May 3, 1999 — The Bridge Creek–Moore Tornado

“If you haven’t gone to the cellar, you really need to go now. This is a huge circulation. There are vortices everywhere. This is extremely dangerous, so you folks in the path of this tornado, get below ground. If you can’t do that, get in the center part of your house, a closet or bathroom. Get on the east or north wall. Lots of pillows and blankets. Get in the bathtub. Put the kids in the bathtub, get on top of the kids. This is extremely dangerous.

The words reverberated across Central Oklahoma, amplified by television sets and radios stretching from Tulsa to the Texas border. The voice, as familiar to Oklahomans as the rustling of wheat fields or the boom of thunder, belonged to KWTV News 9 Chief Meteorologist Gary England. It was the moment he’d been steeling himself for since June 8, 1974, when a devastating tornado killed 14 people with little warning in and around the town of Drumright.

It was a tragic event, but Gary understood that it was nothing compared to a potential worst-case scenario. In fact, he was certain that one day, a massive, violent F5 tornado would drop from the wide-open prairie skies and tear a path of unprecedented destruction right through the increasingly populated heart of the Oklahoma City Metro. The carnage of such an event was almost too much to imagine.

There had been plenty of close calls over the years, plenty of urgent cut-ins to implore viewers and listeners to take shelter and keep themselves safe. Still, the city at the heart of Tornado Alley usually escaped with little more than glancing blows. But on this day — this warm, humid Monday afternoon in May of 1999 — the state’s seasoned weather sage knew that Oklahoma’s luck had just run out.

Long before there were doppler radars and live TV cut-ins from meteorologists — indeed, before the modern conception of meteorology existed at all — the people of the Southern Plains learned to recognize “tornado days.” Almost like a sixth sense, Oklahomans could recognize the subtle omens that foretold foul weather ahead. The deep, sultry moisture that seemed to give the air a peculiar weightiness. The persistent breeze that swept in from the south. The azure skies and bright, baking midday sun that stirred the atmosphere, often cooking up towering storms by afternoon.

But May 3, 1999 was not one of those days. At least, not initially. In fact, most of Central Oklahoma awoke to weather that seemed almost dreary. The air was sufficiently muggy, as it often was in the spring, but temperatures hovered only in the 60s. The skies were dull and featureless, a thick layer of high cirrus blanketing much of the state and reducing the sun to a dingy, wan glow. As parents prepared for work and children headed off to start another school week, the weather hardly seemed like a worthy topic of conversation.

Even to the nation’s top severe weather experts, the day ahead appeared to be a rather ordinary one by Oklahoma standards. At the Storm Prediction Center, located 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City in a squat, brick-clad concrete building on the north side of Norman, forecasters pored over early-morning data from weather observations and numerical model runs. Their task was to use this influx of information, along with their own experience and well-honed instincts, to create national outlooks detailing the likelihood of severe weather — damaging winds, hail or tornadoes — in a given location.

For the Sooner State, that outlook was decidedly muddled. A broad, negatively tilted trough of low pressure extended across the western half of the United States. Within it, forecasters analyzed a secondary shortwave — a smaller, quicker disturbance traveling within the larger pattern — swinging through the Desert Southwest and heading toward the Southern Plains.

Nearer the surface, a strengthening low-pressure center in the lee of the Rockies was pulling in humid low-level winds from the south and southeast. An elevated mixed layer sat atop the moist air like a crooked lid, sloping gently from west to east. Where it extended to the surface, a dryline cut across the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.

Basic pattern recognition suggested a classic setup for severe weather, but SPC meteorologists were quick to notice several factors that seemed to limit the day’s potential. The humid air pooling into the region provided sufficient fuel to support strong storms, but a persistent cloud deck raised questions about the extent of daytime heating. The dryline, though present, was diffuse and seemed an unlikely trigger for a severe weather outbreak.

More importantly, the numerical weather models that forecasters typically relied on were providing little help. They differed significantly in the placement and magnitude of key features, resulting in a wide range of variable outcomes. Here, a nasty bout of severe weather in North Texas. There, hardly any convection in the Plains at all. As observational data trickled in during the overnight and predawn hours, it only added to the uncertainty.

There would be storms — that much was clear. Unfortunately, that was the only thing that was clear. When and where the storms would form, how intense they would become and what mode they would take all remained open questions. In the face of such unknowns, SPC forecasters could offer few specifics in the morning’s first outlook. Instead, the forecast included a broad Slight Risk area to highlight a chance for strong winds, hail and a couple of tornadoes.

Nestled between the towns of Tuttle, Newcastle and Blanchard, Bridge Creek was little more than a patchwork of sharp, orderly lines carving up the rolling pastureland of northeastern Grady County. Most bristled with offshoots, some jutting out like thorns and others gracefully tracing the contours of the terrain. Three subdivisions — Willow Lake Estates, Southern Hills and Bridge Creek Estates — sprawled from southwest to northeast along Interstate 44.

A few thousand people called the little community home, a mixture of local farmers and Oklahoma City transplants in search of more space and cheaper living. Properties were divided into two- and five-acre lots, with trailers and modular homes dotting the landscape. Here and there, lots were broken up by steep, leafy ravines, feeding creeks and tributaries as they slithered south toward the Canadian River.

On a five-acre lot in Southern Hills, Kara Wiese was up before dawn. That was nothing new for the 26-year-old single mother. A hard-working collection officer for nearby First Capital Corporation, Kara liked to get an early start whenever she could. Starting before sunrise allowed her to leave work earlier in the afternoon, which meant more time to spend with Jordan.

Kara and Jordan Wiese

At six years old, Jordan was an active and precocious child. He loved to play sports and enjoyed being outdoors, especially with his mom. They often played catch after school, and Kara never missed one of her son’s Tee-ball games. As the team’s bench mom, she was always eager to get involved in the local community.

Kara had a knack for nurturing and making things better, and that extended to her property as well. She worked hard to make her modest little slice of Oklahoma as beautiful and welcoming as possible, planting a variety of flowers and trees and tending to them often. Her favorite flowers were African violets, which she’d planted in long, tidy beds all around the porch of her trailer.

Still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she set about her familiar routine. She woke a bit early every morning to make sure she could cook her son a nice breakfast. Once they were done, she dropped Jordan off at daycare and headed to the office for work. In the afternoon, if the weather cooperated, she planned to pick him up and take him to his scheduled Tee-ball game.

Some 350 miles due west, troubling signs were beginning to appear high above the muted mesas and neon-tinged streets of Tucumcari, New Mexico. A wind profiler stationed in the area — essentially a doppler radar flipped on its side and configured to probe vertical cross-sections of the atmosphere — detected a ribbon of intense, focused winds moving in several miles above the surface. The observation was additionally confirmed by water vapor satellite imagery.

Reviewing the data, meteorologists at the SPC quickly grasped its significance. Though it hadn’t been picked up well by the models, a strong jet streak was swinging through the Southwest and encroaching on the Southern Plains. It was the missing ingredient that could turn a fairly ordinary severe weather setup into a recipe for large-scale destruction. In response to the increasing threat, the SPC upgraded much of the Southern Plains to a Moderate Risk shortly after 11:00 am.

The concern continued to grow throughout the day as additional profiler sites tracked the eastward progression of the jet streak. To make matters worse, low-level winds were still pulling in vast quantities of warm, moisture-laden air from the south. Even if the veil of cloud cover didn’t burn away as expected, there would still be plenty of instability to fuel rapid thunderstorm development.

By early afternoon, the environment had become a powder keg. Though gauzy cirrus still covered most of the area, surface heating was sufficient to raise temperatures into the middle 80s. Combined with deep moisture pooling beneath an elevated mixed layer, instability skyrocketed. Throughout most of Central Oklahoma, CAPE values climbed to at least 3,000 j/kg. In the southwestern part of the state, a tongue of particularly warm and moist surface air drove values to more than 5,000 j/kg.

The only question that remained was where — and whether — some subtle feature might provide the spark needed to start a conflagration. Regardless, the potential danger was too great to ignore. At 3:49 pm, the SPC raised the alarm again, upgrading most of the Southern Plains to High Risk.

With the atmosphere becoming increasingly volatile, the SPC issued a rare High Risk just before 4:00 pm.

In Oklahoma City, Gary England was monitoring the new developments closely. As the face of severe weather for so many in the state, he worked hard to ensure he was always well-prepared. During tornado outbreaks, the weather studio could become a chaotic hive of activity. Gary prided himself on keeping the whole apparatus humming with military precision, analyzing a constant influx of data, orchestrating live shots from the station’s news chopper and communicating with the chase teams that provided invaluable ground truth.

Gary was also among the first meteorologists to recognize the full value of radar in covering severe weather events. In the aftermath of the Drumright disaster, he pushed News 9 to invest in installing its own radar site. It took a lot of convincing, but in 1982, Gary used the new doppler radar to broadcast severe weather warnings for the very first time.

Traditional radar data has since become an indispensable tool for weather service meteorologists and on-air forecasters alike, but it has a few important limitations. Crucially, the beam from a fixed radar site simply can’t observe the near-surface layer in which tornadoes actually occur. Because they’re intended to scan broad areas, NEXRAD radars also lack the temporal and spatial resolution to fully capture such (relatively) small-scale processes.

Fortunately, research meteorologist Josh Wurman had a solution. Somewhat less fortunately, it involved strapping a six-foot radar dish to the back of a flatbed truck, cramming a mobile weather lab into the extended cab and parking it all within scanning distance of a tornado. It was not a particularly well-received idea, but Wurman was undeterred. Starting with a borrowed truck and a U-Haul full of spare parts and accessories from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), he pieced together a working prototype.

The result was the Doppler on Wheels (DOW), which allowed Wurman and his team to collect high-resolution data much closer to the surface than any fixed radar. For the first time, scientists could begin to directly observe and analyze the formation, structure and intensity of tornadoes and the physical processes that produce them. Josh’s mobile doppler radar quickly became a key part of the massive Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment field project — better known as VORTEX — along with a series of subsequent experiments.

Josh Wurman and the DOW

It was one such follow-up project, VORTEX-99, that brought Josh and his mobile radars to a Central Oklahoma gas station on the afternoon of May 3. Hauling a full-featured doppler radar on the back of a flatbed truck, as it turned out, took a lot of gas. It was more than worth it whenever there were twisters to chase down, but that still hardly seemed like a sure thing. In fact, in the late morning, the team’s lead forecaster had estimated just a 10% chance of a tornado forming in the area.

Around 4:00 pm, Gary England stepped out the back door of the News 9 station to get a feel for the conditions. Immediately, a wave of foreboding familiarity washed over him. It was hard to explain just what it was — the heat and cloying humidity, the indefinable smell and feel of the air, the patches of sun breaking through the haze — but it brought him back to June 8, 1974 and the Drumright tornado outbreak.

“We’re going Priority One.” It was all he needed to say to convey the gravity of the situation. Priority One was reserved for only the most dangerous of severe weather events. The entire news studio effectively became a meteorological command center, fully devoted to warning viewers of an impending threat and providing life-saving coverage as it unfolded.

Teams of storm trackers grabbed their gear and took off, their movements tracked with little magnets on a metal map of Oklahoma hanging on the wall. Camera crews were deployed to predetermined locations. Extra staff were called in to man the phone lines and help coordinate the flow of information. Calls went out to Leroy Tatum, who was responsible for piloting the station’s Ranger 9 helicopter.

As the News 9 studio turned into a command center, the atmosphere began to stir. Roughly along the border between Comanche and Kiowa counties, sunlight spilled through a small hole in the veil of high cirrus clouds. A horizontal convective roll — essentially a tube of rotating air aligned parallel to the ground — developed in the same area. The confluence of events provided just enough of a focus to light the match.

Aided by locally enhanced convergence and lift, cumulus towers popped into the skies over southwestern Oklahoma. Some quickly faltered, but a few began to establish themselves as healthy convective cells. The lead storm gorged itself on unstable air as it drifted to the northeast, growing into a towering mountain of a supercell that stretched out for miles.

Its propulsive updraft rocketed upward tens of thousands of feet until it punched through the tropopause and spilled out into the stratosphere in a distinctive, dome-like bulge. The overshooting top wasn’t visible to observers on the ground, but it served as a clear indicator of the storm’s intensity on satellite imagery. At the front of the storm, heavy rain and quarter-sized hail fell from the skies. At the rear, funnels began intermittently stretching down from the mesocyclone.

Just before 5:00 pm, televisions and radios across Comanche, Caddo and Grady counties broadcast the first tornado warnings of the day. Already, it was apparent that Oklahoma was in trouble.

“You need to get to the lowest level, the smallest room, near the center of the house.” For many years, Gary England had worked to engrain the steps into viewers’ minds. When storms are near, don’t mess around. Take your tornado precautions. Like a mantra: lowest level, smallest room, center of the house. Preferably a bathroom or interior closet. Crawl into the bathtub and cover yourself with whatever you can — pillows, blankets, mattresses.

He repeated it live on the air during every tornado event. He repeated it sometimes days in advance of a potential outbreak. He traveled to schools across the area, repeating it again and again to teach children the importance of taking proper tornado precautions. Lowest level, smallest room, center of the house.

And so, that’s what people did as the first major tornado of the day touched down around 5:20 pm and moved nearly northward between Apache and Anadarko. Most dashed to their bathroom or closet, grabbing blankets or couch cushions or whatever they could find. Bobby Adamson, his wife and his daughter all sustained injuries when their two-story home was totally destroyed near Stecker, but there were no fatalities.

The supercell continued producing funnels, including brief touchdowns north of Cyril and Cement. About 10 minutes later, another spin-up northeast of Cement rapidly developed into a large, powerful tornado as it tracked from southeast of Verden to just west of Chickasha. Two homes suffered high-end F3 damage just southwest of U.S. Highway 62, injuring several people.

Almost immediately after one tornado dissipated, another took its place. After causing light damage to one home and snapping a number of trees along the banks of the Washita River, the twister struck the Chickasha Municipal Airport. It peeled away portions of two hangars and destroyed several airplanes, which earned a high-end F2 rating.

Several of the hangars and planes at Chickasha Municipal Airport were extensively damaged. At bottom is US-81.

Curving abruptly toward the east, it rapidly intensified and produced extensive ground scouring as it crossed US-81. It demolished an aviation parts shop and several outbuildings, scattering debris for nearly a mile downstream. The bare frame of a trailer was twisted around a tree over 200 yards away.

The tornado continued to grow as it headed east-northeast, scouring out a muddy streak as it crossed an open field. As suddenly as it had strengthened, however, the funnel began shrinking back into the clouds. After causing minor damage to a few more homes, it dissipated around three miles east of the airport.

Reddish-brown scouring marks were clearly visible in fields east of the airport.

As the powerful supercell approached State Highway 92, it was already beginning to reload. It started as a broad, almost imperceptible swirl in the scraggy buffalograss about two miles south of Amber. Just above the surface, the gunmetal clouds sprouted ragged tendrils of condensation that seemed to slither toward the ground. Less than five minutes after the previous funnel dissipated, an incredible ninth tornado was born.

The whole process was captured on video by Oliver Smith as he sat on the highway just south of the path:

Within moments of crossing the state highway, as if by some atmospheric illusion, the fledgling tornado rapidly transformed into a wedge fully three-quarters of a mile wide. It encountered only a few homes as it skirted south and east of Amber, but it left little of them standing. Kim Kennedy was several miles away, but she knew what was coming as she watched the storm on television. “We just lost our house,” she told her husband.

In fact, the Kennedy home was among the very first the tornado encountered. It blew out most of the structure and scattered the family’s belongings, leaving only a few interior walls upright. Not far away, Thurman and Doris Marshall hunkered down in a neighbor’s storm shelter as their home was reduced to rubble.

The tornado rapidly intensified as it clipped a small neighborhood a few miles east of Amber, cutting down more than a dozen manufactured homes. Grass was shredded and pulled out by its roots, exposing the rusty soil and clearly marking the path of destruction. A refrigerator from one home was hurled half a mile and skewered through by a six-foot shard of lumber. A stand of trees nearby was virtually stripped bare. Playing cards were embedded so deeply into the pale trunks that they reportedly couldn’t be pulled out. Just to the northeast, inch-thick sections of pavement were peeled up from Sandrock Road and broken apart.

An aerial view looking SW at the intense damage along E1260 Rd. & Nancy Dr.

In the Southern Hills subdivision in Bridge Creek, Kara Wiese was finally starting to worry. She’d seen the reports of bad weather, but all that meant to her was that Jordan wouldn’t have Tee-ball. Instead, she picked up her son after work and spent some time playing catch outside. It was humid, but there seemed to be no real reason for concern.

Listening to the news as she made dinner, however, the situation quickly changed. The storms were growing closer, the warnings from the television more dire. She considered loading her son in the car to flee, but confusing reports of tornadoes “near Tuttle” and “near Newcastle” made it seem as though her little community was surrounded. Instead, she decided the safest place to take cover was a deep, tree-lined ravine that ran behind her home. She bundled Jordan in a heavy winter coat, hoping it might offer some protection, and prepared to run for it.

And then came the hail. Like an artillery barrage, icy orbs the size of baseballs clanged against rooftops and pummeled the ground. Thinking better of her plan, Kara quickly led her son into the bathroom. They climbed into the tub and sat face-to-face, holding each other tightly as the storm bore down.

By the time it reached the outskirts of Bridge Creek, the mile-wide F5 tornado had become one of the most violent ever documented. It first encountered Willow Lake Estates, unleashing astonishing violence as it effortlessly snatched up trailers from their anchors and smashed them to pieces. Two well-built frame homes were totally obliterated, with even most of the sill plates ripped from the concrete slabs.

Vehicles were thrown great distances — from 500 yards to nearly a mile and a half — and torn apart or mangled beyond recognition. Broken axles, engine blocks and crumpled steel panels littered the landscape. The vegetation damage was equally extreme. Trees of all sizes were whittled down to bare trunks. Low-lying shrubs were stripped or yanked out of the soil entirely. In some places, the ground was scoured out to a depth of nearly a foot.

When the storm approached, Hugh Underwood rushed with his wife, stepdaughter and five-year-old granddaughter into an interior closet in his double-wide trailer. The trailer was blown apart in seconds, killing his wife and leaving him grievously injured. Despite his grave condition, he continued to comfort his stepdaughter and granddaughter until help arrived. Sadly, he later died at the hospital, becoming one of seven fatalities in Willow Lake.

The wind grew to a deafening pitch as Kara and Jordan Wiese huddled in their bathtub. The walls shook and rattled under the immense forces. Suddenly, the steel tie-down straps that anchored the trailer to the ground snapped. Their home floated and tumbled in the swirling winds, breaking apart and scattering all they owned. Jordan tightened his grip on his mother as they hurtled through the air, but it wasn’t enough. The world seemed to go black.

It took less than two minutes to virtually wipe the Southern Hills addition from existence. Like a gigantic mulching mower, the mile-wide wall of wind sucked up everything in its path and spit out a puree of fragmented lumber, soggy tufts of insulation, bits of vehicles and torn-up appliances and furniture. Trailers were again ripped apart and twisted, the frames sometimes thrown hundreds of yards and driven into the ground or coiled around debarked trees like pythons.

Astonishing vehicle and vegetation damage throughout Willow Lake and Southern Hills. (Photos: ELCA Disaster Response)

When Jordan came to his senses, it seemed as if he’d been transported to a wholly alien world. Nothing was familiar. There were no more houses, no road signs, no landmarks at all. A bizarre odor hung heavy in the air, assaulting the nostrils with a muddle of intermingled scents: pine trees, fresh-cut grass, dank and musty earth, the sulfurous fumes of leaking gas. The soil had been sucked up and plastered against every exposed surface, creating a scene that more resembled the surface of Mars than the verdant hills of Oklahoma.

Virtually nothing remained of this section of Southern Hills, where five people were killed.

Closer view looking SSW at the incredible destruction along County St 2967.

The six-year-old was battered and bloodied but not badly hurt. He wandered his unfamiliar surroundings in shock until neighbors found him. Asked where his mother was, he could only say that he’d felt her being pulled from his arms as the twister struck. As Jordan was taken to the local school — one of the few buildings in the area left standing — neighbors and police began a desperate search in hopes of finding Kara alive.

As Grady County Deputy Robert Jolley surveyed the wreckage for survivors and victims, something caught his eye. At first, it looked like a rag doll or a crumpled shirt. Moving closer, he saw tufts of curly brown hair sticking up from what looked like a tiny head. His stomach sank — it was a baby girl.

Digging frantically through tangles of chicken wire and shattered boards, he pulled the little body — 10-month-old Aleah Crago — from the mud. She’d been in her mother’s arms as her parents and grandparents sheltered in the closet of their trailer. She was ripped from her mother and thrown 100 feet. Her father was severely injured. Her grandmother was killed. Her mother and grandfather survived with relatively minor injuries.

She felt warm, but she wasn’t crying. Her eyes and ears were caked in dirt, her skin almost entirely plastered. Lifting her up, he gently wiped her face and carried her to the hood of his patrol car. As he put her down to check for injuries, she let out a cry and reached out to him. Instinctively, he picked her up and comforted her. Thanks to Jolley’s dash camera, it became a heartwarming moment that has since been seen by millions of people around the world.

As it continued to the northeast, the huge wedge plowed through Bridge Creek Estates. Once again, it obliterated everything in its path. Some of the worst damage occurred along Red Bud Lane, where half a dozen homes were leveled and several were totally swept away. Intense ground scouring continued, with almost no grass left near the center of the storm’s path.

While the calamitous vortex was chewing its way through Bridge Creek, Josh Wurman and his VORTEX-99 team were paralleling the path as they raced northbound on I-44. Their plan had been to get out ahead of the storm, giving themselves plenty of time to pick out a suitable perch from which to collect data. Instead, they’d been forced into a sort of high-stakes game of leapfrog: speeding up to within a mile or so of the twister, quickly setting up for a scan or two as it pulled away and then racing north again to catch up.

It made for a hectic chase, but the team was well-drilled and managed to repeat the process successfully a number of times. As the data came in, the screens inside Josh’s makeshift lab were awash in a kaleidoscope of blues and greens and reds and yellows. It would take years to carefully sift through and analyze every frame of data, but one thing was immediately obvious: the VORTEX team was witnessing history. Inside the funnel, the DOW detected wind speeds in excess of 300 mph — the strongest winds ever measured on Earth.

According to her friends, Kathleen Walton was “caring and generous to a fault.” It was fitting, then, that Kathleen found herself driving from her home in Anadarko up to Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon as a favor. The 40-year-old single mother hadn’t hesitated to volunteer when her neighbors needed a ride to pick up their car in the city. She never hesitated when someone else was in need.

As usual, her 11-year-old son Levi was eager to come along for the ride. The two were virtually inseparable, whether they were riding bikes, taking trips to the lake or just watching movies or television together. They especially enjoyed watching WWF wrestling and loved to cheer for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

The skies had grown dull and dark by the time Kathleen reached her destination, but the air remained uncomfortably sticky. After dropping off her neighbors, she and her son made a quick stop for cold drinks. When they returned, the car refused to start. Kathleen called her neighbors and told them of her engine troubles, but she quickly called back again moments later: she’d already gotten help and was headed home. “Be careful,” they said. “There’s a storm coming.”

Scanning the hazy, indistinct darkness of the horizon from the southbound lane of I-44, it hardly seemed like an urgent warning. It was May in Oklahoma, after all, and dodging the occasional supercell was just a fact of life. As Kathleen and Levi followed the long, gentle curve of the highway past the northern edge of Newcastle, however, caution turned to a rush of fear. A murky, writhing wedge protruded from the clouds, so large that it almost appeared as though the entire rear flank of the storm were dragging the ground. Worse yet, they seemed to be headed directly for it.

A few miles ahead of the Waltons, Scott Pittman quickly came to the same realization. Desperate to find shelter, he turned his car around and raced north on the shoulder of the southbound lane. Approaching the west side of the Northwest 16th Street overpass, Scott and his two companions ditched the car and scrambled up the concrete embankment.

At the top, they found another motorist already hunkered down. Kevin Weber, a civil engineer from Tulsa, had been driving south to Lawton for an important meeting when he noticed the dark, foreboding skies to his west. He’d initially stopped under the overpass to protect his new car from hail, but a tornado warning prompted him to seek out more substantial shelter. He’d wedged himself into a small gap that ran between the top of the embankment and the deck of the overpass, though it all suddenly seemed less substantial than he’d hoped.

Within moments, Kathleen and Levi Walton were struggling up the concrete ramp as well. The wind came in sharp bursts, making it difficult to keep their balance as they climbed toward what they hoped would be safety. As they reached the top, Scott Pittman helped boost Levi up onto the concrete ledge and squeezed in beside him. Realizing there was no room left in the narrow gap, Kathleen wrapped herself tightly around her son and held on.

“I gotta tell you, folks, this is deadly, deadly serious. You need to be below-ground.” It was a message Gary England had been repeatedly stressing for what already felt like hours. He loved the rush of live severe weather coverage, but he also felt the enormous weight of responsibility. Oklahomans were generally weather-aware, but people across the region still tuned in to Gary’s coverage every time the weather took a turn for the worse. Some of them, he knew, would potentially make life-and-death decisions based on what he said.

It was a burden that felt particularly heavy as he watched the monstrous tornado grind Bridge Creek’s homes and churches and trees and fields to a muddy, rust-colored pulp. He couldn’t force people to take action and protect themselves, but he was intent on doing what he could to express the gravity of the threat. He and his team had worked close to a thousand tornadoes over the years, but this was different. This was the day he’d always feared.

A short trip south on I-35, officials at the National Weather Service office in Norman were wrestling with the same burden. They’d issued tornado warnings, but that was little more than background noise to many Central Oklahomans. As the tornado passed into the far northwestern tip of McClain County, science officer David Andra decided it was time to take action. At 6:57 pm, he hastily drafted an alert and sent it out to weather radios, emergency managers and media outlets across the region.



There had never been a tornado emergency issued before — it was not an official National Weather Service product, nor was it something that had ever been discussed — but it clearly established the stakes. There was no stopping what was coming, and every decision carried grave consequences for the many thousands of people still in the path.

There are many thoughts that flow through a person’s mind when they come to realize they’re about to die. Kevin Weber thought of his family, of what he’d be leaving behind. He said a quick prayer, though the words were swallowed by the storm before they could even leave his mouth. But mostly, he couldn’t believe that his last meal was going to be a quarter-pounder and french fries he’d wolfed down at McDonald’s.

The core of the leviathan was still nearly a mile away, launching vehicles hundreds of yards from Highway 76 and snapping trees just above ground level, but the outer circulation was already surging across I-44. Kevin wedged his arm between the flanges of an exposed I-beam to brace against the wind. Scott Pittman tucked himself under the deck of the overpass as best he could, leaving only his leg slightly exposed. Next to him, Kathleen Walton pulled her son close.

For more than half an hour, the tornado had paralleled the freeway as it traveled northeast. Even as it inflated to more than a mile wide, it kept a space of between half and three-quarters of a mile from I-44. As it crossed Highway 76, however, something suddenly changed. As if drawn by some irresistible force, the twister broke sharply toward the east. In the same area, the otherwise arrow-straight interstate arced slightly to the north. It was just enough: the two paths intersected directly over the 16th Street overpass.

The onrushing roar of the tornado — transitioning into a darker, more compact stovepipe but losing little of its savage power — sounded like standing on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It felt something like it, too. As it swept across the interstate, the spiraling winds near the surface were funneled under the overpass. An aerosolized slurry of rain, mud, grass and granulated debris rushed through the constricted opening like a firehose. Something heavy struck Kevin Weber’s leg; the immediate rush of pain left no doubt it was broken. A highway sign hurtled by at tremendous velocity and tore into Scott Pittman’s exposed leg deeply enough to ricochet off the bone.

Briefly, the wind slackened just enough for Levi Walton’s voice to carry over the cacophony: “Are we going to die?” Kathleen reassured her son, holding tight to his hand and reciting Scripture. Moments later, the howling winds returned with renewed intensity. Near the edge of the overpass, Kevin Weber could feel himself being pulled away. Clinging to the I-beam above him, his body was yanked free and “waved like a flag,” smashing repeatedly against the concrete.

Kathleen, too, could feel the irresistible tug of the tornado as she did her best to shield young Levi. The devilish winds pried and pulled, threatening to suck both mother and son into the storm. As the force of the wind became too great, she knew what she had to do. She told Levi to close his eyes, told him that she loved him, and then she let go.

When Jim Patton pulled up to the 16th Street overpass, he could hardly believe the surreal scene before him. A new reporter in Oklahoma City, he and his photographer had parked under the overpass just minutes earlier and debated whether to take shelter there. Realizing that the vast wall of darkness approaching from the west was actually a mammoth tornado, they’d raced south just in time to escape the path.

Now, the place looked like a battlefield. The grass surrounding the embankment was largely scoured away. Cars sat in utterly unrecognizable heaps. Kevin Weber’s car, which he’d initially parked under the overpass to avoid hail damage, was simply gone. Several days later, cleanup crews would find it in a tangled heap over a mile away. Everything else — from the concrete to the people to the scattered wreckage — bore the distinct sepia hue of caked-on Oklahoma mud.

Kevin Weber stands next to his mangled car.

At the edge of the highway, battered and bloodied survivors milled around in a daze. Patton quickly joined others who’d stopped to help. Someone fashioned a makeshift splint out of lumber and tree branches to keep Kevin Weber’s broken leg immobilized. Others wrapped Scott Pittman’s leg in towels and applied pressure to control the bleeding.

Minutes after the tornado, storm chaser James Clarke shot this video at the overpass as Jim Patton (yellow jacket) aided survivors.

Amid the chaos, Levi Walton’s gut-wrenching plea cut through like a knife: “Where’s my mama?!”

A few miles north on I-44, it appeared the same tragedy was about to play out once more. J. Pat Carter, an Associated Press photographer, had been racing around Central Oklahoma searching for just the right shot. He stopped his truck at an overpass joining the highway to U.S. 62, shooting a few quick pictures as the funnel lurched closer. Too close, in fact. With no other options left, he darted toward the apparent safety of the overpass.

This video, taken by KOCO’s Chris Lee looking east from Highway 37, shows the tornado as it crosses the I-44 interchange north of Newcastle.

A short distance away, Tammy Holmgren was standing beside her van and watching the twister approach. Inside were her two young daughters, ages six and two. Carter sprinted toward the van and yelled for the young mother to take cover. Leading them toward the thick concrete pillars at the base of the embankment, he turned and began snapping photos again until the storm’s intense inflow made it virtually impossible to stand upright.

Wrapping his arms around Tammy and her young children, he tried to offer reassuring words. Powerful gusts burst through the funnel-like gap between the embankments. Chunks of debris clattered off the concrete and pelted his body. And then.. it was over.

In an improbable stroke of cosmic luck, the tornado once again shifted as it approached the interstate. This time, a wobble to the north avoided further tragedy by the slimmest of margins: the twister passed within 250 yards of the overpass. Naturally, as it shuffled away, Carter again reached for his camera.

Tammy Holmgren and her daughters watch as the tornado approaches the Canadian River, joined by a brief satellite. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)

Just south of Oklahoma City, the tranquil suburb of Moore was becoming a scene of unnerving surreality. The eerie wail of tornado sirens echoed through near-empty streets. From the ashen sky, bits of paper and shingles and insulation fell like fat, lazy snowflakes. Brilliant flashes of lightning burst from the clouds at irregular intervals, followed closely by the booming snarls of thunder.

At the News 9 studio, reports and images began trickling in of the sheer devastation the tornado had already left in its wake. It was, if possible, even worse than feared. Gary England again stressed the magnitude of the unfolding disaster, urging viewers to seek whatever shelter they could: “The sirens are going off in Moore. It’s moving northeast to the Moore area. This is a long-tracked tornado, potentially deadly. The wind speeds are quite strong, we fear. You still have a few minutes in Moore to move to a place of safety, but not much.”

The warning was enough to jolt John Szymanski into action. An officer with the Oklahoma City Police Department, John lived with his wife Dixie in the Country Place Estates subdivision, just south of Southwest 134th Street. Their home had only recently been built, but it didn’t have a dedicated storm shelter. Instead, John and his wife squeezed themselves into an interior closet. Next door, Jeff Locke — another OKC PD officer — also crowded into a closet with his wife and three-year-old son.

A mile to the northeast, the parking lot at Westmoore High School was packed with cars. Though it was long past school hours, an awards ceremony had attracted hundreds of parents, students and faculty. As the sirens blared outside, an assistant principal quickly ushered the attendees into the hallways and bathrooms that served as the school’s designated shelter areas.

At Greenbriar Eastlake Patio Homes, on the other side of Western Avenue, 44-year-old Randy Thurman was glued to the television. His wife, Pati, was already busy preparing for the worst. She stocked a bedroom closet with some basic supplies in case the family had to make a quick run for cover. As the TV weatherman projected the twister’s path, Randy was relieved to see that the ruinous storm seemed to be turning away.

For a moment, it appeared the terrible twister was finally running out of steam. The sooty stovepipe weakened somewhat as it crossed the Canadian River four miles north of Newcastle, shrinking to less than a quarter of a mile. After producing an incredible and virtually unbroken 20-mile stretch of severe ground scouring, the soil at the northern tip of McClain County remained (mostly) undisturbed. The path even began to curve to the left, as often happens when a tornadic circulation occludes.

Unfortunately, the feint didn’t last long. Almost immediately after entering Cleveland County, the tornado badly damaged a row of homes along South Drexel Avenue. Quickly regaining its former strength, it again began ripping grass from the ground as it cut across Southwest 149th Street. It littered the adjoining field with pulverized debris, but another fortunate wobble spared several homes along South May Avenue from a direct hit.

Looking east on May Ave between SW 134th & SW 149th. Pronounced scouring and debris granulation are evident.

Half a mile to the northeast, the string of good luck ran out. The tornado struck Country Place Estates with tremendous force, destroying dozens of homes as it barreled through the brand new subdivision. As OKC PD officer Jeff Locke’s house broke up around him, a heavy door crashed through the closet in which his family was hiding. Luckily, the door kept them in place and offered some protection against debris.

Jeff Locke and another officer stand in the wreckage of his home.

Next door, John and Dixie Szymanski were less fortunate. The home they’d moved into just two months earlier was torn apart in seconds. John used his body to shield his wife from the debris, but the couple was picked up and hurled by the wind as it blew away the interior walls.

John landed in a heap at the other end of the street. Despite suffering a fractured leg, he immediately began searching for his wife. When he found her, Dixie was unconscious and soaked in blood. Her neck had been broken, as had her jaw, her nose and the orbit of her left eye. A deep laceration ran from her head to the side of her face. She would later require more than 100 staples and a dozen surgeries, but she was able to make a full recovery.

The violence of the tornado was on full display throughout Country Place Estates. Several new brick veneer homes, some of them well-built, were blasted off their slab foundations in F5 fashion. Many vehicles in the area were picked up and thrown a quarter-mile or more across Pennsylvania Avenue.

A 1999 Pontiac Grand Am — originally parked about a mile away according to local residents — was hurled under a low culvert on Southwest 134th Street and completely crushed. A large section of an airplane wing was also found in this area. Police reported that it had been ripped from one of the aircraft destroyed at the Chickasha Municipal Airport — nearly 30 miles away.

David and Sandy Henry rushed from room to room, snatching up pillows, blankets and anything else that might offer some small measure of protection. Though they’d been watching the weather on television, they could now hear the storm closing in on their tidy little community of Eastlake Estates. Grabbing their pet dachshund, Sammy, they darted to the bathroom of their two-story brick home.

A few streets away, Doug and Missy Wells embraced each other as they sat in a small walk-in pantry that did double-duty as an above-ground safe room. Doug was a contractor and he’d installed the shelter himself to make sure it was done right. The walls were thick and heavily reinforced, the entrance protected by a steel security door. Still, they couldn’t help but wonder whether they were spending their final moments together as the earth trembled under their feet.

Three-quarters of a mile away, Randy Thurman was practically yelling at his TV. The weatherman was excitedly informing viewers that the tornado had started turning left, but what in the world was “left” to a tornado? Frustrated, he reached for the remote and switched to News 9. His heart sank. Flashing between radar scans, chaser reports and live video feeds from the Ranger 9 helicopter, Gary England left no doubt: the tornado was headed squarely in his direction.

Randy and his wife rushed to the bedroom closet and laid on the floor, their two-year-old son Levi tucked securely between them. Hoping to keep her son calm and distracted, Pati slipped a pair of headphones over his ears and played a cassette. They covered up under a thick blanket and waited, bracing for whatever was to come.

While most people hunkered down and hid from the tornado, Stuart Earnest had a very different reaction. Eager to witness the storm for himself, he’d talked his friend and coworker, Keith Webb, into going on an impromptu storm chase after work. As they followed I-35 south into Moore, though, all they could see was rain and gloom. Large hail followed, prompting them to seek out an overpass for shelter.

The first one they passed was packed with cars, a mixture of shelter-seekers and curious onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the storm. So was the second. Finally, they got off at the Shields Boulevard exit and pulled underneath it. The hail had already subsided, so the amateur storm chasers scampered up the grassy slope to the road surface for a better look.

They were mesmerized, frozen in place by a mix of sheer awe and mortal terror. Just miles to their southwest, the “most beautiful, most powerful force” they’d ever seen churned relentlessly through the city’s tree-lined streets and well-manicured subdivisions. A dark, dense shroud of debris seethed and swirled around it, pulsing with unfathomable energy.

Leaving Country Place in its wake, the ravenous twister engulfed densely populated Eastlake Estates. Framing studs and sill plates tore away from concrete slabs, shattering into pieces and adding to the ever-growing blizzard of debris whirling around the vortex at almost incomprehensible speeds. Carpeting and linoleum peeled away from subfloors. Copper piping was bent flat or ripped out of the ground, in some cases so violently that it chipped the surrounding concrete.

On the western edge of Eastlake Estates, well-constructed homes along SW 131st Terrace (center) were swept cleanly away.

As they huddled in their bathroom, David and Sandy Henry could hear their home coming apart around them. David told his wife of 15 years that he loved her. And then, he did what he had always done: he protected her. Covering Sandy with his body, he absorbed the blows as bricks and timbers and furniture collapsed upon them. A pickup from down the street hurtled into the two-story house, adding to the destruction.

On the opposite side of the subdivision, Doug Wells prayed that the new safe room he’d built would withstand the tornado’s onslaught. Even through the reinforced walls, the sound was “like a thousand Niagara Falls” crashing over them. They could hear the house being blown away, followed by all sorts of objects thumping and smashing against the sides of the shelter.

Suddenly, an explosion like a high-speed car crash. A heavy object struck the top of the steel door and bent it backward, tearing it away from the top hinge. Missy screamed and her husband could feel her shaking uncontrollably. Dirt and granulated debris sprayed into the pantry and clouded the air until, after a full minute, the winds mercifully eased.

It took just moments for neighbors to hear Sandy Henry’s screams for help. Clambering over jagged piles of rubble, they began digging in the spot where the Henrys’ bathroom had been. As she was pulled from the wreckage, she was amazed to see that, save for a couple of bruises, she was virtually unscathed. Her husband was not. He had willingly sacrificed his life to spare hers, becoming one of three people killed in Eastlake Estates.

To their relief, Doug and Missy were not among them. It had been a terrifying experience, but the safe room had done its job. The only problem was getting out. The impact that bent the steel door had also shifted it just enough to leave it jammed in place. It took the help of two neighbors to finally dislodge it. As they stepped out, they emerged into sheer desolation.

A violent tornado is an elemental exercise in improbability. Inside the event horizon of such a vortex lurks the core, a black hole in which the laws that govern ordinary experience seem to break down. In the most powerful tornadoes, the Fujita scale helpfully explains, “incredible phenomena will occur.” Talk about an understatement.

Glancing around their Eastlake Estates home, trying to absorb the grotesque new reality into which they’d suddenly been thrust, the Wells’ encountered evidence of such phenomena virtually everywhere they looked. Aside from the safe room, their home had simply disappeared. Outlines on the concrete slab traced the floor plan, but the walls were gone. So were the anchored sill plates and the plumbing. Even tile flooring was pried loose and ground up. Several other homes in the vicinity had suffered the same fate.

Those that hadn’t been completely swept away collapsed into heaps several feet high. Irregular balls of metal marked where cars and trucks and vans had been thrown who-knows-how-far and mangled. Several cast-iron manhole covers, weighing more than 250 pounds, were sucked up and carried away. Trees were blasted into bare, stunted nubs. Pretty little yards became patches of sticky mud. And everywhere, the remnants of shattered lives and chewed-up possessions.

Doug found his car keys glinting amid the churned-up rubble that covered his favorite spot in the backyard. Shaded by the canopy of a mighty bur oak, it had been the perfect place to relax with a good book or a cold beer. Now, the canopy was gone. And though it took him a minute to realize it, so was the car.

While its damaging winds still spanned nearly half a mile as it crossed Southwest 126th Street, the tornado focused its greatest destructive power into a swath just a few hundred feet wide. This core of concentrated violence missed Westmoore High School — and the hundreds of people inside — by less than 200 yards. A section of the school still sustained heavy roof damage, but no one was injured within its walls.

As it exited Eastlake Estates, the narrow core of violent damage just missed Westmoore High School.

Many of the estimated 200 cars in the parking lot were rolled or tossed and destroyed. A few of them were thrown hundreds of yards into nearby homes. The body of a pale, silvery-gray horse landed in the lot as if it had been parked between a trio of minivans. No one could say for certain where the horse had come from, though one faculty member speculated that it may have originated on a farm more than a mile to the southwest. “Incredible phenomena,” indeed.

Across Western Avenue, the twister sliced through the 600-unit Emerald Springs Apartments. On the south side of the complex, it left mostly broken windows and damaged roofs. Mere yards to the north, there was utter ruin. Multiple two-story apartment buildings were totally destroyed, killing three people and injuring a dozen others. One building was completely flattened and partially swept away, earning yet another F5 rating from post-storm surveyors.

The destruction at Emerald Springs Apartments was extreme.

A few hundred yards east of Emerald Springs Apartments, Randy and Pati Thurman were still curled up under a blanket on the floor of their bedroom closet. Their son, two-year-old Levi, was wedged securely between them with headphones over his ears. They held each other and prayed as the earth-shaking rumble of the tornado grew closer.

The windows exploded. An overwhelming, discordant cacophony of sound overtook them, “like throwing a fork into your garbage disposal, times a thousand.” The roof and exterior walls blew away, followed quickly by the closet. A chunk of debris struck Randy in the back. Savage wind gusts threatened to snatch away the blanket. Reaching to hold it down, Pati was struck by another shard of debris and gashed in the arm.

“Well, this is it. I’m going to die.” The thought forced itself into Randy’s mind, but it wasn’t accompanied by fear. It was simply a matter of acknowledging and accepting the inevitable. He wondered whether it would be painful, whether he would feel anything at all. When the final blow came, would he even have time to register that it happened?

It was over in less than a minute, though it felt much longer. Randy and his family were the first survivors to climb out from the wreckage, mostly because there was no need to climb at all. A few small sections of brick wall were strewn about, intermingled with assorted odds and ends — a doll here, a pillow there. A three-foot square of carpet marked where they had hunkered down in the closet. Otherwise, their home and everything in it was widely scattered across Greenbriar Eastlake.

The air was heavy with fumes spewing from ruptured natural gas lines. Litter-strewn driveways led only to ugly, fragmented heaps. Shattered pieces of framing lumber were ubiquitous, covering every yard and road and floating in mats on the surface of a nearby pond. It was eerily quiet at first, but soon the air filled with cries for help.

With his family safe, Randy quickly headed out to do what he could. Going house to house, he helped pull several of his friends and neighbors from the rubble. When firefighters finally arrived, evacuating the area for fear of a gas explosion, they found him soaked in blood that wasn’t his own.

After etching a series of deep, cycloidal lines into an open field on the north side of Northwest 12th Street, the tornado encountered one of Moore’s most populous neighborhoods. Regency Park sprawled out in intricate geometric patterns, bounded by the rigid lines of Santa Fe Avenue in the west and Janeway Avenue in the east. In minutes, the graceful curves and precise lines disappeared in a sea of detritus.

Slashing diagonally through the heart of the neighborhood, the tornado produced F4 damage in a streak about 150 yards wide. In several areas, well-built homes were swept clean, earning F5 ratings. A bolt-down gun safe was torn from the foundation of one home and hurled through the roof of another, causing it to collapse. At another home, the vent pipe of an underground shelter was partially dislodged when it was struck by a car thrown atop the rubble of the garage.

Four people were killed on the eastern side of Regency Park in homes that were completely obliterated. Across Janeway Avenue, Kelley Elementary School suffered tremendous damage. The roof was almost entirely removed. Air conditioning and ventilation equipment was thrown into the adjoining field. In the hardest-hit sections of the school, multiple walls failed and portions of the building collapsed. Fortunately, the school was empty and no one was hurt.

Even as the colossal twister closed in on Stuart Earnest and Keith Webb, they were simply too entranced to look away. Earnest estimated it had been about five miles away when they first laid eyes on it. At three miles, they could hear a deep rumbling like a giant waterfall. At about one mile, they witnessed the entire roof of a house sailing overhead. It was time to get the hell out of dodge.

When they climbed back down the embankment, they found that I-35 had descended into chaos. Drivers ditched their vehicles and ran, some of them bailing before they’d even come to a stop. Cars rear-ended one another, piling up into a tangle of steel and rubber. Well over a dozen people scrambled up the slope to seek safety among the girders running under the deck of the overpass. The only problem was that there were no girders under the Shields Boulevard overpass. The underside of the bridge deck was flat and featureless, forming a narrow, tapered gap where it met the embankment.

Thanh Pham had no intention of taking refuge under the overpass. He and his wife, 26-year-old Tram Thu Bui, had seen the tornado as they traveled along the interstate. Mistaking it at first for a vast curtain of rain, Thanh swiftly calculated that his family’s best chance of survival was to speed south and away from the funnel’s path. As he hurtled toward Shields Boulevard, however, his escape route turned into a parking lot. Rows of vehicles, some occupied and others abandoned, were packed literally bumper-to-bumper across the full width of I-35.

Panic set in. With the tornado closing fast, Tram leaped out and dashed up the embankment. Thanh quickly scooped up his two young children, one in each arm, and turned to follow. Rain fell in heavy sheets as he struggled to reach the overpass. The leading edge of the vortex plastered the concrete emplacement with a fusillade of mud and debris, making the slope treacherously slick. The winds nearly bowled him over.

He wasn’t going to make it. Frantic, he turned and ran to the edge of the road, placing his children on the ground next to the guardrails. Spreading himself over them, he wrapped his legs around the base of the nearest guardrail post. As the tempest overtook them, he stole one last glance at his wife. She stood crouched at the top of the slope, looking back in horror.

For a brief moment, their eyes met.

The Shields Boulevard overpass seemed almost purpose-built to funnel and focus destructive winds. The flat plains rose into long, sweeping earthen banks on either side, flowing toward yawning gaps of concrete that ran almost perpendicular to the twister’s direction of travel. The result was an eruption of staggering power and violence.

One by one, those who’d sought refuge under Shields Boulevard were blown out. Keith Webb tried to press himself into the concrete, but he was sandblasted by a spray of granulated debris. It shredded his clothes and stripped his shoes from his feet, leaving his skin exposed to the withering blast. To his left, a truck driver named John howled in agony before being sucked into the storm. A young woman to his right was next.

Moments later, it came for him. He was weightless, struck by the disorienting sensation of spinning rapidly through the air. Pale, brilliant light spread to fill his vision. Suddenly, intense pain as his face smashed against the lip of the bridge deck. The roar of the storm faded out. Everything went black.

When it was over, only Stuart Earnest remained atop the embankment. He was drenched in blood and dirt, his skin abraded and stippled with hundreds of splinters. Still, he was alive. Miraculously, so was Thanh Pham. He stumbled through the debris, carrying his young children and calling out for his wife. There was no sign of her.

On both sides of the overpass, ground scouring was extreme. A narrow, brick-colored streak bisected the grassy median to the northeast. The field was littered with debris of every conceivable type: broken boards, scraps of cloth and insulation, twisted beams and corrugated roof panels, crushed frames and dislocated car axles. Here and there, too, the slumped form of a broken body.

An incredibly intense streak of ground scouring is visible on both sides of the Shields Boulevard overpass.

It seemed impossible that anyone remained alive, yet moans and cries emanated from the ruins. The scene was ghastly: compound fractures, missing ears and fingers, shards of lumber and metal and shingles embedded deeply into flesh. When Keith Webb regained consciousness, he was nearly neck-deep in water. He’d been tossed into a culvert 50 yards to the north. Mud caked his eyes and nose and blood streamed freely from a litany of wounds.

As first responders arrived, they began rushing the wounded to area hospitals. Against all odds, and despite the nightmarish injuries, all of them survived. The only person who remained unaccounted for was Tram Thu Bui.

On Eastern Avenue, just below Southeast 94th Street, Jacqueline Sivard was well aware of the storm’s approach. She’d been watching Gary England’s coverage on News 9 throughout the day, and when the tornado closed in on Moore, she heard Gary’s dire warnings loud and clear: get underground if you want to survive.

With a six-year-old daughter and a son due in a few months, she wasn’t taking any chances. She grabbed her daughter and relocated to her friend’s grandmother’s home. The house, directly adjacent to Lakeside Golf Course, had a large and well-reinforced cellar that spanned the entire length of the garage, offering plenty of room to take shelter when the time came.

As the tornado crossed the interstate and moved into the Highland Park neighborhood — briefly weakening slightly but still leveling a number of homes — Jacqueline was already huddled in the cellar with her daughter and a crowd of friends and relatives and pets. Her husband was playing golf 20 miles away in Edmond — of course, he missed everything. Naturally, it wasn’t until the brilliant, blue-green explosions of transformers began popping like flashbulbs in the distance that the assembled men rushed into the cellar as well.

Though it weakened slightly as it passed through, the tornado still caused tremendous destruction throughout Highland Park.

An aerial view of the damage path looking SW from beyond the Lakeside Golf Course (near bottom right).

Within minutes, the twister was on top of them. The noise was nearly unbearable as it splintered walls and stripped trees and threw vehicles around like toys. Dust rained down on them as they flattened themselves to the floor. The very air itself seemed to be sucked out of the cellar. Jacqueline pulled her daughter close and hugged her for dear life.

Once the storm passed, people slowly began emerging from the cellar. The home above them had been mostly destroyed, though a car still sat in what remained of the garage. Jacqueline’s own car, which had been parked nearby at the southwest corner of the golf course, was nowhere to be seen.

The next day, she returned to search for it in the fields to the north. Instead, she encountered the remains of animals that were mangled so badly it was difficult to tell whether they were horses or cows. Eventually, the crushed body of her car was found in a pond on the opposite end of the golf course. The course’s clubhouse was gone. Most of the electric golf carts were as well. On the putting green, the three-inch turf was gashed and peeled up. Parts of the course itself were scoured out deep enough to reveal irrigation lines.

Just north of the golf course, a home along Southeast 94th Street became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of the outbreak. The photo, showing a bare slab with virtually no debris in sight, has since become a textbook example of what F5 damage looks like. However, the true story behind it is less clear.

This famous photo is often used as a textbook example of F5 damage, but conflicting reports call the accepted narrative into question.

While some reports indicate it was indeed a product of tornado damage, others suggest the home had burned down weeks or months earlier. The property is directly in the center of the tornado’s path and damage to structures and vegetation in the area is consistent with a violent tornado. However, without knowing the state of the home before May 3, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.

At the 35,000-square-foot American Freightways terminal, just south of Interstate 240 and east of South Bryant Avenue, more than two dozen employees were crouched in the corner of a concrete loading ramp. Two truck drivers, Anthony Battaglia and Jerry Webb, did their best to shield the others as the tornado tore apart homes to their south. At first, it appeared the freight company might be spared. As the tornado crossed Southeast 89th Street and entered Oklahoma County, however, it began a long, sweeping arc toward the north.

As it approached the I-240 interchange, the tornado began a long curve toward the north.

As it recurved, the twister struck the depot head-on. The damage was tremendous. Structural steel beams were blown down and twisted, their heavy anchor bolts snapped or pulled out of the concrete. Virtually the entire steel skin of the structure was peeled apart, with some corrugated plates carried for miles. Semi trucks and trailers were savagely torn to pieces and scattered through the surrounding fields.

The loading dock filled with a blizzard of debris as the funnel swept overhead. The employees kept low to the ground and pressed themselves against the side of the concrete platform. Suddenly, a trailer seemed to hurtle toward them out of nowhere. Tragically, it struck and killed Anthony Battaglia and Jerry Webb as they used their bodies to shield their coworkers. Several others were seriously injured, but incredibly, there were no other fatalities.

Along I-240, several unoccupied cars were tossed hundreds of yards and crushed. A 36,000-pound freight car was lifted from the railroad tracks north of the interstate and blown nearly three-quarters of a mile. A series of deep gouge marks indicated that the car was airborne for between 50 and 100 yards at a time, briefly bouncing off the ground in between.

To Gary England, it seemed as though the disastrous tornado might never end. He’d been tracking its trail of destruction for more than an hour, watching in awe and horror as it tracked directly through community after community, housing addition after housing addition. Calling out warnings had become almost like a numb, robotic routine: “Large, large long-tracked tornado continues. It’s moving to Del City, Tinker, Draper Lake..” He trailed off momentarily. “Oh, boy, I don’t believe this.”

The tornado had started slowly shrinking by the time it reached the neighborhood of Parkview, but its intensity remained undiminished. Once again, it swept through an entire subdivision, destroying dozens of homes and reducing large, mature trees to skeletal trunks. Near Southeast 45th Place, several homes were totally flattened and one woman was killed.

Moving into the southeast corner of Del City, the recurving storm just brushed the perimeter of Tinker Air Force Base. To its west, the subdivision of Del Aire was utterly obliterated. Row after row, dozens of homes in the thickly built addition were razed to the ground. Debris was pulverized into wood chips. Trees were fully debarked and denuded. Near the center of the damage path, virtually every blade of grass was pulled from the ground. Six Del Aire residents were killed in a span of less than half a mile.

In a final fortunate twist, the storm briefly shifted eastward again as it exited the Del Aire neighborhood. As it did, it missed a large apartment complex by less than a hundred yards, instead damaging a baseball field and running track at Tinker AFB. Crossing the intersection of Sooner Road and Southeast 29th Street, it straightened out and headed almost due north.

Tinker Industrial Park suffered only a glancing blow, but the resulting damage was severe. The south building, which had only been completed the previous month, was partially destroyed. Sections of heavy, well-reinforced masonry walls were blown down and steel reinforcing bars were pulled out of the foundation. Several tubular steel columns failed, deforming the roof trusses and causing the collapse of part of the roof. Nearby, Peach Auto Painting was also largely destroyed.

Along Interstate 40, the funnel tore through the middle of a large commercial strip. Nearly 800 vehicles on the lots at Hudiburg Auto Group suffered some degree of damage. More than 20 were thrown 300-plus yards across the highway, some of them crashing through structures on the other side. A Mid-Del School District bus in the area was carried over 200 yards. Multiple chain hotels were destroyed along I-40, as well as a restaurant and several other businesses. Though officially rated F4, surveyors considered some of the damage at near-F5 intensity.

As it approached Southeast 12th Street, the tornado unleashed a final, brutal act of violence on the Holloway Park neighborhood. Carving a narrow streak about half a mile long and little more than 100 yards wide, its deadly core leveled dozens of homes and killed three people. Less intense damage extended for around a quarter-mile.

Jeremy Davis, whose home near Buena Vista Avenue was totally wrecked, escaped potentially serious injury or death in the most unlikely fashion. After being sucked from his bathroom as it was ripped apart, he was spit out into a swimming pool a block away. He was badly bruised and sustained a concussion, but he was otherwise intact. For several days afterward, he sifted through the wreckage in search of a floor safe containing documents and valuables. The safe, which he described as “about the size of a small television set,” was never found.

After such prolonged violence and intensity, the end came with disorienting suddenness. Following Woodcrest Drive north from Reno Avenue, the funnel abruptly weakened, contracted and dissipated. The Bridge Creek–Moore tornado, as it would come to be known, rampaged across the heart of Oklahoma for an hour and a half. In its wake, it left a trail of phenomenal destruction spanning four counties, at least five communities and 37.2 miles. It became the first tornado ever to cause a billion dollars in damages. More importantly, it claimed the lives of 36 Oklahomans and brought unimaginable ruin to countless others.

At the News 9 weather studio, Gary England struggled to process what had just unfolded. Watching the aerial feed as Ranger 9 followed along the tornado’s path — beaming back mile after mile after mile of concrete slabs, chewed-up earth and subdivisions reduced to rubble — he was convinced he’d just watched hundreds, perhaps thousands of his fellow Oklahomans die.

Still, the danger had not yet passed. Pushing the thoughts of dread from his mind, he went back to work. The skies above Central Oklahoma had filled with towering supercells, all of which seemed to be wrapping up and ready to produce. Further north, scattered cells were crossing into southern Kansas. Even as the sun began sinking lower on the horizon, the environment remained volatile and supportive of intense tornadoes.

Incredibly, within minutes of the Moore tornado dissipating, its parent supercell was at it again. A new circulation, several miles to the east, dropped to the ground south of Nicoma Park. Almost immediately, it caused moderate damage to homes along East Reno Avenue and Shapard Drive. Meandering to the northeast along a wavy path, it also damaged a cluster of small outbuildings south of U.S. Highway 62.

Moderate damage occurred near E Reno Ave & Shapard Dr just moments after the tornado formed.

Crossing the highway, it cut through the little town of Choctaw. Though smaller and much less intense than its predecessor, the tornado caused moderate damage to several homes and businesses, particularly along Gilbert Street and Grand Avenue. It continued causing light damage to trees and structures along McDonald Road and Northeast 36th Street before dissipating over the North Canadian River.

As the Choctaw tornado spun its way through eastern Oklahoma County, things were picking up across the border in Kansas. A funnel described as a “great big barrel” rolled through central Sumner County, clipping the community of Mayfield and damaging a few homes and businesses. At a farm about a mile to the north, two large grain bins were toppled and blown around by the wind. Just before it dissipated, it picked up an unoccupied mobile home and chucked it 50 feet.

Tapping into the potent atmospheric conditions surrounding it, the parent supercell rapidly strengthened and reorganized as it drifted to the northeast. Several funnel clouds briefly appeared, stretching toward the earth before retracting back into the storm. At 8:13 pm, the outbreak’s next killer was born.

The Haysville tornado near Peck. (Photo: Perry Lambert)

The swirling winds beneath the Kansas supercell’s wall cloud coalesced into a powerful vortex just west of Riverdale. The fledgling twister passed over mostly open country in northeastern Sumner County, causing scattered damage to trees and barns and utility poles. Three people were injured when a mobile home was blown some distance and destroyed. Passing the western edge of Peck, the tornado slowly grew to nearly a half-mile wide as it continued through rural Sedgwick County.

Two miles south of Haysville, Judith Gates could hear the ominous rumble approach from her home on South Exposition Street. She grabbed her infant grandson Ryan, not yet a month old, and tucked him in her arms. As the rumble grew into a roar, she ran for a nearby cellar as fast as she could. It wasn’t fast enough. She and her grandson were picked up and thrown amid the wreckage of her home, killing them both.

A friend picks through the rubble of the home in which Judith Gates and her infant grandson died.

As it neared West 79th Street, immediately south of Haysville, the tornado took a sharp northward shift. The deviant path sent the violent tempest barreling straight through the center of town. A cluster of mobile homes along South Seneca Street was wiped out, killing an 83-year-old man who’d refused to seek shelter.

Widespread damage on the south side of Haysville.

Mark Elliott and his son survived in the bathtub when their home was blown away.

Near the intersection of Grand Avenue and Main Street, the sprawling Norland Plastics plant was almost entirely destroyed. Much of the facility was stripped of its sheet metal exterior, leaving only a crumpled frame behind. A steel I-beam, one inch thick and 30 feet long, was wrenched from the building and heaved a quarter-mile, where it embedded itself deeply into the ground. Fortunately, NOAA Weather Radio alerts allowed 85 workers at the plant to reach the on-site shelter before the storm struck.

Haysville’s historic downtown district was badly damaged, along with a number of businesses and churches along Seneca Street. A bank was reduced to rubble, leaving only the vault standing. Utility poles were snapped along the track, some of them very near ground-level. Homes were leveled and trees were stripped bare in the South Seneca neighborhood, resulting in numerous injuries but no deaths.

Chris Huddleston was still riding high when he returned to his trailer in the Pacesetter Mobile Home Park, just south of Interstate 235 on West MacArthur Road in southern Wichita. He’d attended a big dinner in celebration of his 27th birthday, where his father surprised him with a brand new Weber grill. He loved to cook outside and couldn’t wait to try out his new equipment.

When sirens sounded nearby, Chris immediately headed to his sister’s mobile home to check on her three children. Stinging, wind-driven rain fell in torrents and made the distance feel much longer than it was. His sister, Michelle, arrived home from work just as he reached the trailer. They briefly talked about piling everyone into the car and taking off, but it was too late.

“It’s here! It’s here!” Chris shouted into the wind as it swept in from the south. Rushing inside, Chris and his brother-in-law Brian threw themselves around Michelle and her children. The porch blew away and disappeared into the dark. The trailer started to rock and pull apart. Suddenly, all six bodies were hurtling through the air, spinning like a demented frisbee. They landed in a clump several lots away from where Michelle’s trailer had been. The Pacesetter park was devastated. Chris was dead.

Immediately to the north, an even worse scene played out in the Lakeshore Mobile Home Park. The twister slashed through the western end of the park, demolishing dozens of trailers and throwing several of them into the strip of water for which it was named. Before the storm, 67-year-old Merle Walck had fallen asleep in his favorite recliner. He never got out of it. He was pulled alive from the wreckage of his home but died at the hospital a short time later.

Curving again toward the northeast, the storm did considerable damage as it tracked through southern and eastern portions of the Wichita Metro. Fortunately, despite striking such a relatively urbanized area, it caused relatively few injuries and no additional fatalities. It lifted northeast of College Hill, producing a total path length of just over 24 miles.

As darkness set in, tornadoes continued to spin up throughout Oklahoma. Just before 9:00 pm, a powerful F3 tornado caused heavy, isolated damage west of Kingfisher. Another short-lived tornado followed further south, causing severe tree damage and scattering pieces of an unoccupied mobile home for two miles. One person was killed northwest of Shawnee when an F2 twister damaged around 10 site-built houses and tore several manufactured homes to shreds.

Shortly after 9:10 pm, the same supercell that spawned the F3 near Kingfisher produced a large and violent tornado southwest of Dover. A volunteer firefighter named Chris Bullis drove his truck through the streets, blaring his siren to alert residents of the danger. The half-mile-wide funnel ripped through the west side of town minutes later, leveling over a dozen houses, collapsing part of a steel-reinforced concrete building and killing one person.

The wedge tornado near Dover. (Photo: Bobby Payne)

The Dover tornado produced ground scouring and violent damage to structures and vehicles. (Photos: Jack Hales)

Kevin Harrison dashed to a nearby storm cellar with his wife and three kids just before the storm struck. His two-story house was blown clean off its cinder block foundation and smashed to bits. Incredibly, as he and his family rode out the storm underground, the cellar began to collapse in on them. They survived but were forced to dig their way out to escape.

Elsewhere in the area, the tornado produced intense vegetation damage. Several cars and trucks were thrown hundreds of yards and mangled or ripped apart. A 16-foot, 1,000-gallon propane tank was ripped free from its anchoring straps north of Dover and carried just under a mile before being dumped into a grove of trees.

Around the same time the Dover tornado was tearing through central Kingfisher County, one of the most extraordinary tornadic events ever witnessed was unfolding 20 miles to the east. For nearly four hours, a cyclic supercell had been going bonkers, spitting out a total of 19 tornadoes as it drifted through Central Oklahoma. Nearly all of the spin-ups, however, had been relatively small, weak and short-lived. As it turned out, the supercell had just been warming up for the main event.

At 9:25 pm, a funnel dropped to the ground south of Cimarron City. From the start, Gary England knew it was something different. Though it was dark and there was only one News 9 storm tracker following the storm in the field, frequent flashes of lightning gave him plenty of intermittent glimpses at the growing beast. Not long after touching down, it was already so big that its edges stretched beyond the viewfinder in the live video feed.

The only consolation was its location. The area of Logan County that lay ahead of it was almost entirely rural, providing relatively few opportunities to damage anything more than trees and power poles. Nonetheless, the gargantuan wedge left unmistakable evidence of its passage as it traveled east of Crescent. The few homes scattered along its path were heavily damaged or flattened.

A brick home southeast of Crescent was razed to the ground and part of its foundation was reportedly dislodged. A few miles away, several barns and outbuildings were destroyed on a farm near State Highway 74C. A tractor also “disappeared” from the property. According to the owner, the tractor — a Case IH 2294 weighing around 12,000 pounds — was parked near one of the flattened barns when the tornado struck. For days afterward, he tracked down pieces of it in an area stretching more than half a mile from his farm.

Damage continued through Logan County in a swath more than a mile wide. In the tiny community of Abell, 76-year-old Molly Kughn was killed when the winds blew down the house she’d lived in for over 50 years. Half a dozen others in the community sustained injuries.

Josh Wurman and his DOW team arrived in Logan County just as the immense wedge closed in on the sleepy town of Mulhall. Racing north on I-35, the team quickly deployed along the shoulder of the interstate. They collected data over a 14-minute span, generating full radar scans roughly once per minute at distances ranging from 2.5 to 5.5 miles.

The Mulhall tornado was a gigantic wedge as it skirted the southeast side of town.

What the scans revealed was breathtaking. The internal structure of the tornado was reminiscent of a powerful hurricane on a smaller scale. Air violently surged in toward a calm central eye. The tornado’s core flow region, with peak winds in excess of 175 mph, was just under a mile wide.

Even at 2.3 miles from the center, winds blew at over 130 mph. From edge to edge, the circulation of damaging, tornado-strength winds stretched an absurd 2.8 miles. Embedded within that colossal tornadic circulation, a tangle of multiple vortices swirled around at up to 90 mph. Within these diminutive spin-ups, localized wind speeds sometimes exceeded 245 mph.

The DOW radar was able to resolve a series of suction vortices embedded within the huge Mulhall tornado.

As the giant tornado sped along to the northeast at nearly 30 mph, Mulhall was spared a direct hit. The tornado’s center of circulation never passed within half a mile of the town. Nonetheless, its astonishing size meant that even such a glancing blow was enough to rake virtually the entire town with intense tornadic winds, in some areas for up to four full minutes.

Mulhall had no tornado sirens, so a pair of police officers hopped in their cruisers and raced through the little checkerboard of streets, using their lights and sirens to alert the citizens. As they weaved their way through rows of modest homes and churches and small businesses, the town was engulfed by the outer circulation of the impossibly large twister.

A tree was torn up and thrown into one officer’s car. The other was stopped by toppled power lines. Several other trees near the south end of town were snapped near the base. A 400,000-gallon water tower was torn from its anchoring and split open as it toppled to the ground, releasing such a torrent of water that it knocked a nearby house clear off its foundation.

On the west side of town, huge grain bins at the farmer’s co-op were thrown around and crushed like soda cans. The Mulhall–Orlando Elementary School was badly damaged and most of the exterior walls crumbled. The roof of the general store was peeled off. Several houses close to the tornado’s path were totally destroyed, as was the local Baptist parsonage. Despite the widespread damage and destruction, no one in Mulhall was killed.

Alan McClure’s Car

About seven miles to the northeast of Mulhall, in far northwestern Payne County, 45-year-old Alan McClure and his son Jake were heading north on I-35. After picking up a truck in Texas, father and son were returning in separate vehicles to their home in Augusta, Kansas. As the weather conditions worsened, Alan pulled his car under the Lakeview Road overpass to wait it out. When the tornado swept through, a likely subvortex struck his car and threw it around 70 yards, dropping it upside down at the top of the embankment and killing him. His son was unharmed.

The tornado continued to do major damage through parts of southern Noble County before dissipating east of Perry. Bizarrely, within moments of the tornado lifting, another supercell produced a second tornado that touched down south of Crescent and almost directly followed the previous twister’s path for six miles. In some areas, the paths overlapped so closely that it was difficult for surveyors to differentiate the damage.

Shortly after 10:00 pm, yet another strong tornado touched down west of Oklahoma City. Beginning north of El Reno, the twister largely tracked through unpopulated areas, damaging trees and blowing down at least one high-voltage transmission tower. Near the end of the path, just north of the Kingfisher County line, the tornado intensified and grew to around 500 yards. It debarked and denuded a swath of trees and struck a 3,000-pound oil tank. The tank was blown just under half a mile, spending much of the time in the air.

Around the same time, a tornado touched down in Lincoln County, beginning north of Sparks and slowly intensifying as it brushed the southeastern edge of Davenport. Turning to the northeast, it skirted along I-44 and impacted the Sygma food distribution warehouse. The structure was heavily damaged, with girders and pieces of sheet metal thrown northward across State Highway 66.

The roof of Stroud Municipal Hospital sustained serious damage as the twister blew through the western edge of Stroud. Trees in the area were mostly uprooted or blown down. A string of businesses also suffered modest damage, but the greatest destruction occurred at the Tanger Outlet Mall. A section of the mall spanning four retail stores was totally destroyed, reflecting winds of F3 intensity.

After 11:00 pm, the day’s final tornado caused widespread minor damage through parts of Sapulpa and Tulsa.

On May 4, the sun rose over the Southern Plains to reveal widespread devastation. A total of 63 tornadoes had visited Oklahoma — along with nine additional, mostly weak spin-ups from ongoing storms — constituting the largest outbreak in state history. Dozens of towns and many thousands of homes and businesses lay in ruins. Over 40 families grieved over lost loved ones, though some still grappled with agonizing uncertainty.

Among them was the family of Kara Wiese. She and her son, Jordan, had climbed into the bathtub just as their Bridge Creek home was demolished, but she hadn’t been seen since. Still hoping for a miracle, her brother Dustin returned to comb through the rubble of the Southern Hills addition. Her mother Mary phoned every hospital in the region, praying she might simply be among the scores of injured.

Jordan Wiese picks through the rubble wearing his National Guard cap.

After six-year-old Jordan was released from the hospital, he was intent on joining the search in Southern Hills. Members of the Oklahoma National Guard soon arrived to assist as well. Surprised to see the young boy digging through the wreckage, Captain Barry Guidry asked what he was doing. “Looking for my mom,” he answered. “You wanna help me?”

Guidry gave Jordan his camouflage cap and hoisted him up on his shoulders so he could see further. Another guardsman gave him a canteen of water. After Jordan related his harrowing experiences, the guardsmen had another special gift for him. In an impromptu ceremony, they presented the brave young boy with his very own combat patch.

Tragically, however, the searches would prove fruitless. The following morning, May 5, Mary Wiese got the call she’d been dreading. The county coroner needed a copy of Kara’s fingerprints to confirm the worst: her remains had been found.

Thanh Pham was going through much the same experience. The brief gaze he’d shared with his wife as the tornado closed in on the Shields Boulevard overpass was the last time he’d seen her. For days, search crews combed the area for any signs of the young mother. The following Wednesday, nine full days after the disaster, Tram Thui Bui’s remains were found more than half a mile from the I-35 interchange.

The system that sparked the atmospheric eruption over the plains on May 3 continued spawning tornadoes over the next two days, including a strong tornado that tracked 71 miles through Texas and Arkansas and a violent twister that killed three people in Linden, Tennessee. The outbreak sequence claimed 50 lives in all, with 46 of the deaths coming on May 3.

The death toll was tragic, but it’s easy to see why so many feared hundreds or even thousands of deaths. The Bridge Creek–Moore tornado was among the most violent ever documented, producing a staggering trail of high-end destruction even as it traversed parts of a large metro area and crossed several major traffic arteries. The relatively low number of fatalities is a testament not only to the outstanding media coverage and long lead times, but also to the impact of a particular Oklahoma legend.

I spoke with dozens of former and current Oklahoma residents during the course of researching this article. When asked how they were able to survive such a devastating event, many of them were quick to credit Gary England. The experience left him exhausted and led him to briefly consider retirement, but it also cemented a legacy. Even today, when storm clouds gather over Central Oklahoma, residents know just where to go: lowest level, smallest room, center of the house.

6 comments on “May 3, 1999 — The Bridge Creek–Moore Tornado

  1. These posts are so thorough and full of detail it’s incredible. Some of the post tornado information I’ve been able to find has come from these posts. Do you think you could make a post about the Greensburg tornado family? In my opinion that was an event that happens only a few times in a lifetime, four very large wedge tornadoes from a single cell one after another is practically unheard of.

  2. Man, first comment on this entry! I guess most are on the talkweather thread. Anyways, I’ve finally taken the time to fully read the thing and it’s a fantastic article as always and I am definitely much more impressed with Bridge Creek-Moore then I was before. I knew it was violent but I thought it was a bit ‘overrated’ due to getting massive media coverage, how wrong I was! Would love to meet the brilliant minds at NWS who referred to it as a “minimal F5” lol.
    The stuff on Dover was really impressive; it wouldn’t surprise me if it achieved F5 intensity at some point but didn’t hit any DI capable of registering F5 damage.
    Mulhall fascinates me, likely due to how little its damage path was documented. Was Mulhall likely another case of an entire mesocyclone being on the ground, like El Reno 2013 was, given how far its maximum winds stretched?

    Again, awesome work, keep it up!

  3. Absolutely great work, man. You’re probably my favorite writer when it comes to severe weather and this piece did not disappoint.

    Moore 1999 is THE tornado that really got me so interested in them and I never tire of reading about that beast.

    I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re back writing. Thank you so much for doing what you do.

  4. Pingback: TED : Tornado Environment Display – Master Géographies Numériques

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