MOORE, Okla. (AP) – After an anguish-filled summer, students returned to classes Friday at two elementary schools destroyed last spring by a deadly tornado that ripped a 17-mile path of devastation through the suburbs of Oklahoma City.
The children of Moore were eager to reunite with classmates, but many were still haunted by fears of the weather and memories of young friends lost to the monstrous EF5 twister that killed 24 people.
Zack Lewis, who narrowly escaped the storm that took the lives of seven schoolmates, seemed to express the anxiety on everyone’s mind when he asked his parents a simple, plaintive question: Who will come get him if another tornado approaches?
“He’s a little anxious. He didn’t want to eat,” Julie Lewis said, wiping tears from her cheeks after escorting her son to his first day of fourth grade.
On the day of the storm, Zack’s father plucked the boy from his classroom when the weather grew threatening, so the child wasn’t on campus when the twister hit. The schoolmates died when a wall collapsed on them at Plaza Towers Elementary.
The EF5 tornado with winds that exceeded 200 mph also plowed through Briarwood Elementary School and destroyed scores of homes and businesses.
Counselors and five therapy dogs greeted students outside the Central Junior High School, which will share its campus with Plaza Towers students for at least the next year. Parents snapped photographs of their children in front of flowers, balloons and a red-and-white banner reading “Plaza Towers Elementary School. Welcome.”
Inside the temporary school, teachers and administrators tried to create a sense of normalcy, but some acknowledged the challenge ahead.
Fourth-grade teacher Nikki McCurtain, who has many of the third-graders who survived, said she let her students pick where they wanted to sit as a way to let them feel like they had control. Gift bags filled with Tootsie Rolls, Pixie Stix and other items were left on each desk.
“I want to reassure them that it’s going to be a good school year if they make it a good school year,” McCurtain said. “It’s just so tragic what happened.”
One of McCurtain’s students, 10-year-old Cam’ron Richardson, had trouble sleeping Thursday night as a storm rolled through central Oklahoma. He didn’t speak much while preparing for school but looked sharp in his black jeans shorts and new basketball shoes.
“I am nervous for him. I just hope it doesn’t storm the next few days,” his mother, Alicia Richardson said.
Cam’ron was one of several children whose rescue was captured by an Associated Press photographer following the storm. He keeps one of the images on his cellphone to show others.
School officials were hopeful that Friday’s return to school would help students put the memory of the May 20 tornado behind them. Many people in town had already returned to a familiar routine, but not the children.
When the tornado was brought up in one first-grade classroom on Friday, several students started recounting their experiences.
“My mom’s car had a tree through the back,” one first-grade girl said, looking up from her drawing.
Another student, 6-year-old Connor Lewis, was adamant he did not cry at the time of the storm.
“I didn’t cry like a bit,” he told his friends as he drew a picture of a swimming pool. Then he conceded there were a few tears: “Just for like one minute and then I was done,” said Connor, who is not related to Zack Lewis.
Connor said he didn’t want to come to school at first, but midway through the day, he said he was having fun.
It wasn’t just the students and parents who struggled. Some teachers did, too.
Kimberly Martinez, a fourth-grade teacher, said she got emotional at the start of the day but was able to pull herself together.
“I want to be strong for these kids. They deserve to have a really great year after everything they’ve been through,” Martinez said. “I wanted them to see me smiling because I am excited to be back teaching.”
In the nearly three months since the storm, students are still disturbed by heavy weather and vivid memories of the mayhem.
Eight-year-old Haley Delgado carries headphones to block out the noise of the wind. Her brother, Xavier, 10, says he is scared by loud thunder. And 9-year-old Ruby Macias, who was trapped under the same wall that crushed her classmates, remembers the screaming and the crying.
The site where the Plaza Towers school once stood, in the heart of a neighborhood decimated by the tornado, has become a makeshift memorial for the dead and a meeting spot for volunteers, even though there is just a slab where the school used to be.
A handful of wind-battered trees are beginning to grow new leaves and branches again. Seven crosses, each carrying the name of a child killed in the storm, are accompanied by an eighth that has a black “7” inside a red heart.
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