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The Washington Post, Published May 21 2013

Children survive Oklahoma tornado in elementary school bathroom

It was the usual drill, the one Alexander Ghassimi and other children who live in Moore, in a tornado-prone swath of Oklahoma, learn in school: Get to an interior hallway, get down, cover up. Then a teacher who had been watching the storm's progress outside Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday came tearing down the hall, yelling to get as many children as possible into the girls’ bathroom, and 11-year-old Alexander knew this was not an ordinary tornado.

“We were in the hallway doing our procedure,” Alexander said by telephone from an Econo Lodge in nearby Norman on Tuesday, where he is staying with his family. “ ‘Get down. Put your hands over your head.’”

Perhaps 70 or 80 children jammed into the bathroom within moments, he said. Some were standing. Some were sitting on the floor. His twin sister, Alexia, was huddled under a sink on the other side of the restroom. Some teachers were standing; when the tornado hit, they threw themselves on top of the children.

“We thought we heard hail coming, then we realized it was debris,” he said. “Then we looked up, and the whole ceiling was gone.”

Pressed up against a stall divider, Alexander watched the boiling storm pass overhead.

“It's kind of funny how it looked,” he said. “It almost looked like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Just a bunch of papers and books above us.”

The roof was gone, and mud and debris was raining in. Some of the children were calm, and others were unglued, he said. “Everybody was just screaming, ‘Is everyone okay? Is everyone okay? I was almost on the opposite end of my sister, so I was trying to get to my sister. They were crying, screaming. A lot of people were just crying their butts off.”

All the fourth- fifth- and sixth-graders in that restroom survived one of the most powerful tornados in recent years. But other children perished when the swirling winds obliterated the school.

Alexander's mother, Roya Partin, was huddled at home less than a mile away with her husband and two other children, blankets and pillows pulled over them. She credits the school bathroom fixtures for protecting the children there.

“They actually walked out. They were fine. I know, it's amazing,” she said. Her home and cars were also destroyed, but the family survived unscathed. "If you look at the school, just imagine a box of matches thrown on the floor. That's what the whole school looks like, and everything around it.

“If you don't believe in God before something like that, you sure do now.”

Partin said her children were scheduled to get out of school at 3:37 p.m. Monday, three days before the end of the academic year. “The tornado hit at 3:34 or 3:35,” she said. At 2:45, an automated message went out to parents: The children would be sheltered in place.

Amy and Cody Shipman, parents of a first-grader, 6-year-old Kenzi, were on the phone about that time, urgently trying to decide where their daughter would be safest. Amy, at work in Oklahoma City, pushed Cody to leave Kenzi at Plaza Towers. Cody wasn't sure.

“We had decided to leave her there, but the storm had gotten so big that the newscasters said that if you were above ground, you need to either run” or get underground, Amy Shipman said by cellphone from her car Tuesday as she drove to rent a storage unit for what is left of her family's belongings.

The family lived three doors down from the school, about a city block. There is a small creek between the house and school, and no through street by which to drive there. Cody took off on foot.

“He just ran in and started screaming her teacher's name, and they pointed him in the direction” where Kenzi's first-grade class was huddled against a wall.

Cody is an oil field worker. He works in New Mexico: two weeks on, two weeks off. He was home because he was off.

He grabbed his daughter and sprinted toward the family's home, where neighbors were opening their storm shelter. About 20 people crowded in just before the tornado hit and collapsed the school wall where Kenzi was just a few minutes earlier.

“I believe she would have been on the west wall of the school,” Amy Shipman said. “That was the first side of the school that was hit.”

“They got in [to the neighbor's shelter] and held the door down,” she said. “Just rode it out.”

The Shipmans’ home was destroyed. “Our home is unlivable,” she said, “but if you compare it to the ones across the street,” they fared better. “We still have some walls, some roof.”

The home is “open to the sky, portions of our walls are missing, brick peeled, the garage door is in the kitchen.” Much of what they own is covered in mud.

“We may be able to salvage things,” she said, “but other people won't have that luxury.”