This will be the first installment of several detailing my trip to Oklahoma. There is simply too much story to tell in a single post.
I’m emotionally exhausted and ashamed to admit it. I’m ashamed because I’ve meet people here who have been through so much more yet they continue to survive. They continue to rebuild and push forward with a determination and strength that’s humbling to witness.
There’s a deep and powerful story in every conversation here. I hope I can share a few of those with you. These are the types of stories that need to be told.
I’m here with Shane Parkins who is the President of The National Firefighters Endowment. Our purpose was to deliver some much needed relief to the firefighters in this area. There were over 70 of them who were affected by the tornado, 24 lost everything they had.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. One minute we were driving through “any town” USA and the seconds later it seemed like we were in the middle of a war zone. I had seen the footage on TV but nothing had prepared me to be standing in the middle of it.
No words can capture what we experienced. No photo can fully tell this story.
The tornado killed 23 people and injured over 370 more. There were 7 children killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School and the reminders were everywhere I looked.
Then we came upon a cross. A small cross with something written in marker. It was surrounded by small teddy bears almost as if they were holding it up.
Through the rain and tears, the writing came into focus. It was seven names to accompany the seven little bears. Name of the 7 children killed there that day.
Sydney Angle -9 years old. Antonia Candelaria -9, Emily Conatzer -9, Kyle Davis -8, Ja’Nae Hornsby -9, Christopher Legg -9 and Nicolas McCabe -9, were their names. I wept as I read them and thought of my “Buckaroo” back in Va.
Beside each of them sat a small school chair and an assortment of toys that I’ll assume was each of their favorites. Again I was suffocated with emotion.
At first we were alone. Standing together but alone in our thoughts, not speaking, looking for “something” but not even sure what it was. Then, the signs began to appear. Signs of hope, strength and courage. Signs of life.
Someone had hung a bird feeder on what was once a tree in front of the school. The sign attached said “Please feed the birds” and there were plenty of them to feed. Someone or something could and DOES live in this place. For me, it was a sign of hope. There were American flags flying everywhere we looked. Clean-up efforts had begun. There was “something” here.
I don’t want to imagine what they must have seen that day. What they must have been thinking. Where did they even start and how did they know to do it?
I’m from Va…. this was their homes. Their kids were in these schools.
What I didn’t tell you was that it wasn’t a single tornado that touched down here. This wasn’t their first and it wont be their last. Oklahoma got hit on June 19th and the 20th followed by yet another tornado and flooding less than 2 weeks later. Another 20+ people died that day. I’ve said that I’m “emotionally drained” after just 4 days here, imagine or think what the Brothers and Sisters on the job here must be feeling.
I’ve thought about it a lot. How do they do it?
In other recent natural disasters, we heard stories of first responders “leaving their post”. Members leaving the stations, abandoning rigs to rush home and check on their families and belongings. That didn’t happen here and it’s one of the stories that needs to be told.
Tornados have no discretion. They demolish one home to it’s foundation while leaving the adjoining one standing. They rip homes in half while clothes remain hanging in the closets. They hit the young, the elderly, the rich, the poor.
Many of the Brothers and Sisters on duty that day knew their homes and families were “in the path” of the tornado. They KNEW that personally, they were going to get “hit” but yet they stayed. Once again, they put others above themselves and did their job.
We brought a film crew with us and were able to capture two of those stories. We spent the next few days with Oklahoma City Firefighters (IAFF Local-157) Jon Cook and Brandon Whitehose. These are two AMAZING men with equally amazing families.
Both of these Brothers were on duty that night and lost EVERYTHING. Being at home wouldn’t have changed that fact for them but how were they to have known that? The story of what they were thinking, how they reacted, what and why they did what they did that evening should be an inspiration to each of us on the job. I’ll save the details until we release the video because I’m confident that our film maker, Jeycob Carlson captured the story. Along with the National Firefighters Endowment, I’m excited that we will be able to share it with you.
With your help, the NFE teamed up with The IAFF Charitable Foundation to contribute funds directly to the Oklahoma members in need. We were able to by-pass all the “red tape” and get this money into the hands of IAFF Local 157 President, Phil Sipe for quick disbursement.
I know it wasn’t enough but I know too that every little bit helps. I also know it was appreciated. I talked about it on camera with Brother Jon Cook. Firefighters often find it difficult to ask for help. We’re the ones who are supposed to be providing it.
Because of the Brotherhood, and groups such as the National Firefighters Endowment (and many others); you don’t HAVE to ask for help. We stand ready, and are ever prepared to provide for and meet your needs in time of crisis.
There is so much left to do here.
The only consultation is that I’m certain those who remain are prepared for the battles ahead.
I’ve seen first hand Departments who are properly equipped, well trained and disciplined. I’ve met members who are united, dedicated and strong.
From all this devastation, out of all this rubble I’ve found and seen the Brotherhood. I see dedication, determination …. I see HOPE!
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I’ll share the video and more of “the story” we found here in Oklahoma in the following weeks. Until I can get back, stay SAFE and in house!