News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 19, 2012

VIDEO: Tales of survival from Woodward's deadly tornado


CNHI News Service

WOODWARD, Okla. — Bill Stanley was sound asleep shortly after midnight Sunday when he suddenly found himself trapped in bed by a demolished roof from a thundering tornado.

"I woke up with loose insulation on my face, and rain falling on me," said Stanley. "At first I thought it was just a surreal dream."

It wasn't and Stanley lived to tell about the real-life twister that killed six, injured two-dozen and destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses in this rural Oklahoma town.

Stanley's was one of several tales of survival that emerged from the twister that struck at 12:18 a.m. Sunday with only three minutes warning from the town's siren warning system.

None was more compelling than the story of Wilma Lake Nelson, 87, who also survived a 1947 tornado that killed 116 people here and ranks as the deadliest in Oklahoma history.

Nelson, a live-alone widow, said she heard about Sunday's tornado on the weather radio next to her bed, and hunkered down in a small closet in her bedroom.

"I had just got the door shut when I heard it," she told Oklahoma City News 9 TV station. "It sounded like an explosion. I guess that's when my roof went off."

She said a piece of sheet rock from the closet's ceiling hit her on the head, causing her to start "shaking like a leaf" before discovering she was okay. Her home, however, was destroyed.

Sixty-five years earlier, Nelson, then 23 years old, survived the town's historic tornado by hiding beneath a dining room table. That twister also demolished her then home.

"It is a miracle she's alive," said Robin Gregory, Nelson's daughter. "Thank God for that."

Nelson, who described herself as a "tough old coot," said she had no worldly explanation for surviving two deadly tornadoes 65 years apart.

"The Lord must have left me here for a purpose," she told the New York Times.

Stanley, who had gone to bed a half-hour before the tornado struck, said he couldn't believe he made it out of his home alive.

He said neighbors rushed to his rescue, lifting the roof debris from his bed and allowing him to get out safely. He said his dog "Reese," who was sleeping beside him, also survived.

Gena Lawson had no notion of how she and four family members survived by crowding together in the bathroom of her parents' home.

She said the tornado moved the bathrrom 15 feet from its original location, but everyone inside emerged in good shape. She said her father was outside the house at the time and wasn't so lucky, suffering brain injuries and the loss of an ear.

"I'm trying to find my mother's wedding picture," said Lawson. "She's had that picture on her bedside table since 1968 and that's all she wants right now."

Emily Neagle, a techer, said she and her family had fallen asleep in their living room after a busy day, but awoke to the sound of high winds. A TV report from a storm spotter that the tornado was 25 minutes away caused the family to get out of the house.

"I told my husand to grab the girls and we left," said Neagle, leaving so quickly she didn't have time to grab her purse.

But, she added, firefighters clearing the debris from the family's demolished home found the purse and returned it to her.

Even better, she said, "my daughter's little dog was found safe."

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Details for this story were provided by the Woodward, Okla., News.