Two Tornadoes 14 Years Apart, and a Man Who Saw Them Both

Oklahoma native Dustin Ellison has twice sifted through the wreckage of the same 7-11.
Clouds over neighborhoods damaged in a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, May 23, 2013 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

MOORE, OK -- The massive tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburbs 14 years ago is known in that state simply as "May 3," with no mention of the year, as if no other May 3 but the one in 1999 matters.

On a sunny Wednesday, two days after this year's devastating May tornado hit the same area, taking a very similar route, Dustin Ellison, 33, an oil field worker from the area, vividly recalled that earlier May 3 tornado and the destruction it wreaked -- 36 killed in state, more than $1 billion in property damage.

He'd been in high school at the time, living at his parents' home in nearby Norman. Not long after that storm passed, his father -- a local real estate developer -- grabbed him and his younger sister and they drove to the corner of SW 4th and Telephone Streets, where a 7-11 his dad had built had stood only hours before.

"It was leveled," Ellison recalled. "Gone. I remember seeing wooden fence posts driven into the brick and mortar of the 7-11 and the Wallgreen's across the street. Embedded wood into brick. There was just nothin' left. Nothin'."

The Ellisons spent hours handing out any surviving contents of the store's shelves to locals in need: food, milk, water, pet food. Whatever was left.

As fate would have it, Dustin Ellison was driving his pickup truck not far from that same 7-11, since rebuilt, on Monday, May 20, 2013, when the latest EF-5 tornado struck the same area. He was returning home from work, "listening on the radio and driving down the interstate" - I-35. "They made it very clear it was taking the exact same path and it was bad."

Oklahomans, especially those who reside in Tornado Alley, have a degree of expertise in these matters. "Any time you have a storm like that around here, one that size, when they set down they don't set down and lift quickly. They stay. As this one did for 17 miles."

Ellison thought the tornado was on its way north, but it ended up veering west. He pulled over on the shoulder of I-35 and watched it cross the highway. Then he took the very next exit "because I just knew people needed help." 

As fate would have it, that was the same exit leading to SW 4th Street. He parked right in front of the medical center and heard screams from across the street - where the 7-11 had been rebuilt. 

"It was just chaotic, man," Ellison recalled as we re-visited the site. "People with wounds were walking around in a daze, it was literally like a war. People were walking around not knowing what to do."

The 7-11 was again gone, in its place a mess of twisted steel, foodstuffs and debris. Ellison, wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, thick framed glasses, and a University of Oklahoma sweatshirt, motioned towards thick white walls that had once served as the convenience store's freezer.

He grimaced.

The dozens of rescuers who had converged on the store had been told that some locals had sought shelter in the freezer, which had been smashed. They struggled to remove the debris as quickly as they could, but there was likely no speed that would have been enough. Inside they found the bodies of Megan Futrell, 29, and her infant son, Case.

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Jake Tapper is CNN's Chief Washington Correspondent and and anchor of The Lead. He is the author of The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.

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