As the EF-3 tornado ravaged the American Budget Value Inn and the small community of the Skyview trailer park, the residents and guests were caught completely off guard. There was no time to get to a shelter. People simply ducked for cover, and amazingly, most of them survived.
Two, however, did not. And for a few others, their homes are now completely gone. And there are some, officials said, who continue to fight for their lives inside Oklahoma City hospitals.
Even so, light pierced into the darkness thanks to the efforts of heroes. While everyone else in town raced across the streets toward the shelters, the first responders headed directly toward the deadly storm.
Police officers, firefighters, Public Works employees and others disregarded their own safety to help save others from the rubble.
Help came from Oklahoma City, Mustang, Union City, Weatherford, Elk City and elsewhere. They worked tirelessly. El Reno Mayor Matt White called them “heroic and selfless” in the face of a tragedy that took so much from so many.
A few of the victims didn’t know what had hit them until it was over.
“The police knocked on my door and said I needed to evacuate, and I asked them what for, because I didn’t know anything big happened,” said Skyview resident Guy Marion. “I just felt a puff of wind, and the trailer shook a little bit, but I didn't know there had been a tornado.”
Thankfully, the twister left Marion’s residence untouched.
Others weren’t so lucky.
“Our trailer was leaned over,” said Sidonna Jeans. “The walls and the flooring were all messed up. Our trailer had moved, and we couldn’t go out the back door because it had gotten so steep from being moved. If it hadn’t been for the trailer behind us, we would have been completely turned over.”
Reports said some 15 mobile homes were destroyed in the park that holds 88. Gas leaks forced the evacuation of the entire park.
Those staying at the nearby Budget Inn also had to leave, as more than half the building had been torn away, including the second floor. Many people had to literally be dug out of the ruins at both locations.
The two who died were from the Skyview community. They had not been identified as of Monday. Close to 30 others were injured, some critically. All this happened in the span of four minutes.
The fact that many had lost their homes opened up the hearts of many El Reno citizens. The VFW set up a shelter in partnership with the American Red Cross, and dozens of people stayed there overnight. Families and groups from the mobile home park and the motel crowded together as the community lent a helping hand through donations. Food and water was purchased, as were blankets, pillows and clothing. Many of the displaced were children, and dozens of toys were provided to give them a semblance of normalcy. Fire-resistant clothing and steel-toed boots were donated to the many oil field workers who had lost their possessions in the motel’s destruction.
Some of the volunteers were overwhelmed with pride at the efforts of the community.
“The real important thing is the people donating,” said Wes Spencer, a volunteer who had stayed all Saturday night at the VFW. “Since daylight came, the donations have grown more and more. It doesn't matter if someone has a criminal history or is involved with law enforcement — all kinds of people are helping, working together despite their differences. It should be like that every day. I hate that it takes a crisis to bring everyone together.”
“El Reno is a strong, proud community,” said Nancy Salsman, auxiliary president of the VFW. “Even people who used to live in El Reno are donating, and some of them now live in different states. It’s just been amazing.”
“You can feel, hear and see the love,” said Joel Mendez, a pastor at Heaston Church who volunteered to help translate at the VFW. “It’s an outpouring of love from the community.”
The victims of home destruction were visibly shaken, but some of them said they felt extremely blessed to have escaped with their lives.
“We are extremely grateful,” said Fabiola Torres, a woman who spent part of her 27th week of pregnancy inside the VFW shelter. Throughout the night, she felt the pains of dehydration and worried for her developing child. Thankfully, she promptly got the fluids and the care she needed.
Other mothers also received baby formula and mountains of diapers for their young children. Though the kids were emotionally disturbed by the disaster, they were able to take their minds off the stress thanks to toys provided by the community, and some of them spent the morning playing with the volunteers.
“There’s some very compelling stories,” said Cindy Huge, public information official for Red Cross. “I spoke to a family of eight who heard the sirens going off. Their house was shaking, and they were gathered together in the middle. One of the young ladies said that her aunt had dropped to the floor to pray because she was so worried. They were able to get outside as the wind and rain was coming towards them, and they went into their tornado shelter.”
The Red Cross supplied blankets, cots and other materials in addition to several of their volunteers.
The VFW had received so many donations the space was overflowing. At the Shepherd’s House, cars lined up throughout Sunday with people donating to the efforts. By Sunday afternoon, so much had been received, donations were kept to only gloves and cleaning supplies.
Later, the shelter would be moved to Jenks Simmons Fieldhouse. Gov. Kevin Stitt visited there on Monday after touring the storm damage and meeting with local officials.
The devastation didn’t stop with the motel and the trailers. The Frontier Dodge and Chrysler dealership was heavily damaged. No one was inside the building at the time, but the owner and his employees were shocked at what they saw when assessing the damage. Once vertical light poles had been bent sharply at the base, some of them now completely horizontal. Others had the fall to the earth broken by the dealership’s vehicles, many with shattered windows and badly dented bodies. Some appeared to be totally ruined, and the building itself had become unrecognizably bent and warped. One employee said workers will continue their jobs at another Frontier dealership a few hundred yards away.
A home further east on SH 66 had the roof and the porch knocked off.
A man and his son inside the home attempted to leave, but the storm was upon them and forced them to abandon that plan and fall to the floor. Neither was injured.
The El Reno tornado had a maximum width of 75 yards, and it followed a path of 2.2 miles, said the National Weather Service. It touched down on I-40 near Choctaw before going east-northeast over the highway. After decimating the motel, the trailer park and the car dealership, it continued heading east and causing damage on Route 66 before unraveling itself on Alfadale Road. The maximum wind speed was said to be 140 to 145 mph.
Those left to rebuild their lives from the wreckage have a long road ahead of them. Red Cross and other charity groups will continue to accept donations and volunteers, and building owners will be glad for the help of the locals.
According to Mayor White, there’s one other thing that everyone in El Reno can do to contribute. It may be perhaps the most important action of all, for if it is done with a genuine heart, it will inevitably lead to other acts of kindness and sacrifice.
“Pray for the victims and their families. Pray for the first responders. Pray for everyone involved,” he said.