lost gives me peace. I know they cared for them with respect and love. They cared for them like they would their own.”

Simpson, who has 20 years of service with Moore Public Schools, will soon be at a new district school — Southlake Elementary — scheduled to open this fall. She said the decision was difficult and she will keep the Plaza Towers community in her memories.

Recently, the Edmond Fire Department recognized the actions of Lindy, Amy and other personnel who worked the scene. One of them was Brian Davis, director of emergency medical services. He said they were just doing their job and it’s still difficult to talk about. Any other responders would have done the same, Davis said.

“We were just there that day,” he said.

Mark Schlachtenhaufen writes for The Edmond Sun.

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