A downed utility pole along May Avenue in South Oklahoma City. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
OKLAHOMA CITY—Anthony Connel was sitting in traffic off of South 149th Street, about a mile from his home, when he saw it happen: A dark black cloud, so ominous and wide that it didn’t even look like a tornado, dropped to the ground—and headed straight for his house.
Connel, a sales manager at Anheuser-Busch, had seen tornadoes before. They are a way of life in Oklahoma—a dangerous, yet fascinating phenomenon of nature considered as normal as the state’s rabid devotion to Sooner football. Here, local meteorologists are considered major celebrities, and everyone has been a storm chaser of sorts at least once or twice, curious about how a cloud so eerily beautiful could also be so destructive.
But there was something different about this tornado, Connel recalled in an interview with Yahoo News.
“It was just this big black cloud on the ground. You couldn’t even tell it was a tornado. And it didn’t seem to be moving. It just keep getting bigger and bigger,” he said. Watching the twister take direct aim at his largely rural neighborhood just east of Interstate 44, Connel realized he was about to lose everything. He knew his neighbors were in his storm cellar (his wife, Virginia, was at work) and believed they would be safe, but he also knew that his home probably wouldn’t survive.
“I just felt totally helpless,” Connel said Tuesday, as he stood alongside the large pile of shredded lumber, brick and steel that used to be his home.
“There was nothing I could do,” he added, his voice thick with emotion. “It was too late. If I’d been here, I could have tried to save some things, but I just had to sit back and watch it happen. I was too late.”
To say Connel’s neighborhood looked like a war zone is an understatement. Trees lush and green earlier this spring, now shaved off and resembling slingshots, were pierced by sheet metal and daggers of jagged wood from homes swallowed up and spit out by the tornado. Massive electricity towers that usually resemble giant power robots along the prairie were twisted and collapsed, while downed power lines were everywhere, the utility poles snapped like matchsticks. Crushed cars were thrown up against homes and wrapped around tree trunks.
Across the street from Connel’s home, a mattress was impaled deep atop the trunk of a massacred tree. On a nearby lot, a brick mailbox was the only sign left of where a house once stood.
Within giant piles of debris were dead horses and cattle—apparently transported by the storm from other places. The air smelled strongly of natural gas.
On Tuesday afternoon, many of Connel’s neighbors climbed through the debris of their former homes, looking for anything they could salvage. Most waved off this reporter—saying it was just too hard to talk about what they were going through. But there was one miracle: Nobody in the immediate neighborhood had died.
At the remains of his home, Connel spoke of the small, yet important things he had recovered, including several external hard drives of photographs he had taken, as well as one of the old-timey shaving kits he collected.
He marveled at the randomness of what was found. Earlier that morning, Connel’s neighbor, an elderly man, had asked his family to look through the rubble for a jewelry box containing the wedding ring of his wife who had recently died. Amazingly, they found the ring buried in the red mud.
“That’s the only thing he wanted, and they found it,” Connel said.
For now, Connel and his wife are staying in a nearby hotel. As the skies darkened again and rain began to pour, he pointed across the street to a red car crushed against a tree near a dead cow. It was his beloved 1970 Road Runner, a car he had meticulously restored to pristine condition and that had a “$10,000 paint job,” he said.
When Connel had left for work Monday, it had been parked in his garage. It was one of the first things he looked for upon returning to his house after the tornado. He looked for a half hour and then gave up, convinced the storm had just carried it away.
But a little while later, he noticed its crumpled shape against a tree.
“I know, standing here, it’s right in plain sight,” Connel said. “But it doesn’t look like it used to. ... Things around here are hard to recognize. You just feel helpless."