Oklahoma City storm destroys 300 homes

Friday, May 9, 2003

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A tornado swept through Oklahoma City on Thursday, flattening hundreds of homes and scattering cars and mobile homes across the landscape. Strong winds also tore off roofs in eastern Kansas, and may have been the cause of a train derailment there.

At least 104 people were injured in the Oklahoma City area, five critically, said Paul O'Leary, spokesman for the city's ambulance service. There were no reports of fatalities, although O'Leary said a man brought to a local hospital from an area hit by the storm died of a heart attack.

The twister struck just as the afternoon rush hour was beginning, ripping roofs off homes and businesses and damaging a General Motors plant.

Emergency officials in Moore, just south of the city, reported about 300 homes were destroyed and another 300 to 500 were damaged. Gov. Brad Henry said state officials would seek a federal emergency disaster declaration.

Truck driver David Waller was on Interstate 40 when he saw the tornado coming his way. He parked his 18-wheeler and ran for a clump of bushes. He and two other men clung to a tree as the tornado passed by.

"I'm scared to death," said Waller, who was shaking, his clothes covered with mud. His semi was picked up by the tornado and dropped on its side.

Bad memories

For many Oklahomans, the tornado was eerily reminiscent of one that ripped through the Oklahoma City area on May 3, 1999, killing 44 people.

"Some of those very same parts were hit again today," Henry said. "Nature can be cruel, but Oklahomans are a resilient people and we will face this crisis with strength and resolve."

Tornado sirens sounded just before 5 p.m. and the twister touched down in suburban Moore 15 minutes later. Shrouded by rain, it moved over Interstate 35 and a mall before moving to the northeast and into two more suburbs, Midwest City and Del City.

"You could see birds and all kinds of stuff flying around in it," said Jennifer Leger, an employee at a Subway sandwich shop. "We closed. We had the lights off and were just letting in people who were caught outside."

Steve McManus, assistant fire chief in Midwest City, said about 100 homes were damaged or destroyed in Midwest and Oklahoma City.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said employees at the plant had ample time to take shelter. None of the plant's 3,000 employees were hurt, but two truck drivers were injured.

Flores said the extent of damage to the plant was not immediately clear. Officials at Tinker Air Force Base said the storm damaged a fence line along the base but that there were no injuries.

East of Oklahoma City, I-40 was littered with boards, trees, twisted metal and insulation. Authorities closed parts of Interstate 240 after heavy wind damaged nearby industrial buildings, a mobile home sales lots, a bank and a fast-food restaurant.

Some 37,000 customers in the area were without power, Oklahoma Gas and Electric said.

Damage and a few injuries -- but no deaths -- were reported in several counties to the northeast in eastern Kansas, where at least seven tornadoes were spotted.

In Lawrence, tornadoes tore roofs off homes and apartment buildings, but no one was hurt. Bob Newton, a duty officer with Douglas County Emergency Management, credited that to heightened awareness after deadly tornadoes hit Kansas just four days earlier.

"Our Douglas County weather spotters watched this storm all the way as it came into the county," Newton said. "We probably gave people at least 30 minutes of warning."

The National Weather Service said straight-line winds were suspected of causing a train to derail in Chase County, where authorities evacuated about 15 homes for about four hours because of spilled sulfur dioxide.

Neither of the people on board the train were hurt, but a passer-by suffered inhalation injuries, Chase County Sheriff Gerald Ingalls said. His condition was not immediately available.

High winds also damaged some buildings in Nebraska and Illinois. In Colorado, one person suffered minor injuries when a helicopter leased by a television station crashed after having engine trouble while flying east of Denver to videotape a funnel cloud.

Since Sunday, tornado-packed storms have killed at least 42 people -- 18 in Missouri, 15 in Tennessee, seven in Kansas and two in Illinois. Officials have estimated damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

President Bush declared disaster areas in 20 Tennessee counties Thursday, clearing the way for federal emergency assistance. On Tuesday, Bush did the same for parts of Kansas and Missouri.

Damage and a few injuries -- but no deaths -- were reported in several counties to the northeast in eastern Kansas.

In Lawrence, tornadoes tore roofs off homes and apartment buildings, but no one was hurt. Bob Newton, a duty officer with Douglas County Emergency Management, credited that to heightened awareness after deadly tornadoes hit Kansas just four days earlier.

"Our Douglas County weather spotters watched this storm all the way as it came into the county," Newton said. "We probably gave people at least 30 minutes of warning."

The National Weather Service said straight-line winds were suspected of causing a train to derail in Chase County, where authorities evacuated residents because of spilled sulfur dioxide. Jim Schmidt, director of emergency management for nearby Butler County, said there was an initial report of one injury, the severity of which was not immediately known.

High winds also damaged some buildings in Nebraska. In Colorado, one person suffered minor injuries when a helicopter leased by a television station crashed after having engine trouble while flying east of Denver to videotape a funnel cloud.

Since Sunday, tornado-packed storms have killed at least 42 people -- 18 in Missouri, 15 in Tennessee, seven in Kansas and two in Illinois. Officials have estimated damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

President Bush declared disaster areas in 20 Tennessee counties Thursday, clearing the way for federal emergency assistance. On Tuesday, Bush did the same for parts of Kansas and Missouri.

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