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.

"She was protecting him," he said, his voice cracking.

Ellison pointed towards the ground, at a pair of work gloves. They were the same ones he had been wearing when he came upon the scene two days before. He didn't want them.

"They have blood on 'em," he said. "From bodies I moved. Just a bad, bad deal."

He took a moment. "I wish I could have said I pulled survivors out. That's probably the hardest thing. I'm hoping that those people were killed instantly." After hours of recovery efforts that night he drove straight to the home of his ex-wife and hugged his two daughters as tight as he could.

Ellison noted that this wasn't the first time he'd ever talked to a reporter; he seems to have a knack for finding himself in the middle of Oklahoma tragedies. In September 2005, he was serving as general manager of a family business, Ellison Feed and Seed, when a young man came in and asked to purchase ammonium nitrate, a high-nitrogen fertilizer that had been used in explosives ten years earlier in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. .

"It was suspicious," Ellison remembered. "No one asks for 'ammonium nitrate.' He was a real bizarre kid."

The young man was wearing a flak jacket and was acting strange. He mumbled and seemed nervous. He wouldn't explain why he wanted the material, or how much he wanted other than as much as Ellison would sell him.

Ellison turned him down. An off-duty police officer waiting in line to buy dog food followed the young man out of the store and took down the license plate number of his blue Lincoln Towncar.

Three days later the young man, Joel Henry Hinrichs III, 21, blew himself up just 200 yards away from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, where 84,501 spectators were watching the Sooners square off against Kansas State. Speculation was rampant that the young man had intended to blow himself up inside the stadium.

The very next day, FBI agents visited Ellison to learn more about Hinrich's visit to Ellison Feed and Seed; the off-duty Norman police officer had said he had planned to pursue the lead about the odd visitor in search of ammonium nitrate on Monday.

To this day, law enforcement officials don't know for certain whether Hinrichs was hoping to detonate the bomb inside the arena, or what his motivation may have been.

"It is bizarre," Ellison agrees, when this reporter observed his role in these Oklahoma tragedies.

"It's not that I go and like run and look for this. It's coincidental that I was part of the May 3rd tornado through my dad, or that I happened to be standing there at the feed store when he walked in, or that I was driving down the interstate on Monday. I don't know if it's the right time, the right place. I don't understand it. I don't second guess it either. I just make the best decisions I can make."