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A Tornado Tale, Part 2: An Interminable 15 Minutes, Then Silence

The Komahs, their grandchildren and two neighbors huddled in the underground shelter as the EF-5 tornado, packing winds of 200 miles per hour or more, raged overhead. Although the door to the shelter was bolted shut, only two of the three deadbolts were holding fast. Richard clutched the heaving door as the winds yanked on it; Maxine hung onto his belt. “Please Lord, just let it go over,” they prayed.

They stayed this way for an interminable 15 minutes, Richard and Maxine estimated. Then a silence descended, as deafening as the noise had been, and they became acutely aware of their overwhelming need for fresh air. It was time for Richard to open the door.

"I undid the two bolts, and I pushed," Richard said. "I said, 'Uh-oh. I can't get it. Let me try my back.' I started [pushing] with my back, and it started to move a little bit. I knew debris was on top, because I [had] heard it hit the cellar door, but I didn't know how much."

He and Maxine pushed together, wedging it open with Maxine's pie pan and letting in some much-needed oxygen. Richard spotted a two-by-four outside and used it to further pry open the door. Only then did he get a glimpse of what had been their home.

"I looked up, and I said, 'Our house is completely gone,' " Richard said.

The air was heavy with the stench of gas and the odor of home insulation. Flames engulfed a house to the east, and the Komahs could hear first responders arriving on the scene. They saw another cloud building and, erring on the side of caution, dove back inside.

Emerging from the shelter a second time, Maxine glanced down and noticed Richard's bolo tie, which had been in their closet, lying on the ground. Richard heard a neighbor crying for help and joined others digging the person out of the rubble. A 7-11 and a Walgreen's could be seen in the distance, a view that had been obscured by homes only an hour before. As if in a Salvador Dali painting, cars were wrapped around trees. A huge metal tub sat in the neighbor's yard. Richard and Maxine's cars were still in place where their garage had been standing, but both vehicles were clearly totaled.

Photo courtesy of Maxine Komah

The cars of both Richard and Maxine Komah were totaled in the May 20, 2013 tornado that leveled their home in Moore, Oklahoma.

Maxine had to walk more than a mile to get cell-phone reception, then walked a few more miles to a relative's house. Interstate-35 was so crowded that their daughter, who lives just south of them in Norman, had to park two miles south of what had been Richard and Maxine's home and walk the rest of the way.

At a relative's home, they waited for their niece from Anadarko, more than an hour away, to come and drive them to Maxine's father’s former home in Stecker, near Anadarko. They arrived at 2 a.m.

The very next day, Richard and Maxine were back at their home site, combing through what remained. They found a few items, but pieces of their most precious possessions—their dance regalia—were missing.

"I was just wanting my eagle fans," said Maxine. "I had them in a little cedar box under my bed. I found it all crushed up, but the fans were gone."

The eagle fans, they said, had been given to them by Maxine's father, Mac Whitehorse, the long-time bustle keeper for O-Ho-Mah Lodge, the war dance society of the Kiowa Tribe. Whitehorse passed away last year at age 94.

One item they lost turned up a week later—the American flag from Richard's father's burial. Before the tornado, the flag had been in a plastic case. When it was turned in to the Oklahoma City Police Department, the flag was in need of a cleaning, but the tag with Richard's father's name, Kenneth Komah, still sat on top. The Comanche Indian Veterans Association is restoring the flag. 

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