The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

May 17, 2014

Anything but normal: Brick reminder of friend killed in tornado

By Katherine Parker, CNHI News Service

MOORE, Okla. — Xavier Delgado ran into his living room energetically, but his eyes were quiet and intense.

“This is my Nick brick,” he said as he turned it over in his hand.

A brightly painted object, this brick is a piece of what use to be Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Xavier said. It is a reminder of his friend Nicholas McCabe, who died a year ago in the May 20, 2013, tornado.

Athena and Simon Delgado and their children Xavier, 10; Haley, 9; Adrian, 12; and Marissa, 16, survived the May 20 tornado that caused mass destruction in Moore. Athena, Simon and Adrian took shelter in a closet; Marissa was with her high school classmates; and Haley and Xavier were pulled from the rubble of Plaza Towers.

Throughout the chaos that erupted in the wake of the storm’s path, the Delgado family was separated and unable to reunite until the wee hours of the morning of the next day. Athena Delgado said her family hadn’t thought much about the weather the day of the tornado. Her family was busy — sending kids to school, going to work and taking another kid to a doctor’s appointment and moving into a new house.

It was supposed to be just another normal Monday. Xavier and Haley, at the time in third and second grades respectively, attended Plaza Towers Elementary School. Marissa attended Southmoore High School. Athena and Simon took Adrian, who was in sixth grade at Plaza Towers, to a doctor’s appointment at Moore Medical Center after lunch. The Delgados were unaware of the severity of the storm until they walked out of the hospital and it was upon them.

“We walk out of the doctor’s appointment and it was hailing,” Athena said, “and then the siren went off when we were still standing in the parking lot.”

Athena said she thought Xavier and Haley would be safer at school, so Simon, Adrian and herself headed to the new house they were moving into in the Briarwood area to take shelter. They got in a closet with their dogs, pillows and a football helmet. Simon stood outside for awhile and took pictures until he saw the tornado taking shape. Simon said when he joined his family in the closet, he wrapped his arms around them and said, “don’t let go.”

The Delgados said the wind was so loud it sounded like the house was being torn apart. Simon said the tornado seemed to go in slow motion, lasting forever. While Athena said it happened so fast for her, she couldn’t be sure how long they actually were in their closet. When the tornado did finally stop, Simon said the extreme nature of the storm became real as they looked at all the devastation.

Simon said he heard a woman and her grandson screaming down the street, and Adrian and he helped them get out of their house.

“Then the sirens went off again. We went back to what was our house and we couldn’t see anything past 149th. The neighborhood was gone,” Simon said.

Athena, Simon and Adrian drove their truck, which still was intact, toward Plaza Towers. When they couldn’t drive anymore and saw that Plaza Towers neighborhood was gone, they began to run all the way to the elementary school.

“Our old house was at the corner of Pennsylvania. We could only recognize a tree. He (Simon) said to me ‘That’s our house,’ I didn’t believe him at first,” Athena said.

The Delgados’ home near Plaza Towers was destroyed by the tornado.

When the family finally reached the elementary school, they told people they were looking for their children and someone pointed to a pile of shrapnel and rubble. Athena said shock came over her, and then she found Haley. Simon said he immediately began digging in the rubble, panicked and scared but determined to find Xavier.

Christopher Legg, a third-grader who died at Plaza Towers, was not far from where Xavier found himself when the tornado’s madness stopped.

“The first thing I saw was Christopher under a wall. And he was laying flat, not moving,” Xavier said.

Xavier said it’s hard for him to remember exactly what happened during and after the tornado, but that he does remember hearing voices.

“I could hear people, and that made me feel better, knowing that I wasn’t alone,” he said. “Hadyn and I shared a backpack to protect our heads. They had to cut it off him to get us apart ... I crawled some of the way. People pulled me out, but I didn’t know what was going on,” Xavier said.

Xavier was being pulled from the pile of concrete that laid on top of his classmates and teachers when Simon said he saw him.

“I heard him say, ‘Daddy’,” Simon said. “Relief came over me but I could tell he was injured. He had a huge gash on his back. I immediately went to go find a medic. I knew we needed to find a board and when I finally saw a medic with a board, I just grabbed it.”

Simon and Adrian carried Xavier on the board around what used to be the school toward an ambulance. Xavier was put in an ambulance with Karen Marinelli, a Plaza Towers teacher whose tailbone was shattered as she used her body to protect her students, and a little girl.

“They brought a little girl to the ambulance. She was covered in so much blood that I didn’t know her, but then I recognized her voice. I knew it was Kourtney Brown, one of our neighbors of our house near Plaza Towers. She was very loopy and out of it. We just tried to keep Mrs. Marinelli and Kourtney talking,” Simon said.

Xavier would need seven internal and seven external stitches to close the gash on his back.

The rest of the day was a blur of reuniting with other family members; collecting their dogs from where the family had to leave their truck on the way to Plaza Towers, being checked by doctors and staying with family in Del City that evening.

“Our oldest (Marissa at Southmoore) didn’t know until 6 at night if we were alive,” Athena said.

Since the tornado, the Delgados have relied on family and friends to help get back on their feet. The family said they also benefited from the Hope Station that was in Moore after the tornado and provided different activities that connected volunteers, survivors and hope-raisers.

Today, the family still struggles with various emotions like anger, happiness, guilt and fear.

“Afterward, I broke down at work. I had to deal with guilt that I had left the kids at school, that my kids are still alive,” Athena said.

Athena said Haley couldn’t sleep in her own bed and wore gun range-type headphones because loud noises and storms scared her. Haley said she is much better and can sleep in her own bed now. Athena affirmed Haley’s statement, saying the family had come a long way and grown really close.

The family said they started going to church at Elevation and have made many new friends who also survived the storm.

The family also said they have had opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t since the storm, and that Xavier was given the chance to drive a tractor and to fly a plane. The Delgados then pointed to a painting the entire family collaborated on at the Hope Station, and said it reflects their journey since the storm.

“It’s hard not to see how God played a role in every detail that day,” Athena said. “Both of my kids were OK, even though they were at Plaza Towers, and we weren’t supposed to move until June, but we moved early. We are really thankful.”

Parker writes for the Norman Transcript.