Mike Strange: First-hand account of Friday night in Oklahoma City

Parts of Oklahoma City experience extreme flooding after multiple tornado's passed through Central Okla. on Friday May 31, 2013 in Oklahoma City. A violent storm formed over the prairie west of Oklahoma City late Friday afternoon, dropped a tornado in a suburb and rolled into the state capital as viewers brave enough to remain above ground watched on statewide television. (AP Photo/Nick Oxford)

Parts of Oklahoma City experience extreme flooding after multiple tornado's passed through Central Okla. on Friday May 31, 2013 in Oklahoma City. A violent storm formed over the prairie west of Oklahoma City late Friday afternoon, dropped a tornado in a suburb and rolled into the state capital as viewers brave enough to remain above ground watched on statewide television. (AP Photo/Nick Oxford)

LAdy Vol softball players Melissa Davin and Tori Lewis make best of the situation as they hunkered down in an underground garage in Oklahoma City as a tornado passed through the area May 31, 2013.

Mike Strange/News Sentinel

LAdy Vol softball players Melissa Davin and Tori Lewis make best of the situation as they hunkered down in an underground garage in Oklahoma City as a tornado passed through the area May 31, 2013.

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Renassiance Hotel appeared to be a substantial haven for my first brush with an onrushing tornado. It was 15 stories tall, seemingly as solid as the Washington Monument or the Pyramids.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But then I couldn’t help thinking about those images on TV last week. How a tornado had leveled a suburban town just a few miles from here.

Or what about Tuscaloosa? I’d seen with my own eyes the fearsome swath carved through the heart of the University of Alabama’s hometown two years ago.

I came to Oklahoma City for softball, but got an education in tornadoes Friday. The weather guy on the local TV station — I watched KFOR — didn’t try to put a soothing spin on the situation that was building on the prairie west of town.

This, he said, was a PDS, officially the first one of 2013. PDS: a “particularly dangerous situation.” Even the fatal tornado that ripped through neighboring Moore last week didn’t start as a PDS.

This one turned out to be fatal, too. Nine confirmed dead as of Saturday morning. It could have been worse.

I never made it out to the stadium for Tennessee’s scheduled 6 p.m. (local time) game with Washington. By 4 o’clock the NCAA had already put the evening’s schedule on delay. Besides, the TV said sitting in a traffic deadlock on I-35 was the last place you should be.

The Lady Vols, who were across the street at the Sheraton, had their pregame meal and pregame scouting report, but they stayed put too.

The sirens went off around 6. It was time to move to shelter. At the Renassiance, shelter was a staff room deep in the bowels on the first floor.

We had a TV to monitor the storm’s progress. Thankfully, the power never went off. We never plunged into darkness.

Across the street, the Lady Vols and other Sheraton guests had better shelter, access to the underground level of a parking garage. The guy on TV kept emphasizing underground was where you wanted to be for this PDS.

Well, I wasn’t underground, but I was better off than in the flimsy budget hotel where I’d stayed the night before.

The crowd in the break room remained calm. Cookies and bottles of water were handed out. Crayons, too, for the kids. Nice touch.

However, the TV projected the path of the first tornado coming east right down I-40, a couple of blocks south of the room in which we huddled.

We weren’t the only ones watching the storm pointing towards downtown. My cell phone was pinging with texts from friends and family who were wondering where I was holed up.

Because of what happened in Moore last week, this storm was national news. I was able to reply to texts and fire off updates on Twitter, but all the time wondering: Wouldn’t I be safer somewhere that didn’t get cell-phone reception?

We caught a break. The tornado slanted a little to the south as it passed through downtown. After about an hour, folks began to filter back toward the lobby.

The bar was open and doing a brisk business. A cold one sounded good, but I had work to do, namely finding the Lady Vols.

Outside, a monsoon made crossing the street all but impossible. Eventually, it subsided to a mere torrential downpour and I plunged in.

The Sheraton lobby was crammed. I spotted Patrick Lawson, UT’s softball event manager, and he led me underground.

Most of the team was huddled around a soft-drink machine in the garage — Tennessee’s island in an encampment that also included Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington and maybe other teams.

Water dripped from various leaks in the roof. (At least 7 to 8 inches of rain fell during the storm.) A broken water main was gushing.

Word came it was safe to move back up. So we did.

The team went to grab some sandwiches. I went to write it all down.

We made it.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 2

Teresa writes:

I was watching on TV and reading Mike's twitter and seeing the pictures he tweeted. I'm glad you guys were safe.

writer#358485 writes:

My son was out in the suburbs chasing tornados during this time. The one that hit and killed Tim Samaras, his son and their partner almost got my son. It took a very unusual turn, developed another vortex and headed straight at a group of storm chasers. As my son and his crew accelerated out of harms way, he saw the headlights of other chase cars behind him unable to get away quickly enough, including Samaras. We're thanking God that our son got away and he's re-thinking his chasing. He's 24.

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