Trip of a lifetimeWhen 13-year-old Lanie DeMeyer thinks of her recent trip to Oklahoma City she pictures a quiet, little boy standing with his family to get food at a relief center.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
When 13-year-old Lanie DeMeyer thinks of her recent trip to Oklahoma City she pictures a quiet, little boy standing with his family to get food at a relief center.
Brandie Goldberg, 14, thinks of the frightened girl who clung tightly to her doll — one of the few possession her family had managed to save.
Both girls traveled to Oklahoma with the Twin Ports Rampage softball team from May 29 to June 3 to compete in the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Oklahoma City Challenge. The Superior girls had been looking forward to a weekend of softball, but the memories they brought home have nothing to do with sports.
“I don’t think they’ll remember a game we played down there, to be honest with you,” said Stewart Goldberg, head coach of the youth softball team. “But they remember the tornado coming at our hotel, and they remember going over to Moore for the day.”
An EF-5 tornado killed 24 people in Moore, Okla. on May 20 and left much of the community in ruins. Another EF-5 tornado — the strongest on the scale — swept through El Reno, Okla. when the Rampage were staying in Oklahoma City.
“That’s probably what that trip turned out to be about more than anything,” Goldberg said.
The Rampage left for Oklahoma late at night on May 29. The Oklahoma City Challenge softball tournament had been scaled back following the devastation in Moore, but each team was still guaranteed three games.
To fill the remainder of their time, the teams signed up to help with relief efforts.
The Superior girls, mostly 13 and 14 years old, arrived in Oklahoma City with a day to spare before the scheduled start of the tournament. They settled into their hotel and then visited some local attractions.
That night, a second round of tornados ripped through the already-reeling community.
“The girls went to a waterpark that Friday afternoon (May 31) right down the street,” Goldberg said. “A tornado went right through the waterpark four hours after they left.”
The team was back at its hotel when black clouds began to roll across the sky. Forecasters on TV warned of the approaching storm, but the girls were still shocked when the hotel implemented its tornado procedure.
“There was a warning, and at first everyone said to go in the bathroom,” said Lanie. “So we all piled up in there, but then they came in and told us that it wasn’t a safe place to be, so we all had to run into the hallway and under the stairwell.”
The players broke into groups with their chaperones and made for the hallways and stairwells. Mattresses were brought out, and the girls covered up as best they could.
“The parents were trying to … keep us all calm,” Lanie said. “There were a lot of little brothers and sisters there, so you didn’t want to start crying in front of them, but it was pretty hard.”
One of the fathers in Lanie’s group began singing to comfort the girls.
In a nearby hallway, Brandie holed up with another group of players.
“I was panicked,” Brandie said. “It didn’t really hit me until we were laying under the mattresses, and you could feel the pressure as it (the tornado) was coming by.”
Her father was with her in the hallway, but other girls hadn’t been so lucky.
A few players taking shelter with Lanie didn’t have family members with them, and they began to cry as the storm approached.
“Then everybody started yelling, ‘It’s here! It’s here!’” Lanie said.
The girls listened to debris slamming into the building and a sound Brandie described as “50 cars going around a racetrack.”
As the storm’s intensity grew, Brandie sent a text to her sister: “If anything happens to me, I love you.”
The girls began to panic as they stretched out under the mattresses. Many were crying when another group of hotel guests came to their rescue.
“When we were underneath the mattresses laying in the hallway and the tornado was hitting, we realized that there was a group of New York City firefighters there,” Goldberg said.
The firefighters were volunteers with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named in honor of a New York City firefighter who died on Sept. 11.
They’d arrived in Oklahoma a few days earlier to help with relief efforts in Moore and happened to be staying in the same hotel as the Superior softball team.
Brandie was huddled with a group of her teammates when one of the men came over and introduced himself. Some of the younger girls were crying, she said, and the whole group was panicked.
“He goes, ‘My name is Tony, spelled backwards Y Not,’ and he got us all to laugh right away,” Brandie said. “He has a New York accent, so it was just funny the way he said things.”
The firefighter, Tony Navarino, kept the girls distracted with jokes and stories as the tornado passed. He also talked about the work of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and showed them a YouTube clip from an appearance he made on the Wendy Williams Show.
Soon the tornado had passed by, and the girls crawled from under their mattresses.
“The girls handled it pretty well, I think basically because the firefighters were there,” Goldberg said. “I mean, these guys were just amazing.”
After the storm, Brandie said, the firefighters brought the Rampage players water, cereal and snacks.
She and her teammates were too riled to sleep, so they walked about the hotel to calm down.
Brandie was in the hotel elevator with one of her friends when a family of five stepped in with them.
The father looked weary, Brandie said, and carried a laundry basket filled with belongings. The mother worked to calm her three crying children.
“I thought they were staying there,” Brandie said, but when she saw the laundry basket she realized they’d just escaped the tornado.
“Later I found out that was all they had pretty much,” Brandie said. “The one little girl, I smiled at her and she just clutched her doll. She was so cute, and I felt so bad.”
A helping hand
In the morning Goldberg surveyed the damage near the hotel. He was surprised by how close the tornado had come.
“What happened was, the tornado actually flipped a semi over in front of our hotel — picked it up and flipped it over — and then the tornado seemed to like lift up,” Goldberg said.
The hotel roof suffered minor damage and the antennas were torn away, but the tornado did not hit the structure directly.
“It took out a whole bunch of trees and two houses right on the other side of our hotel, so it literally jumped right over us,” Goldberg said.
The Rampage players spent the day volunteering at a relief center. They’d intended to go to a Red Cross station, but the firefighters they’d met during the storm invited the girls to join them.
“We went to Home Depot in Moore and the girls handed out food to people that were coming in,” Goldberg said. “There were a lot of people coming for food and toys for kids, stuff like that.”
“It really hit me when we were handing out the big bags of food,” Lanie said. “I walked into the main part of the store and there was just a huge table and a bulletin board full of (items) that people lost in the storm.”
Wedding certificates, photographs and to-do lists — all torn and muddied — papered the bulletin board. On the table Brandie remembers seeing a journal and a stamp from 1942.
“Ten cents. I remember that,” Brandie said.
Above the lost keepsakes was a sign asking residents to take what was theirs.
For all of the girls, the experience was eye-opening.
“We met this family that got hit by the tornado twice,” Lanie said. “There was a little 10-year-old boy … and he wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
The girls gave the family bags of food for themselves and to share with their neighbors. They also offered toys to the children.
“The little boy did not want any toys,” Lanie said. “He wouldn’t take any of them because he just wanted the food.”
The firefighters with the Stephen Siller foundation also took a handful of the Rampage coaches into the heart of the devastation in Moore.
“That was pretty rough,” Goldberg said. “There was nothing standing over 4 feet high for blocks and blocks. And that school where the seven crosses for the seven children were, there’s a huge memorial there.”
The Rampage raised $1,700 for the relief effort in Oklahoma. The girls also dedicated their games to the city of Moore and to the volunteers of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
“They are doing great things,” Brandie said.