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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 Published at 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK

World: Americas

Rescuer remembers tornado terror

Craig Hitchcock searched for survivors after last week's tornado

Craig Hitchcock lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Shortly after a tornado flattened the nearby town of Moore, he and his daughter helped search for survivors. This is his account of what happened:

On the night of 3 May as I was driving through Moore, Oklahoma on my way home, broadcasters were talking of several tornadoes in the area.

I was trying to determine the safest route when the broadcaster then announced: "The tornado is very large. Don't stay in your home in the target area or you won't survive, get out and below ground immediately!"

When I heard this I knew I had to get home to my family immediately and get them to shelter.

The radio announcers kept talking about one particular tornado that had already done extensive damage to two towns.

In harm's way

[ image: 'I was directly in the path of the storm']
'I was directly in the path of the storm'
Suddenly, the broadcasters said that the tornado was going to track through the middle of the Moore area. I was directly in the path of the storm.

Driving through rain and hail up to the size of golf balls, I pulled over beneath an overpass for shelter near Moore. A trucker had also sought shelter, and as the rain and hail let up, we climbed the hill next to the overpass to see what was happening.

We were horrified to see a tornado the size of a small city approaching us. The sirens began to sound as the massive monster approached. We both looked at each other and realised that we would be dead if we stayed any longer.

The search begins

As I neared my home, I heard the radio station announce that Moore had taken a direct hit from what could possibly have been an F5 tornado.

When I got to my home, I grabbed my daughter Dawn, who is certified as an Emergency Medical Technician First Responder. I said: "We better go to Moore. This could be bad."

Local Fire Departments and Police Units were already racing up the Interstate to Moore with sirens blaring.

As we got closer to the centre of Moore, we could see pieces of beds and mattresses, smashed lamps, timber and children's toys and dolls lying all over the highway.

I began to worry about what Dawn might see and how it would effect her emotionally since it was her first time to witness such mass destruction.

[ image: The town of Moore was gone]
The town of Moore was gone
'It's all gone'

As we approached Moore, I looked, and all I could say was: "Oh my God. It's gone. It's all gone!"

The houses were totally gone, flattened. I could see smoke rising from the subdivision where several houses were burning.

We went to a command centre set up in a church parking lot.

People, firemen and law-enforcement officers were running everywhere.

We ran over to the firemen who were organising groups of search and rescue people to go in and search house to house for survivors.

Soon we found ourselves on the back of a flatbed truck with firemen, nurses, EMT personnel, and others. We were given elastic gloves and a medical kit each.

As we drove through the field of flattened houses, we were warned about downed power lines that could still be hot to touch. We were told to watch out for broken gas mains and meters and not to light anything.

Hissing streams of natural gas poured out of broken meters and pipes so loudly you couldn't hear each other. The gas hung so thick in the air it made you dizzy and nauseous. I knew we were truly in a dangerous situation; the whole neighbourhood could go up in a ball of fire at any moment.

[ image: Houses and everything in them were smashed]
Houses and everything in them were smashed
I had never seen so much destruction in my life. We begin to search each side of the street, house to house. Two of us would enter a house through a broken window if we could not go through the door.

Inside, I could see how the walls had fallen into the centre of the house.

Dining room tables were twisted and scattered about the area. China cabinets were turned over, and everything in them smashed. And yet, a big screen television was sitting in the living room undamaged by the twister as debris lay all around it.

In the street, large vans, cars and motor boats lay on their sides, twisted and unrecognisable.

The smell of the destruction was the same as a car accident, only 10 times worse.

I crawled into another house, yelling out for anyone that might hear me. I went upstairs and entered a bedroom after making my way across a huge debris path. The wind swirled around me like small tornadoes or dust devils carrying debris and bits of paper.

I looked up, and it looked like a monster had bitten a chunk out of the roof and the wall. I truly felt as if the devil himself had caused this destruction.

Early warning saved lives We searched for five-and-a-half hours but found no one. It was a good sign. Everyone had ample warning to get out of his or her houses in time to avoid disaster.

[ image: The number of survivors was a miracle]
The number of survivors was a miracle
The list of missing soon dwindled from more than 100 to only one. The only person still missing is a young girl who was ripped from an overpass and sucked up into the tornado. Her body has not yet been recovered.

We were to learn later that the storm had winds of over 300mph as it hit the area, a first in history in the United States. The tornado was classified as an F5 plus, off the scale. Moore, Oklahoma looked as if it had been bombed.

It is a miracle that only 41 people died in this mass of destruction. It was estimated that we had over 76 tornadoes in the area that evening. Thank God for our early-warning systems and the great meteorologists we have in Oklahoma, or this massive twister could have killed hundreds of people.

After it was all over, I hugged my daughter Dawn a little tighter.

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