By Stan Friedman
NEWCASTLE, OK (May 28, 2014) — Emily Eischen wore a new dress she had purchased the night before the awards ceremony to honor the achievements of the second and third graders at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, where she taught. The dress was just another way for her to let them know how proud she was of them.
As part of the ceremony, she also was given her 10-year pin celebrating her own teaching milestone. Plaza Towers was the only school where she had ever taught, and Emily loved it there.
However, wanting to be closer to her own daughters, nine-year-old Azland and two-year-old Remi, she had decided to teach at another elementary school. That made the awards ceremony and the final week of classes before summer break all the more poignant.
On the morning of the ceremony, Jay Eischen texted his wife, “I hope your day is a good one! Enjoy this last week at Plaza. Never will you be a regular in those halls again. This will be a week full of ‘lasts’ at Plaza for you! Love you, my sweet wife.”
He had no way of knowing that only hours later on that Monday, May 20, 2013, an enormous tornado would destroy the school, bring down the roof on all who were inside, and kill seven boys and girls.
Seventeen others in the area were killed that day and another 377 injured.
Only in recent weeks has Emily, who attends Summit Covenant Church in Newcastle, begun to come to grips with the pain inflicted by what she calls “the monster.” “I am still having great difficulty wrapping my heart, soul, and mind around the aftermath,” she says.
Emily knew each of the students who died. Three were in her class last year: Sydney Angle, Kyle Davis, and Nicolas McCabe. “I had the privilege of teaching Kyle Davis for two years because I also had taught him in kindergarten.”
She spoke at both Kyle and Syndey’s funerals. “That was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever been asked to do,” Emily says.
Speculations of potentially severe weather had been in the forecast that day, and the tornado season already had been a busy one. “The mention of a tornado frightens me,” Emily says. “This day was different. For some reason, my fears were suppressed up until the last few minutes before the tornado reached us. I know in my heart this was a gift, protecting my stability in order to be strong and seem fearless in the eyes of the children.”
The tornado first touched down just before 3 p.m. (CDT) in Newcastle, about 17 miles from the school. More than a mile wide at one point, it reached speeds up to 210 mph as it shattered homes and other buildings.
Emily’s students were attending music and P.E. in the gym directly east of her classroom that afternoon. When the heavy rains and booming thunder came, the tornado sirens sounded and students were directed out of the gym back to their assigned protective areas.
“We met the students and teachers in the entryway of our second-third grade building, and instructed students to crouch down in the procedures that we had practiced several times that year, lined up in the hallway,” Emily says. “Because they had just run from the gym to our hallway in the heavy rain, I feel they knew our siren-prompted actions might potentially not just be a drill. They were mostly obedient, and covered the back of their necks with ease.”
As the minutes passed, several of the students started poking their heads up. “They needed a breath of fresh air and were becoming restless,” Emily says. One of the students whose father had died just months prior began to experience an anxiety attack.
“By this point, we had lost electricity, and began to hear the sound of a humming rumble of gnashing destruction,” Emily says. “It seemed as if we heard this forever, increasing in volume each second. A few teachers ran to peek out the west window only to speed out yelling for all teachers to get down with students.”
“I doubled-checked for heads down my line one last time and then crouched down hovering with students. Our hands were our only protection. In my mind, I prepared myself that this was our last few seconds on earth.
“At that moment I realized that God was my only assurance. I was still very scared, just as the students were to the left and right of me. I prayed for my family and I prayed for the families of students all around me. ‘Lord lift this tornado. Lift it, lift it, lift it.’ ”
At times, Principal Amy Simpson reminded the teachers to keep checking that the students were where they were supposed to be and protecting themselves. Then she said, “It’s here.”
“We heard the south doors slam open, windows breaking, and the ground was shaking, the gusts of wind almost lifting us off the ground,” Emily says. “We heard screaming as debris twisted in the air being slammed all around and on top of us. I slightly lifted my head and shoulders, for fear of being buried under the falling rubble that was pelting my back. In a matter of minutes, the noise was gone. I brushed debris off my back, looked upward, and saw the open sky filled with residue falling down on our demolished surroundings.”
Sense of hopelessness, sign of hope
Amid the rubble, she looked around and saw that others were still living. “My eyes slowly met some fellow teachers, all with glazed bewilderment,” Emily says. “The roof was no longer over our heads, but one thing was for certain—we were standing.”
Teachers cleared away the insulation and debris that covered themselves and their students, then began to assess injuries. “I looked up and saw a student of mine, standing with her hands poised like prayer, her face filled with relief,” Emily says.
“She was a sign of hope,” she adds.
“Another student of mine, reached up for my shoulders sobbing from a head injury and asking me if she was ugly. I embraced her and let her know she was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen.”
They had to stay put, however. “We were trapped standing with second graders in the middle of ruins with dangling cords and remnants of danger. The sirens actually sounded again for a moment causing a second round of fear, but quickly dissipated. Within minutes, a young man somehow got to us, inquiring about any immediate needs we had.”
A policeman followed, and the children began asking him questions and relaying how scared they were. Emily recalls that he knelt down and told them, “I’m scared too, but I promise I am going to help you. I need you to be brave and hold on just a few minutes until we can find you a safe way out. I am proud of you.”
Then Emily gazed in the opposite direction. “I saw the third grade walls, just beside ours, collapsed. A sense of helplessness sunk in.”
First responders assured them that they were doing everything possible to rescue anyone who might be trapped. “They formed us in a path, creating a line of hands to help caution us where we walked. We had to climb up before we came back down.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I rose to the top of the rubble. I wept.” But only for a moment.
“We had a responsibility to deliver our students to safe ground, away from gas smells and a home that was on fire yards away. We were all soaked, trudging through mud, trying to find our way to what we once knew as the parking lot. Nothing was familiar. My principal was one of the first school members, outside my building, that I was privileged to see.”
She had her walkie-talkie in hand, standing with poise as she directed first responders and inquiries the best she could. Emily helped others as she made her way to the parking lot. There she saw her husband running toward her.
“We embraced like we never have before,” Emily recalls.
That bond has been tested in the year since.
“I have experienced anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, and doubt,” Emily says. “I have allowed myself to rely on secondary solutions that have only served to be temporary fixes. My family has suffered greatly from the aftermath of my instability.”
Emily says she can’t begin to make sense of why God allowed the tornado to hit the school and elsewhere, but she says she trusts that “God’s grace is sufficient. He assures us of his faithfulness.”
She also relies on the people around her. “I know as my family, my church family, and my Savior hold my hand, my strength, confidence, and faith are being restored, one step at a time.”
She returned to teaching a new group of students last fall when classes resumed, but she still thinks a lot about the Plaza students she used to see every day, especially the children who died.
“The memories the seven precious babies left with us serve as beacons of light—light that strives for a better tomorrow,” Emily says. “For we never know when it’s our last.”
The parents of the seven are petitioning for storm shelters in schools statewide.