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Oklahoma tornado choice: Trust school building integrity or retrieve kids?

After the Moore Public School District in Oklahoma let parents know via text alert their kids were being held inside the school building, parents had to make a quick choice: Trust that the buildings would stand or race to pick them up before the tornado hit. 

By StaffAssociated Press / May 22, 2013

In this image made from video, Amy Sharp, right, hugs daughter Jenna Dunn, 10, a day after she picked up her children from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., which was leveled by a tornado packing winds of up to 200 mph. on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla.

AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda

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Moore, Okla.

With an ominous storm approaching, the Moore Public School District flashed a text alert to parents: "We are currently holding all students until the current storm danger is over. Students are being released to parents only at this time."

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Parents had a gut-wrenching choice, and only a few minutes to make it. Trust the safety of the seemingly solid school buildings and the protection of trained teachers and staff. Or drive frantically ahead of a massive tornado and attempt to take their children safely home.

"Something clicked in my head and said that my children would be afraid and they would be safer with me," said Amy Sharp, who jumped in her pickup, peeled off through pounding rain and hail, and pulled her 10- and 12-year-old daughters out Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Sharp survived with her children. But seven of the many remaining students died when the twister ripped down the school's roof and walls.

Exactly how do desperate parents like those in the path of the powerful Oklahoma tornado know when it's best to leave their children in a presumably safe place or race into the face of danger?

"You have that parent-child draw. That protective factor, where they want to go at any cost, no matter what. The options aren't very good in a tornado if you're thinking about going to rescue your children," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center that provides training to schools around the country.

"Which way is the wind going to twist? What's it going to pick up? What won't it pick up? Until someone becomes all-powerful, all-knowing and all-perceiving, it is tough to expect 100 percent perfection from schools and parents," he said.

The Oklahoma tornado provides a good example of the unpredictable death toll that disasters can inflict. Before it flattened Plaza Towers Elementary, the tornado also tore through Briarwood Elementary and — though the roof collapsed — everyone at Briarwood appears to have survived. Both schools lacked tornado safe rooms, and at both, students initially were sent to the halls before some teachers squeezed them into seemingly safer places such as closets and bathrooms.

David Wheeler would have liked to race to have rescued his 8-year-old son, Gabriel, before the tornado reached Briarwood. But Wheeler had to remain at a separate school where he worked. So he waited until the tornado cleared, then sped down the highway as far as he could and fibbed about being a first-responder so he could hitch a ride with a sheriff's deputy headed into the disaster zone. Once he got there, he slogged through broken glass and raw sewage to try to get to the school.

Wheeler ended up more injured than his son, who climbed from the rubble with scrapes and bruises after being sheltered by a teacher. Wheeler, meanwhile, had a large red rash on his legs — he thinks from the sewage — and multiple cuts and scrapes that required him to get a tetanus shot Tuesday.

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