Surviving the storm: Veterinary team survives Okla. tornado
They looked at the radar. Receptionist Dianne Bracelin decided she needed a cigarette.
The last client, a Moore, Okla., police officer, had just left Scroggins Animal Hospital. Associate veterinarian Alicia Gorczyca, DVM, called her daughter’s daycare. Providers were moving the children into a safe room. Gorczyca told Sabrina Wright, a veterinary assistant, to leave—now. Her son Payton was nearby at a neighbor’s in-home daycare.
Gorczyca and Molly Lynn, another assistant, followed Bracelin outside. “To the west of us I could see it,” Gorczyca says. “The tornado and the debris cloud.”
“We need to get the hell out of here,” Bracelin recalls Gorczyca saying. “‘We need to leave now.’” Following the instructions of clinic owner Kristi Scroggins, DVM, who had the day off but was keeping tabs on the staff by phone, they evacuated.
“We’ve never really had to rush out like that,” Gorczyca says. But Dr. G, as staff members call her, managed to keep calm. She didn’t rush. She didn’t panic. She was methodical. She locked up the drug box, got her stethoscope and turned out the lights. “I was trying to stay calm and doing everything you do routine-wise. I should have had a little bit more sense of urgency.”
There was no time to get to her daughter, Olivia, across town in daycare. All Gorczyca could do was pray she would be safe. They hadn’t made shelter plans at the clinic. Gorczyca, Bracelin and Lynn didn’t know where to go—they just knew they had to go now. They had to make a decision: Wright had a storm shelter.
“No sooner did we get there and get into the house,” Bracelin says, than the tornado was on them. They dropped Payton into the small garage shelter as he cried for his mother, who was rushing from the house with last-minute items and the dogs. Once everyone was in the hole, they shut the lid and locked it.
They turned on the weather radio. Gorczyca handed Payton her iPhone. His focus turned to a “Little People” app Gorczyca had downloaded for her daughter.
“There it is. I hear it,” Bracelin said of the tornado’s muffled roar. They listened.
“It dawned on us that this was really happening,” Gorczyca says.
The four women who sat huddled on the benches of Wright’s shelter are part of an extremely tight work family. They care about each other. They go to movies together. Gorczyca, Lynn and Wright even had babies at the same time—all three of their children are now nearing their second birthdays. They rely on each other.
“Molly was getting upset,” Gorczyca says. “Already in my head I was doing some prayers. When Molly started breaking down we just started saying ‘Hail Mary’ over and over again. It gave her something else to focus on.”
Bracelin says that’s when the sound of six freight trains engulfed them. “You could feel, like, shaking too—the rumble,” she says. The impact was unnerving.
“It’s very loud and then the pressure changes. Your ears start popping,” Gorczyca says. There was a moment of quiet—the eye of the storm—until it raged again. “And then that was it.” Silence.
“Dianne was the first one wanting out,” Gorczyca says. “It was getting hot and claustrophobic. ‘I gotta get out, I gotta get out,’” she remembers Bracelin saying. They told Bracelin to wait and stayed crammed in the small six-person shelter—four adults, a toddler and two dogs (a Catahoula and a beagle cross)—for five more minutes.
“I was the first one to get out,” Gorczyca says. “I realized we didn’t have any power.” She went through the garage to the kitchen. Broken glass and water covered the floor. The ceiling was dripping. “I got the front door open and walked outside,” she says.
She first saw Lynn’s and Wright’s vehicles. “Molly’s van was pretty much totaled,” Gorczyca says. “Sabrina’s car, the windows were intact, but it had a giant dent on the front part.” Wright’s house was damaged but standing. The next few houses were standing too, but that was it. “After that there was nothing. Everything was gone.”
Gorczyca went back to the shelter as the rest were starting to climb out. She told Wright to prepare herself, Lynn too. Wright made her way through the house with Payton. Lynn started to cry.
They went outside and began to check on neighbors. “We started going door to door,” Gorczyca says. “We could see a lady down the road. She was very distraught.” The woman told them her neighbors were trapped.
They ran to a pile of rubble. Gorczyca says they could hear the people beneath—a mother and her children—yelling to get them out. “It was a garage shelter like we had been in, but their house had collapsed on them,” Gorczyca says. She tried to move rafters from where they’d fallen, but they wouldn’t budge. She couldn’t move a thing. “There was nothing you could do,” Gorczyca says. Suddenly a National Guardsman was there. He said he’d recover these people and instructed Gorczyca to keep checking on neighbors.
Lynn and Bracelin took Payton back to the house. Wright went to check on Payton’s daycare. People now assembling in the streets were in shock, “almost like zombies clustered in groups,” Gorczyca says. Then someone started to yell.
A woman didn’t know where a neighbor was and couldn’t get inside the neighbor’s house. “I kicked a door in and we could see the dog was still attached to its leash attached to a sliding glass door,” Gorczyca says. The glass was gone, but somehow the dog was fine. “He was sitting in the middle of the kitchen—I don’t know how—wagging his tail, glass all around.” She got the dog a bowl of water. The owner wasn’t home. They kept moving.
Countless houses were just gone, making the neighborhood nearly unrecognizable to Wright. She saw her daycare provider’s yellow car—it was upside down. “That whole side of the street was gone,” Gorczyca says. They started jogging up the road when the full weight of the tornado’s violence was before them.
“I saw someone doing CPR on an obviously deceased person,” Gorczyca says. Gorczyca stopped and offered help. The woman trying to resuscitate her neighbor stopped. “’I know she’s gone, but her husband is right over there and I can’t stop,’” the woman said. Gorczyca found a sleeping bag in the rubble and laid it over the body. There was nothing more she could do.
Wright and Gorczyca started to walk back. Someone told them that although Wright’s daycare provider’s house had been destroyed, the provider and the children had made it out alive. Gorczyca needed to know her daughter was OK.
Back at Wright’s house, Bracelin and Lynn tried to soothe Payton until his mother returned. He played with Bracelin’s earrings. Amidst the destruction, Bracelin would point to the earrings and say, “Pretty.” Payton would echo.
Gorczyca walked miles back to the clinic. Bracelin walked with her, winding her way home. The destruction was disorienting. There was no cell phone service. Gorczyca had no way of knowing if her daughter was safe. “She was worried sick about her,” Bracelin says.
Gorczyca headed north on Eastern Avenue; she could see the damage. “There’s no way the clinic is here,” she thought. But somehow it was still standing. “It looked sandblasted,” Gorczyca says. The tornado had missed it by a half-block.
She went in and checked on all the animals. Miraculously, all were fine. She tried to use her phone again.
Finally, Gorczyca got a call to go through. She heard the words she had been praying for. “My daughter was fine and everything was OK,” she says. Her husband was on his way to pick Olivia up.
“When I found out she was safe, I tried to do what needed to be done here,” Gorczyca says of the clinic. About that time Scroggins arrived. Everyone was accounted for. Everyone was safe. She too was amazed the clinic was still standing, although the power was out there too. They got the controlled drugs and vaccines out. They made sure all the animals had water. It was nearly 8 p.m.
Many roads were closed; the ones that weren’t were clogged with traffic. Gorczyca’s normally 30-minute commute took nearly three hours. She heard what had happened at Plaza Towers Elementary—that seven children were dead. Her daughter Olivia’s daycare sat right behind that school. “The hardest part for me was my daughter had come so close to that,” she says.
When Gorczyca got home, Olivia was still awake. “She was lying on the bed with my husband,” Gorczyca says. “She didn’t want to go to sleep because she was waiting for Mama.”
More than a week after the storm, Gorczyca can hardly get the words out. “I grabbed her off the bed and held her and started crying,” she says. She sobbed. Her husband reached up and took her hand. “I just couldn’t believe that I was so lucky that I had her. I was just so thankful. I was so thankful for God to give me back my daughter.”