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Survivors’ Stories After the Tornadoes

May 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
Residents of Oklahoma and Kansas are returning to the places where they once had homes. Betty Ann Bowser follows two households as they pick through the damage and try to reconstruct their lives.

TRANSCRIPT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At 80 years of age, Genny McLane went home yesterday to start over. She and her husband, Bob, have been married for 57 years.

GENNY McLANE: Well, let’s go in and see what we got left. Not very much of anything. But we’ve got to look for what we can find.

BOB McLANE: Okay.

GENNY McLANE:I can get through here. Just leave me be.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two days before the killer tornadoes hit, the McLanes had just spent $2,100 redecorating what was once their three- bedroom home in Del City, a few miles southeast of Oklahoma City.

GENNY McLANE: Had my drapes all cleaned, and just got them hung up, and we was raring back in our chairs. And we looked on the TV and that storm was coming.

BOB McLANE: We followed it all the way up here.

GENNY McLANE: No wonder we had mortar. Our fireplace is still — we had a corner fireplace there. We had so much sand in our hair and down my skin.

BOB McLANE: Yeah, and glass.

GENNY McLANE: Oh, our refrigerator’s still there in the garage.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The McLanes had help. Joe and Linda Zalanowski are Good Samaritans who found the couple four nights ago, dazed, sitting in a shelter the elderly couple had walked nearly a half a mile to get to.

LINDA ZALANOWSKI: I walked in and they were sitting there. Something drew me to these two people. I walked over to them. I was terrified. I didn’t know — you know, I didn’t want them to think I was, you know, trying to hurt them in any way because they looked terrified. They were covered with soot and dirt and insulation. They were just a mess. And they had nothing but this purse she was holding onto, and they were holding each other. And I walked up to Jenny and I said, “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not here to take any of your money, but will you come home with me?” And I didn’t know what else to say to them.

GENNY McLANE: I remember I said, “I can’t go home with you. I’m too dirty to go to your house. ” And she said, “oh, no, you’re not.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So just before midnight on Monday evening, a few hours after the monster tornadoes killed at least 41 people and injured more than 600 others the Zalanowskis took two total strangers home with them.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: This tornado came within four or five blocks of us and you sit there and say, “why them and not us?” And then you feel for people. We’re in Oklahoma, that’s the way we do things. So we just need today do something; you just can’t sit here knowing people are put out and not do anything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Zalanowkskis have taken the McLanes to the doctor, they’ve made certain the insurance man was notified, they’ve fed them, and yesterday with Bob McLane wearing Joe’s clothing, they helped the elderly couple pick through what was left of the 31 years they’ve spent here.

BOB McLANE: There it is. Wonderful. Thank you, Joe.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: You got a lot of clothes that are still good, but we’re going to have to come up with a system.

BOB McLANE: Well, the first thing I want to do is give you your own back that you gave to me when I first got to your house. I’ll give them back to you, then.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There was so little left that whatever they found seemed significant.

BOB McLANE: Well, let me see here, see what I got here. There’s my checkbook.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: Great.

BOB McLANE: There’s my checks right there. I was worried about them. See there?

JOE ZALANOWSKI: Well, what we’ll do is we’ll bring a box in and just dump everything in a box and then go through it when we get back.

BOB McLANE: Here’s my estimated income tax for the year.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: There you go.

BOB McLANE: That I send in every four months.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: All your papers.

BOB McLANE: Yeah, these are some papers, special.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: See, we’re going to get a lot of the personal stuff I think, and that’s the important stuff.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What was most important to Genny was this 50th wedding anniversary portrait. She could hardly believe it was still hanging on what was left of the living room wall.

LINDA ZALANOWSKI: This is all Gen wants. This is what I’m getting for her, okay?

JOE ZALANOWSKI: Not a scratch.

GENNY McLANE: Isn’t that funny? It had mud on it the other day.

JOE ZALANOWSKI: Oh, boy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All over the neighborhood, people told stories of survival. Most of them rode out the tornado in their homes and were amazed they were still alive. Rachel Smith hovered in a closet as the 318-mile-an-hour winds collapsed the walls of her house around her.

RACHEL SMITH: My camera. Oh, my God.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Her five children helped her look through the debris. Are you all surprised she is alive?

CHILDREN: Yeah, very. We all know why she’s alive.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And as the McLanes picked through the destruction of 4016 Angela Drive, Bob remembered the horror of Monday night.

BOB McLANE: Yes, right here, laying down. And she was right over there on the other side of that door. We just laid down and covered ourselves with these blankets, let it shake, rattle and roll. We’re just fortunate to be alive. I’ll never forget the terrific sound of the — of about three freight trains coming over at that time. It was unbelievable — unbelievable. And I just knew the next minute, with all this heavy thundering going on around us and the heavy noise, that maybe, just maybe it would be our last go-around.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of those who did die lived in nearby Moore, Oklahoma, today a virtual wasteland. Residents made one last stab at finding anything they could salvage before the bulldozers come in to clear the land.

NITA KINMAN: We still have a lot to be thankful for. That’s what matters. You know, I’ve got my own little baby girl right here. That’s all that matters. We wanted to come say good-bye to you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nita Kinman said good-bye to her neighbors. Some of them said they were leaving for good. But Kinman is staying.

NITA KINMAN: We’re going to pick up and rebuild. Life’s going on. We’ll be happy here once again. We’ve lived here for 20 years, and we’ll live here for 20 more. And God’s going to continue to take care of us.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The good-byes are being said at a time when there is still much anxiety.

NITA KINMAN: It’s just so hard because we don’t know where everybody is. You know, I don’t know how to get ahold of Bob and Sue, and I didn’t know how to get a hold of you guys.

WOMAN: I know.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only is there worry about the missing, estimates on the damage are still incomplete, but it could go as high as $1 billion.