MOORE, Okla – They say you should never make a big decision when you’re emotional. But what if there’s barely a moment to think and a life-or-death choice looming?
In those last horrifying minutes before the EF5 tornado struck, there was no time for reflection or regret. Just questions needing answers, right now.
Does a pregnant woman go to find her daughter, or protect the life growing inside her? Do you listen to a spouse on the other end of the telephone, or to the little voice in your heart?
With death staring them in the face and adrenaline coursing through their veins, the citizens of Moore were faced with the biggest decisions of their lives, and they had nothing to go on but gut instinct amid raw terror.
As she ran from room to room, Cindy Sasnett prayed to God for help and cursed herself for not being better prepared.
“What was I thinking?” she remonstrated herself for not insisting they build a storm shelter. “We should have had one. If anything, for the children.”
The day of the tornado, husband Jim Sasnett, machinist, was at work about 10 miles away in Oklahoma City. Cindy, who runs a day care out of their 1,600-square-foot home, had six charges that day, including her 2-year-old grandson, Jack.
About an hour and a half before the storm hit, parents of four kids had come to retrieve them. The fifth, Rob Willis, was on his way from Edmond to get 2-year-old Cade, but was stuck in traffic.
The Sasnetts had talked about installing a shelter after devastating tornadoes struck Moore in 1999 and again in 2003. But lack of funds or just rank procrastination always seemed to conquer the fear.
Now, Cindy Sasnett was petrified.
She called her husband and he told her it looked as if the storm might turn away from their home. But she couldn’t get over her feelings of unease.
She was looking to another source for guidance.
“God, it’s here,” she prayed. “What do I do, Lord?”
She raced into their bedroom, where she kept her mother’s ashes. As she stood in the doorway, a little voice said, “No. Go.” She ran to a closet, then to a hallway, and confronted the same whisperings.
Suddenly, she heard the television announcer say that the tornado was heading for her area, and that no one without a shelter could survive. She grabbed the children and said, “Come on, babies. We’re going.”
Dirt and bits of leaf pelted the 50-year-old grandmother as she strapped Jack and Cade into their car seats. Cade looked up and pointed.
“Look,” he shouted. “Tornado!” Jack joined in.
She slammed the SUV into gear and raced up the street ahead. Glancing over her shoulder, her eyes clouded with tears, she thought how strange it would be to survive the storm, only to die in a car crash.
Now, Jim was her guide, on the cellphone. Watching the storm’s progress on TV at work, he told her to head toward Sunnylane Road, turn right, then go south.
Cindy circled until the radio announcer said it was safe for Moore residents to return. When she got back to the house, every room in which she’d considered taking shelter was demolished.
A couple of hours later, Rob Willis came staggering up the street. He wrapped her in a bear hug and thanked her again and again for saving his only child.
Cindy wants two things to come from their experience. She hopes Jim will fully accept Jesus into his life.
And she wants their next home to have a shelter.
Leslie Paul knew her son was safe.
Husband Scott, an Oklahoma County sheriff’s deputy, had been wanting to spend more time with the kids. So on Monday, he took 4-year-old Hayden with him to the command center off Interstate 35 at SW 29th St.
But 7-year-old Addison was at Oak Ridge Elementary. Not yet sure where the tornado was headed, Leslie Paul jumped in the car and went to get her daughter.
She didn’t get far.
Alarmed by the deteriorating conditions and eight-months pregnant, Paul decided to take shelter at Crossroads Cathedral, just east of Santa Fe Avenue. When she arrived at the reinforced choir room at the building’s center, a couple hundred people were already huddled there.
Emerging from the church after the tornado had passed, she found the roads choked with debris. On foot, she headed out on the 9-mile trek to the school.
Addison and her classmates had ridden out the storm in the hallways. The tornado caused only superficial damage, and the kids were moved to the cafeteria to await their parents.
As she waited, a classmate’s father arrived to retrieve him. Addison overheard the man telling the boy that his mother had been killed.
Finally, after four hours, Leslie Paul made it to the school. A teacher brought Addison out, and the two fell into each other’s arms, weeping.
“Mommy,” Addison sobbed. “My friend’s mommy got sucked up by the tornado. And I was afraid that that would happen to you, and that I would never see you again.”
The two held each other hard for about 10 minutes. Then they headed out, Addison clutching her mother’s hand tightly.
They had walked for a while before Paul was able to reach someone on her cellphone to pick them up.
That evening, Addison talked animatedly for two hours about what had gone on at school. Then, suddenly, she broke down in tears. She cried for more than an hour.
When the family returned to their home Tuesday, there wasn’t a wall standing. Paul had gone to rescue Addison, but the little blond girl may have ended up saving her.
• • •
Marianthe Bagensie was hunkered down at her office on Tinker Air Force Base when her phone rang. Her husband, Scott, was stuck in traffic on I-35, near 89th Street, heading toward the tornado.
“What are you doing there?” she asked, incredulous.
“I’m heading home to take care of the dogs and cats,” the air traffic control specialist replied.
With older son Alexander serving in Afghanistan with the Air Force and 20-year-old Zack preparing to leave the nest, the seven animals had become more precious than ever to the couple. But Marianthe had just lost her mother and grandfather in one horrible March week, and she wasn’t ready to lose Scott.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t be stupid.”
Scott Bagensie’s first thought was to pile the animals into the car and try to outrun the tornado. But when he heard that the storm was bearing down on the Warren, he knew that wasn’t an option.
Using Milkbones, Scott Bagensie easily lured Apollo, a hound-pit bull mix, and Night Song, a shepherd, into the bathroom and closed the door.
The four cats weren’t so easy.
At 16, Hunter went docilely into the master bedroom closet, followed by Chaser, Alexander’s white Siamese. But twins Jade and Ying Yang, who weighs in at nearly 14 pounds, were under the bed and weren’t coming out without a fight, so Bagensie left them to fend for themselves.
Animals as safe as he could make them, he went outside to find debris already swirling in the air. He was starting to panic when he spotted a man waving from a garage two doors down.
“We have room in the shelter,” the man shouted. “Come on over here.”
Bagensie was the last of the 10 people to get inside. Not five minutes later, everything went dark.
Marianthe Bagensie tried in vain for more than an hour to reach her husband. Finally, she got through.
“The house is gone,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she replied. “You’re safe.”
When Scott Bagensie made his way through the wreckage to the bathroom, the two dogs were wagging their tails at him. He found Hunter perched on a pile of clothes at the far corner of the closet.
By Tuesday, all were safe and accounted for.
Marianthe Bagensie glanced over at the garage where Scott had finally taken refuge.
“I probably wouldn’t be standing here right now if I had lost him,” she said as she stood in front of the mangled home. “It’s just too much. It’s just too much. … He is my other half.”