Mother, Daughter Say Faith Helped Them Through The Devastating May 3, 1999 Tornado
DEL CITY, Oklahoma - Among the countless Oklahomans who will never forget the events of May 3, 1999 - 20 years ago Friday - are Carolyn Stager and Christi Duren, a mother and daughter who rode out the storm in Stager's Del City home and narrowly survived.
The two recently paid a visit to the street where the home stood, just west of Tinker Air Force Base.
"It's so weird for us to be here, having this memory," Duren said to her mother, while surveying the neighborhood.
To be sure, the memory they share is not pleasant.
"I mean, it was an ordinary May spring day," Stager remarked, "until a monster was released."
The 'monster' was tornado A9, the ninth funnel dropped by the supercell that made up, what the National Weather Service has since labeled, Storm A. The tornado first touched down just southwest of Amber, in Grady County, and was churning to the northeast, mostly at F4 and F5 strength, leaving total devastation in its wake.
The giant funnel was on a path that would have taken it south of Stager's home, but at roughly the Oklahoma County-Cleveland County line, it turned almost due north and took dead aim at the east side of Del City.
"So, we took shelter in the closet underneath the stairwell," Stager said.
They turned up the TV, so they could know when the storm had passed, and began to pray.
"And of course, the first thing that happened, as soon as we got the door shut," Stager recalled, "was the TV exploded, and then you just immediately -- and I'm getting goosebumps -- but immediately you felt the windows being sucked out."
Duren has a similar recollection: "All the glass in the house exploded -- like the TV's, every piece of glass, all the windows," Duren said, "everything just imploded."
Duren also remembers another way the tornado seemed to announce that it was near: "It almost sounded like cars getting thrown up against the house--like big bangs."
The noise, they say, was deafening. And then the tornado hit the house.
"You could hear it literally ripping the walls," Duren explained. "There would have been an exterior wall, so you could literally hear it ripping the house apart prior to it getting to the closet where we were."
For both women, the moments that followed are a blur of pained recollections, snatched from bits of consciousness as they slipped in and out of blackness.
Stager remembers thinking her life was slipping away.
"I mean, at one point, I really thought I was going to die," Stager admitted, "because I felt like something was rolling over me."
"I was just getting beat and thrown and beat and thrown," a tearful Duren managed, "and I just remember at one point saying, 'I love you, Lord, I'll see you in a minute'...I really felt I was dying, and that I wasn't going to make it."
In the wreckage left behind, the two women found each other, although Duren wasn't sure at first that it was her mother.
"I just remember, I looked over," Duren remembered, "and I think I was just in such shock that what appeared, I thought, was...a mannequin, from like a store, laying there."
"You know, like those dressmaker dummies," Stager followed, "and then she saw the blood seeping down my face and realized that it was her mother."
Stager's scalp had somehow been sliced and peeled back. She would learn later that she also had a broken pelvis. Duren suffered head lacerations, severe injury to her right calf muscle, and shrapnel -- glass fragments and wood chips -- lodged up and down her back side.
"We both laid out there and told each other goodbye," Duren stammered, "just in case one of us didn't make it and we never saw each other again."
They both survived.
And, for a time, Duren's unborn child -- yes, she was pregnant -- also held on.
"When I was in the hospital," Duren said, "I kept saying, 'Okay, Lord, you let me live because You know I had to be Abby's mom.'"
The thought of surviving May 3rd and giving birth to her first child -- Stager's first grandchild -- helped motivate Duren in her recovery. But, at just about the time she became strong enough to go through delivery, Abby passed away.
The pain was overwhelming.
"You know, you have hope because we're gonna look forward to this baby," Stager allowed, "and then, yeah, to lose little Abby was pretty devastating."
But Duren saw God's hand in her child's death: Abby had survived long enough to ensure that her mother got healthy.
"She was an angel sent for me," Duren cried.
Duren became a mother two years later and now has two children.
Both she and her mother give credit to their faith for bringing them through it all, and say May 3rd, 1999 gave them a new outlook on life.
"I have literally felt like every day for the last twenty years," Duren stated, "has been nothing but an extra bonus and a blessing."
"I think having a strong faith, strength and perseverance," Stager said, "is the only way you can get through something like this."