Tornado cuts 12 mile path of destruction
The path of the April 26, 1991 tornado’s destruction was plotted on this Rogers County landowners map by Dale Long and Bob Clark from reports from tornado victims and personal inspection. The bright red area is the area of heavy damage, and the pink area is the secondary damage.
Memories still strong 20 years after tornado
By FAITH WYLIE, Leader Writer
When an F-4 tornado ripped a 12-mile gash through Northwest Rogers County on April 26, 1991 it also ripped its way into the hearts and minds of those who lived through it.
The storm ended the school year for about 1,200 students and caused over $60 million in damage. It destroyed or damaged a hundred homes, the Oologah-Talala School campus, Beattie’s Texaco and the Oologah Church of Christ.
Miraculously, no one was killed. The storm injured 28 people.
Jason Hughes was the most seriously injured. He was hospitalized for five weeks, with more than a quarter million dollars in medical bills. He had two additional surgeries to reconstruct his face.
The power had gone out at the Hughes’ double-wide mobile southwest of Oologah. The power came back on, showing a flash of weather radar just as the tornado struck.
“The ceiling in the kitchen was falling in,” Trudi Hughes recalled in a 1992 interview. “The next thing I knew, I’m waking up in the back yard with rain in my face and I can’t breathe.”
Her son Jeremy was nearby and seemed okay. But her husband Jason was on his hands and knees rocking back and forth.
“I knew he was hurt. I knew he was hurt bad. So it was either get him to the hospital or you’re going to lose him,” said Trudi.
She somehow managed to drive Jason to Claremore Regional Hospital. He was then transported by ambulance to Tulsa. All of Jason’s ribs were broken. Both lungs were punctured and collapsed. The bones in his face were crushed.
“The bones don’t grow back quite the same,” Jason said. “But I’ve learned to live with it.”
Their teenage son, Larry Hughes, was the center for the Mustang football team and a junior in high school. While his mom stayed at the ICU with his father, he took charge of cleaning up their home site and applying for Red Cross assistance. He got a job on the school reconstruction project to support the family.
The Norman family also suffered injuries. Gene Norman lost his ear when he was blown out of the kitchen. Sherry Norman said their three-year-old son was in traction for three weeks and in a body cast for eight weeks.
“He’s come out of it just perfect,” she said a year later.
A local disaster fund distributed $80,000 to storm victims to provide immediate cash for pressing needs.
“It gave me gas money to drive to the hospital,” Trudi Hughes said.
Donors also gave three mobile homes and 11 automobiles for storm victims.
Here are the stories from those who lived through the storm.
I was a senior at Oologah. April 26 was our last day of school because of the tornado, and we had to graduate at Claremore High School.
We won the Regional Baseball game that night in Collinsville. 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 Faubian 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. 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 and coached my brother’s team.My mom took me to softball practice, and we were on our way back to the East Campus. 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.People from several surrounding towns 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.
We took a drive. I remember men directing traffic with flashlights. That’s all I could see, 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.
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 every time 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.
I am an Investigator for the District 12 District Attorney’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 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, we turned onto Highway 169, and I 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 Beattie’s and the nearby trailer park, which had taken a direct hit, and the deputy dropped me off with State Trooper Kevin Cox. 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. The only thing left were steel I beams of the undercarriage, and the family was lying inside it.
I was there for the next 28 hours straight. We took turns sleeping inside our units and ate from the Red Cross canteen.
My husband, Bill, was watching Jim Giles who talking about the storms while I was getting ready for bed. Bill came in and told me he thought I should put on some clothes. So I dressed and put on my tennis shoes.
Bill said he was going to go out and see what it looked like outside. That’s when I told him I had the closet at the back of the house near the bathroom ready in case we need to get in it.
He quickly came running back in and said, “Mom, I can’t see a thing but its right here on us.”
We hit that closet fast. I was sitting on the floor and he was standing up. I tried to get him to sit, but he wanted to stand.
Right in the middle of the storm I grabbed his britches and I could feel him going up. I looked up as the roof went off and the walls were coming in. I told him you are not leaving me in this mess,” and I hung on tighter to his pants. Bill said his head was about to blow up with the pressure.
We were left in the closet, Thank God.
When it was over it we found a board through the door of the closet and the biggest mess I ever saw. I thought I would choke to death with all of the insulation that had fallen down around us.
It didn’t rain much but was just enough to make the boards slick and they had nails sticking up.
We walked out without a scratch, we were doing a lot of high power praying in there, but we knew who was with us. We looked around and nothing was left, it was a weird feeling.
My first year as a teacher at Oologah-Talala was 1991.
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.
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 shots are from my classroom and others are from the area around campus, including some of damaged school buses.
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 set 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 to come over and get into their storm shelter during bad weather.
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 across the street “just in case.” Our neighbors welcomed us into their house like family, but they were old school and wanted us to remove our shoes. We did, which with hind sight, was a mistake.
As the storm approached we watched Jim Giles utilize the storm tracker Doppler radar and predict the time of the storm would move through Oologah.
The lights went out. We heard the wind pick up a distant roar that sounded like a typical coal train that ran down the tracks, which were 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 so I yelled towards my mom at what I saw.
We didn’t have time to make it to the shelter, so we all took 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. 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. Our neighbors were elderly, had emphysema and were in a critical situation due to all the insulation in the air.
Mom was an EMT for CARE Ambulance and told me that I had to get the medical personnel ASAP. 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. I knew had to get help but took time to check on my immediate neighbors to make sure they were okay.
I was able to contact the emergency personnel so they could help the people whom we rode the storm out with.
The next day was the real truth when I saw the damage in daylight. 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 families, 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.
I have only scratched the surface of this story, but there are many more in this community and across this great nation who have dealt with this kind of tragedy in 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!