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.
"It was just kind of a surreal moment. I didn't know if my son was alive — it was the worst moment of my life," Wheeler said.
Stephens, a former school administrator who lives in Westlake Village, Calif., said the biggest challenge for parents who are racing the clock in a disaster is holding emotions in check.
"You're not going to be any good to your child if you take such great risk that you lose your life in the pursuit of attempting to save them when there are others who are onsite who hopefully will also use good judgment," Stephens said.