I was a student at Wichita State University from Michigan. That day was feeling kind of eerie as I left the Research Library around 6pm. I looked up in the skies, noticing the weather was overcast, cloudy skies; but what was strange was how warm it was outside. Usually, when it's overcast, I get a cool air feeling; this time I didn't.
About 5 minutes later, the sirens were blaring across campus. Someone informed me it was a tornado siren. Never seeing a tornado before and being an amateur photographer, I wanted to see my first tornado and capture it on film. As I ran to my dorm, getting my camera (with limited exposures), my map, and into my car; my friend and I turned on the radio listening to the play by play accounts of where the tornado was at, the direction it was heading, and touched down. As we listened to the play by play accounts on the radio, I was for sure wanting to meet it halfway. Instantly, we could see the tornado in the distance, disappearing and quickly reappearing twice in a thin hook-like fashion.
As it reappeared, it never disappeared. Matter of fact, it appeared to grow in size and strength. We stopped our car outside McConnell Air Force Base. I was "awestruck" by what I was seeing for the first time. I remember this guy standing next to me on the walkie-talkie talking to someone as I shot the pics.
As it passed through the Air Force Base, into a field we quickly got into our car driving to head off the tornado, once again.
I think we were driving on I-35, hoping we could catch up with the twister before it crossed over. I guess we were closer than we thought; we had to stop the car as the back part of the tornado crossed the road. All we could see was a massive, very wide dark cloud already crossing in front of us. Once we could see what was in front of us again, we came upon downed utility poles, wires, trees, and debris on the road.
We wanted to chase the tornado even further as the dirt settled, but as I looked to my left, I noticed a large home totally demolished except for the first level. That's when our chasing ended abruptly, when I felt the need to help anyone who might have been in that house. As we drove onto the property, we ascended toward the ripped apart house, calling for anyone to answer. About 10 minutes later, an older woman appeared out of nowhere near the front of the house, clutching a large Bible. As we comforted her, she appeared terribly shaken by what happened. She told us that she had a garage and a barn with some horses, which wasn't there anymore. All you could see was the foundation. More people began to ascend on the property, taking over by comforting the old woman. Meanwhile, as we looked over the property for the possibility of any dead horses or loss of life, I could see 2 horses trotting toward us from a distance. I remember seeing both had been injured with lacerations, one with a chunk of meat removed around the horse’s rib cage. I didn't know how the horse could still be alive.
Later, we drove onward to a subdivision full of homes that were destroyed. People were everywhere comforting and helping one another. It was a good feeling to see people unite after a disaster. We drove back to Wichita that evening, I was a little overcome with emotion as things started to settle in to what actually happened that evening April 26th, 1991. It's something I'll never forget, especially from a guy from Michigan.
- Chris Fiebig
I was a Senior at Oologah during the Spring of 1991, and the tornado destroyed our High School that evening. April 26th was our last day of school because of the tornado, and we had to graduate at Claremore High School.
We had a Regional Baseball game that night in Collinsville. The game ended when the storm was on its way. We won the game. I believe the score was 2-1. We got back to Oologah, changed, and left probably 10 minutes before it hit. The athletic building we were changing in was completely destroyed! I wanted to stay late and get in some extra hitting when we got back that evening, but Coach Fabian said it might get bad so we better get home. He saved my life!
We were supposed to host the regional playoffs the next week, but our field was basically gone. We had to play regionals at Pryor instead of at home. Pryor then beat us to go to state. Still hurts!
I was in the eighth grade the year the tornado hit Oologah. My brother was pitching in a little league tournament here in Oologah at the East Campus fields. My father was the baseball commissioner at the time and coached my brother's team. My mom took me to softball practice that day, and we were on our way back to the East Campus to watch my brother pitch. I will never forget the sky. It was just black. I remember being in the car and just staring out the window up at the sky. When we returned to the baseball tournament, my brother was in the middle of pitching a no hitter. Everyone was in a panic. My father had people from several surrounding towns that were at the tournament with nowhere to go. They called the game and my dad led a large group of people out to the power plant to take shelter in the basement. My mom took us back to our house, and we joined the neighbors in the cellar. We sat down there for what seemed like forever. When we crawled out of the cellar, it was oddly still. It was so dark. No light anywhere. My mom gathered us and put us in the car. We took a drive. I remember men directing traffic with flashlights. That's all I could see was headlights and flashlights. So much was destroyed and damaged. The school was a very sad sight. My mother, who is a teacher, was speechless. We ended up getting out of school in April that year. There was a lot of work to be done. Even then, our town worked together to rebuild. It's never been forgotten. I finished school in Oologah, and now, I'm a teacher here. The tornado revisits my memory everytime we have a tornado drill. It's important that our students are prepared for events like these. It's definitely something our town has never forgotten.
- Jessica Flegal
I am currently an Investigator for the District 12 District Attoney’s Office, but back in 1991, I was a young rookie Deputy in training. I was riding shotgun with another deputy (Jimmy Johnson), who is now retired, and we were headed straight into the storm. We were receiving radio transmissions from dispatch, who was in contact with the late Jim Giles, and they said a large super cell had hit the Skiatook area and was rapidly descending upon the Oologah area. We drove Highway 88 north almost into Oologah until we couldn’t see. We had to pull off the side of the road at the parking lot of the Catfish Kitchen restaurant. As we pulled up, we were facing to the northwest and could see the town’s lights. The lightning was so fast, striking up the sky like a strobe light, that you could see the tornado in strobe light increments. That all happened in minutes. The tornado came within 3/4 of a mile from us while we sat in the patrol car. There was a dump truck roll off dump bed within 80 yards of us in a field, and as the tornado came through it started to shake along with our unit, and then the dump bed disappeared. After the tornado came through, we went and turned onto Highway 169, and I can remember thinking that I was from here and had seen it all my life, but I didn’t recognize a thing. All was completely in disarray. We came upon the Beaties trailer park, which had taken a direct hit, and the deputy dropped me off with State Trooper Kevin Cox, and Trooper Cox and I were the only first responders to the trailer park for the next 30 minutes. We came upon an entire family that had taken a direct hit while they were inside the trailer and the only thing left of the trailer were steel I beams of the under carriage, and the family was lying inside it. It was terrible the things that happened and I was there for the next 28 hours straight. We took turns sleeping inside our units and ate from the canteen from the Red Cross.
- Tommy Dunlap
My first year as a teacher at Oologah-Talala was 1991 – the year of the tornado. The storm ended our school year 5 weeks early. Of course, we were glued to the television and Jim Giles’ radar the night of the storm. My young son and I visited the site the morning after the storm, but because of structural damage, it was not until the following Wednesday that staff were allowed in to begin the recovery process. At that time, it was requested that any who had cameras document what they could of the damage. I have the prints from a single roll of 35mm film I shot with my old Olympus SLR. Some of the shots are from my classroom and others are from the area around campus, including some of damaged school buses.
- Robert Clark
I lived a mile north of the school and just east of the train tracks, which suffered a direct hit that evening. The day was a perfectly nice spring day as I prepared for the State track meet. I would never have predicted that my life would change for the worse that evening. As dusk sat upon Oologah, my mom, brother, baby sister and I were at home watching Jim Giles report on the severe weather out west. We lived in a mobile home but our neighbors across the street told us that if there were to ever be bad weather to come on over and we all could get into their storm shelter. Over the years, storms came and went, but we never took them up on the offer. My mom had the forethought to take them up on their offer that evening. As the storm approached, we decided to go ahead and go across the street "just in case". It must have been around the 7:00 pm hour. Our neighbors welcomed us into their house like family, but they were old school and wanted us to remove our shoes for some reason. We did as requested, which obviously with hind sight being 20-20, was a mistake. As the storm approached and we watched Jim Giles utilize the storm tracker Doppler radar to our amazement and predict the time of the storm would move through Oologah. The lights went out to total darkness in the house. We heard the wind pick up a distant roar that sounded like a typical coal train that ran down the tracks, which was just 50 or so feet behind the house. As the roar became louder, I looked out the back door first to the North then to the South. At that time, the school lit up a bright neon green where I could see the tornado and its enormous size. Having never seen a tornado with my own eyes, I was not sure exactly what it was but knew it wasn't right so I yelled towards my mom at what I saw. The decision was that we didn't have time to make it to the shelter and that we all needed to take cover in the closet. As the tornado approached, it created a sound that was like nothing I had ever heard before and hope I never hear again. The sounds of high winds, bricks crumbling, and the frame of the house snapping like balsa wood came crashing in on us in the closet that we were in. We would have probably been crushed if it wasn't for my mom and I pushing on the walls to keep the small space from falling in on us. This nightmare seemed to last forever. As the storm passed, we pushed ourselves out of the pile of rubble to find that the only thing that was standing in the home was the closet that we were in. I was in disbelief of the condition of my surroundings. Our neighbors were elderly and had emphysema and were in a critical situation due to all the insulation that was in the air. Mom was an EMT for Care Ambulance and told me that I had to get the medical personnel ASAP or we were going to have a serious issue. I made my way out to where the front door used to be where I found those shoes right where I was asked to take them off. They had not blown away with everything else in the area. As I stepped out into the front yard, I could see the huge power lines that were over the house snapping, cracking and popping in the air as they hit the ground. It was a war zone but the sky was clear and calm just like I've always been told that it would be after a storm of this magnitude. As I made my way South towards the school, I could see the emergency vehicles about a mile away and knew I had to get help but took the time to check on my immediate neighbors to make sure they were ok. I was able to make contact with the emergency personnel so they could provide help to the people whom we rode the storm out with. The next day was the real truth when I saw the damage in daylight, and I was in utter disbelief to see nothing remaining of the house that I was in and our mobile home had disappeared. There were cattle in the trees still alive. It was crazy to witness all this destruction. Britt Williams was the first person who came to my house to make sure my family and I were ok then took me in as one of his own for the rest of the spring and that summer. If not for the Little, Caton, and Stewart family, I would not have been able to make it through the next couple years of school. They all treated me like their son, and I formed bonds that time and distance will never break. My family lost everything, but in this time of hardship, I can say that it made me stronger and built the man I am today to overcome adversity and push forward. Jim Giles saved my life that evening and those friends of mine preserved my life over the next couple years. Some will never know the whole story because they would just never understand but there are a few out there that do and we forever will share that bond. I have only scratched the surface of this story but there are many more in this community and communities across this great nation that have dealt with this kind of tragedy which had to deal with a worse situation then what I was presented with. 20 years later I can say that this was a building block in my life that created the sometime strong personality that I have good, bad, or indifferent!
What memories! I was Town Clerk, living in a duplex in the Town of Oologah. That fateful night, the TV kept telling us a huge storm was coming--they missed it by 10 minutes! It went behind my house -- up Four Mile Creek-- toward the school. My neighbor boys, somehow made their way to the school. They came back in the blinding rain, "It hit the school--the roof is gone!". The next morning, my husband was concerned about our friends, the Bussey family. So we started up Highway 169. We were stopped several times by Police, but since I was an elected official, they let us go a little further to Beatties convenience store--Charlie said "You missed the Busseys". All that was left of the Busseys, all brick, 3 bedroom home, was the slab! They had gone (for the very first time ever) to a friends’ storm shelter. All along the creek the trees were stark white, all the bark was stripped off. Huge propane tanks were moved to the highway. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The Town had just completed a total remodel of the Community Center. After an Emergency meeting, the Town opened and kept open the center for three weeks. I helped cook breakfast for 150-300 lost souls, everyday, again for lunch and then dinner. The county provided us with two ladies that were in their custody, to help peel potatoes, etc. Ruby Garrision organized all the clothing that started appearing at our door. Keetonville Grocery came with a crate of eggs and produce. Rainbow Bread started making deliveries to the center, with no charge. The local Union Reps provided a "cool trailer" to store food. We just cooked what we had, local people whose freezers were out, brought meat. Deer hunters brought venison, Claremore stores brought us wonderful fresh produce, that was not up to the standard their shoppers wanted, but still in great shape! Jo Beattie, whose business was lost, had a birthday! Her family brought cake, and we had a big party. Our local hardware store ordered gloves and all kinds of supplies for the army of helpers that descended to help in the clean up. We had to develop a "storm plan" in a hurry, as all receipts, hours of overtime, etc., had to be kept to give FEMA when their team came to "figure up" how much all this cost. One morning as we were cooking breakfast, a man said "Can I have a fried egg?" I couldn't believe it--in the midst of all this confusion, he wanted a fried egg. I said "let us feed these people, come back and I will fry you an egg". He did, and I did--three fried eggs! We also made 150 sandwiches for volunteers, every morning. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army came and stayed. One lady had lost her dentures, and our local dentist, Joe Maltsberger, made her a new set. We took up money to send her to family in Washington State. I still meet people that say "Oh I met you during the tornado". I sometimes have to fake it, as there were so many affected. Three weeks seemed like a lifetime. When we closed the building, the sigh of relief could be heard all over Town. The school was repaired and opened in the Fall; you can't keep a good Mustang down.
- Janet Miller
April 26, 1991, was a night that forever changed the lives of my four family members. My husband Tom, daughter Amber and myself were watching a movie that night and had just finished it up around 9:15 pm. We decided to turn on the TV and caught some weather alerts that said a large thunderstorm was headed our way and had a chance of causing tornadoes and hail. We called our eldest daughter, Alicia, who was at her boyfriend’s house, to come home so we could get the car in the garage for protection against possible hail damage. She came right home, and we had both cars in the safety of our garage. We realized that the storm was causing much damage along its path and was headed to Oologah. We had just moved here the year before from the west coast (Lake Tahoe) and hadn't been involved in this type of storm in a long while. My husband had thought we might could get in the car and try to get out of Oologah but we heard it was headed both North and South of us so we had to stay put. I had heard on an early morning radio talk show a few weeks prior some safety tips for being caught in tornado weather so we started trying to clear out a bedroom closet in the center of our home and got our car keys and my purse in the closet, along with a safety box that had our insurance list of belongings that my husband had insisted we make a few weeks prior to this. Little did we know that in a few weeks it would be what the insurance representative would say was the most thorough list he had seen and was able to settle with us on the spot for our damages. I believe that night was the first night that Jim Giles had got a chance to use the new Doppler system and I credit that with saving our lives that night. Anyway, we had that walk in closet cleared out on the bottom and pulled the cushions off the sofas to cover us. We had a black chow dog, Ninja, that we had to put in the bathroom adjoining us and closed her in. We lived right next to a railroad track which always had trains going by us and the last thing Tom had said before shutting the door to the closet was “IS that a train or is that it?” Unfortunately, it was no train. We were holding on to each other and cold air began to float around us in a circular motion. We then began to hear horrible sounds of glass breaking up and feeling particles of something hitting us all over. The sounds of the wood bending and breaking were so loud that it made me think of a tree in a forest being cut down but creaking back and forth first. It actually lifted Tom up in the air and put him down next to a different daughter than he had originally started out next to. We were all praying, and in a minute’s time, the noise just stopped and the quiet began. We were trying to yell at each other and check on everyone, and we were so crushed under something heavy that we had thought was the roof caved in on us. We decided it was best for us to try and get out. Tom dug a hole in what he thought was the roof to get Amber out and when she saw the house was gone she turned around and tried to get back in. We all were yelling no get out there are supposed to be more coming not really knowing for sure where we were going or what else to do. All four of us climbed out of this little hole and it was total devastation of our house. All the walls were missing except for the closet that had protected us in the middle of the house. A wall of bricks was lying across our bed just three feet from the closet we were in. Our dog, Ninja, was apparently sucked out of the bathroom as it was not there either except for the adjoining wall to the closet. We found her back at our back doorstep three days later with only a quarter size cut on her, but she was scared to death at every storm after that one. The two cars were still in the garage, but it was caved in on them. Some of the windows were broken, and they both had insulation embedded in them that we found for up to a year later. We had pieces of news clippings from the closet above us in the neighbors’ shrubs across the street. Our roof was never located and the only thing that kept us down was the closet that had fallen in on us. It had my family pictures in it and they were saved. A bowl of pennies was found on a coffee table in the center of the living room untouched. Nothing else was left in that room. Amber's fishbowl was left standing in her room untouched also but my husband Tom had knocked it over going back to the house to search for my purse. We lost our home that night and most of all we had worked for but it was a miracle that we all survived with only cuts on us from flying concrete and debris. We were out of a home for about three months, but the community of Oologah was wonderful. A coach's parents volunteered their cabin for us to stay in free of charge. We got help from the Red Cross, Target and Walmart. Friends and family helped us with their monetary donations which humbled us. Every time I see a report on TV or watch a person in one tell of their losses, I feel their loss and pain along with them. Twenty years later, our family still watches the weather channel alerts when bad weather is forecasted.
- Colleen Montgomery and Family
I was judging and my wife secretarying a rodeo in Collinsville when the chief of police came and said there was a tornado in Skiatook and would soon hit Collinsville.
We should get these people out of here as soon as possible. We stopped the rodeo and told the contestants and audience to leave and seek shelter. My wife and I took the horses home and turned them loose in the pasture instead of putting them in the stalls. My son and son-in-law were coming home in his truck and said his truck was nearly turned over from strong wind.
My nephew and niece were on their way home to Talala when they heard the alert. They came to my house because it was close.
We took the mattresses off the beds and put them in the hall to get under them and continued to wait to see what was about to happen.
I was standing at the patio door when all of a sudden the patio door started to bow in and out. The sinks in the house started to gurgle. We got under the mattress and the house started to pop and creak. The house started to shake and thinking it was about to come apart on top of us. This lasted just a matter of seconds and it was over. It was the longest minute of my life. When it was over and things got quiet, we went outside to see what had happened. The west side of the house was bowed in and the foundation blocks were all over the inside of the garage floor. The garage door was halfway torn off the hinges, and some windows were cracked and broken. The storage shed was gone, which was found in the neighbor’s yard on its side. The barn that we kept the horses in the stalls was torn to pieces and scattered. All my animals were all unhurt except one calf that had a scratch on its back that was taken care of with a salve. Everyone in my family was uninjured and safe.
Since then, I have bought an inground storm shelter, and since then, I have not had to use it. I hope and pray I never have to.
At the end of the year because of damage done to the school, we went to my son’s graduation in Claremore, which was one of the most beautiful graduations we have ever seen. And it’s a year we will never forget.
- Jerry Husband
The night of the tornado was the day before my birthday. I was having a birthday party on the 26th and had several of my friends over at my house. We heard that a tornado was headed our way so I picked up my dog and my family and my party headed to my grandma's cellar (which was next door to our home). Some of the neighbors usually came to my grandma's cellar too during tornado watches or warnings. This particular day, we ended up with 16 people and 2 dogs in our cellar! I'm not sure how we fit so many people in there, but I guess you do what you have to do! We were all pretty scared, but tried to lighten things up by telling stories, etc., in the cellar. Once the tornado was no longer threatening our home, we got out of the cellar. We could see the tornado moving towards Oologah in the distance when it would lightning. This was pretty scary! I remember going back into our home, and we could not make calls from our land line phone but we could receive calls. Since we had several people in our home because of the party, their parents were all trying to get through to their children to make sure they were okay.
Two of the people who were at my party lived near in the Foxfire area. When we went to take them home, the town was almost completely black with the exception of lights from ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars. As we got near the Foxfire area, our two friends began to cry as they saw several homes near theirs destroyed. This was an awful sight! Luckily my two friends' homes were okay, but it was very scary time for them as we drove to their homes not knowing if their families were okay.
I had another birthday party the next day, and I found out that one of my close friends had the second story blown off of her home and one of their barns had been destroyed. Although they had a lot to deal with, she still came to my party, and I was really surprised that she was there. It was a very sad time for her, but she was very thankful that they were not home at the time it happened and that her family was safe! I will always remember that day and the following day! I was just talking about it a few weeks ago, and it feels like it just happened recently, not twenty years ago!
On April 25, I was having a baby. My husband's family was staying at our house in Skiatook. On the 26th, I was watching channel 6 [KOTV], and they were saying that Skiatook was in the track of this storm. I called the house to tell them to make sure they were watching channel 6. They were reluctant but did it. But they didn't take it seriously. I waited a while and called and they had turned the channel again. But I told them that this time the storm was crossing the lake, and they needed to take cover. With my husband's family was also my 3 year old daughter. After about 10 minutes, I called again. It was at this time that they said they had taken cover and were now wondering where the flashlights were. The tornado came within about a quarter mile. It blew the front door open and scared the fire out of them. When I made it home from the hospital, they had already cleaned up the house and yard. However, at the end of the block was a different story. Nothing but house slabs!
- Vicki McClure
Luckily, we were not home when the tornado hit.
That evening my husband and I decided to see a movie, since it was a Friday night. We took our 2 year old son to his grandmother’s in Tulsa for the evening while we were at the movie theatre. We had heard nothing before the movie about any tornado watch or warnings. After the movie was over, we heard on the radio in the truck on the way home that a tornado had touched down in Skiatook leveling many homes. We stopped by and picked up our son and headed home. When we got to town, there was emergency response vehicles all headed toward the side of town we lived at. As we got closer, about three blocks away, there was a road block and the police would not let anyone through, not even if you lived there, because of the power lines down. So, we parked our vehicle and started walking through the back way around the policemen. As we got closer to our neighborhood, we could see that there were structures missing from the landscape. As we then got closer to our land, we realized our home was no longer there. I had one of those feelings like you would have when trying to find your car in a parking lot. Like I was unable to find where I left the house, and thinking maybe we were on the wrong street. The only thing still standing in the yard was the fence, and the porch. One of our two vehicles had been taken about 100 yards away and was totaled. Our family members that lived next to us came running out and hugged us telling us that they thought we were in the house, and they had been searching for us. After thinking about that, if we had been home when the tornado hit, we may very well have been taken away with the house. All of my in-laws had taken shelter from the tornado in a neighbor’s home that had an underground cellar.
Unfortunately, what belongings we had that landed on our land then got rained on through the night. I had the hardest time coming to terms with what had happened. I felt like I walked around in a daze for several days after. I still to this day think about all the non-replaceable materials we lost. We had some friends and family show up the next day to help us try to salvage what we could. My mother and father-in-law had some damage to their house. My brother and sister-in-law lost their mobile home completely. The neighbors across the street from us lost their mobile home completely, and we never saw them again because they never came back. The neighbors behind us lost the top level of their home. Incidentally, a tornado had hit that exact same spot seven years earlier. Luckily we had good insurance, and could afford to get an apartment while rebuilding. It was easy to rebuild on the land, because there really wasn’t much to clean up. The land was pretty well stripped. So, with this, we decided to build our new home “in ground.” Not only is it safer, but more efficient.
- Catherine Irving