Moments of Hope in Oklahoma: One Photographer’s Story

Oklahoma Tornado
Sue Ogrocki—AP
May 20, 2013. A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. A tornado as much as a mile wide with winds up to 200 mph roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.

On Tuesday, the world awoke to the photographs of Sue Ogrocki. Based in Oklahoma City as a staff photographer for the Associated Press, Ogrocki’s images of rescue workers carrying injured children from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School appeared on the cover of many of the world’s leading newspapers, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Early this morning, TIME spoke with Ogrocki about what she witnessed on the ground in Moore – a scene of devastation and raw humanity.

“I could see on TV that the storms were headed towards Moore, and I knew I needed to get in the car and get down there, because if you don’t [hurry], you can’t get in. Cell phones go down, traffic lights go down, and it’s gridlock and you can’t communicate.”

Driving underneath pitch-black clouds and rain turning to baseball-sized hail, Ogrocki arrived in Moore, population 55,000, just after the F4 tornado leveled it.

Standing in a landscape that, minutes earlier, had resembled a suburban neighborhood, Ogrocki spotted a large mass of toppled cinder block. Too large to be a residential home, a bystander explained that she was looking at the remains of Plaza Towers Elementary School. Watching a crowd buzzing around a makeshift triage area set up in the parking lot, Ogrocki began to photograph.

“I could see people searching a section of the school that was close to me. And I could hear people saying that there are people trapped under the wall.”

Continuing around the backside of the school, Ogrocki found an incredible scene of humanity — police, firemen, parents, neighbors and rescuers were helping to dig children out of the rubble. Forming a human chain, a firefighter or police officer would pull a child out of the rubble and pass them to safety along the chain of bystanders.

“I couldn’t hear the children,” she explains, “and every now and then, police or fire would ask people to stay quiet so they could listen for the kids still trapped.”

“A lot of the parents were coming to the school to get their kids,” Ogrocki said. “It was bad out there, but for what they were doing, it was surprisingly calm — I was amazed.”

Ogrocki, who has photographed tornadoes in the past, including the one that devastated Moore in 1999, said she had never seen anything like this destruction. “This is probably the worst. I’ve never seen a school hit or people trapped before.”

“It was heartwarming because they kept pulling out kids that were alive. Kids that, although they looked a little stunned, didn’t really look like they were seriously injured. It was nice to see them come out in good shape.”

Each time a child was pulled from the rubble, covered in concrete dust and scared, the group of spectators and parents cheered.

“As I was walking out, there were still parents looking for their kids. I hope they found them.”

Sue Ogrocki is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in Oklahoma City.

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