MOORE, Okla.-As Janita Davis opened the door and stepped out of the credit union vault that saved her life and the lives of more than 20 others from the historic tornado that leveled this town, she knew she'd see devastation that would take her breath away.
The terrible shaking, loud rumbling and the sounds of the Tinker FCU branch cracking as it came down around those packed in and huddled in the 16x30-foot space, meant the AVP and branch manager was not surprised to find the Diebold vault in which they had sought refuge was the only thing left standing at the credit union.
All that the group experienced during the 45-minute storm that killed 24 people had everyone in the vault bracing for the worst when they got out. But shortly after they closed the vault door, no one was sure that time would come.
"It was frightening, and that does not describe what we went through," shared Davis, who said it took her and three men to hold the vault door closed. "The storm was pulling, trying to get our door open. We had tied a belt from someone's pants around the door latch, but the belt broke. I don't know what held that door shut. Maybe the grace of God."
Davis did her best to keep calm the 13 employees, along with the members and passersby who were also in the vault.
"I kept assuring everyone we'd be OK. We had a boy crying, employees were crying and praying, and the change in air pressure was unbearable," said Davis. "Take the pressure you feel in your ears and head when you descend in an airplane and multiply that 100 times. It felt like our heads were going to explode."
Eventually, after the storm passed and the group waited a while to make sure it was safe to open the vault, they cracked the door open and tried to push it free. "Something was keeping the door from opening, some debris probably. We could smell the (natural) gas from ruptured gas lines and the gas got into the vault. We did not have a great deal of air to begin with and the gas filled the space quickly. My security officer had radioed 911 to free the door, but I knew we could not wait."
Several people put their backs against the door and shoved it free. "We walked out, and I saw what I expected to see-total devastation. Even though I knew what to expect, it is a sight that will stay with me the rest of my life."
Standing in the middle of Tornado Alley, the Moore office of Tinker FCU was prepared for the twister's onslaught. The team held regular drills and when tornado sirens go off, staff always go into the vault. In addition, Davis had a vault drawer full of supplies-such as blankets, flashlights and water-in case a stay was lengthy.
This time Davis knew, before closing the vault door, that the move would not simply be precautionary. "Once everyone was in the vault my security officer and I went to the back of the credit union, opened the door and we could see the tornado sucking in all the clouds and the air. I knew the situation was dire."
Last week, Davis and one staff member were at Tinker's Midwest City office, 10 minutes from Moore. She said they were counting the money from the vault, assembling safe deposit boxes, and making sure members got the support they need.
"I was glad to hear that we will be rebuilding our office on its same site," said Davis. "The community of Moore means a lot to me, as does the credit union. I am thankful for all that went in to building this vault. I saw it being constructed and I realized it was strong. I know the vault is not designed to be a tornado shelter, and that it may not have been the safest place in the world from the attack of a terrible tornado-but on May 20th, for 22 people, it was."