Following the May 20 tornado last year, there was a lot of finger pointing. There were families who blamed the city, the police, the medical examiner for lack of information or being insensitive. After watching my story on the parents of the children killed inside Plaza Towers elementary, one organization is speaking out and taking some responsibility.
"It just opened my eyes," said Oklahoma City Police Chaplain Bobby Altstatt. "I really feel like we dropped the ball. We could have done better."
After the tornado hit, parents searching for their children, searching for answers found themselves inside a nearby church.
"They started setting up flood lights inside the church fellowship hall," Altstatt recalled from that day. He said the hours that followed were full of misinformation and questionable decision making.
Altstatt added, "They brought in bunches of latex gloves and I said, 'what are we doing?' They said, 'well we're going to bring all 50 of those kids over here and lay them on the table and put tablecloths over and you, chaplains, are going to grab the family members and run them by there and start raising them.' And I'm thinking, no, no. No, we're not doing that. That is not the way you make a death notification."
He and Chaplain Greg Giltner voiced concern and were relieved to know the Medical Examiner put a stop to that. They also later learned there weren't 50 kids who had died but seven at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
The chaplains tell me they were out of the loop on how notifications were supposed to be made, adding to their frustration. Parents of the Plaza Towers seven were frustrated too. I talked with them a few weeks ago, and all of the parents said they didn't find out until the next day their child had died. Some by getting what they say was a very cold phone call from the Medical Examiner's Office.
"No one was with us as they told us on the phone," Danni Legg said.
"We didn't get a phone call," said Brandie Candelaria. "My mother got the call while we were filling out Tonie's information. We were getting ready to start canvassing the area with pictures with information, and she got the phone call from the Medical Examiner's Office that the body was ready, where did we want to sent it?"
Giltner said, "This is not a fault or blame deal, Amanda, as much as it is we don't want it to happen again."
The next time a disaster happens, they have a plan.
"We're going to have a chaplain corp already set up at the command post," said Giltner. "That's where we'll have access to hospital chaplains and hospice chaplains."
He said that way, no matter where a death notification needs to happen, there will be a chaplain nearby. They'll also give their numbers to the Medical Examiner's Office so that once identification is made, they can be the ones to gently talk to the families in person.
To the parents whose children died in Plaza Towers and to any other families who found out their loved one had died in the tornado, a message:
"Tell them I'm sorry," said Altstatt. "We're going to do better next time."
"We're not pointing the finger at anybody, saying they did anything wrong," said Giltner. "We just want to make sure the things that happen this time. We want to do a better job."
The Medical Examiner previously told us they were under the impression notifications had already been made when they called the families. The City of Moore recently announced they were working on improving communication between decision makers and first responders.