Oklahoma teacher with Weatherford ties shares her story of survival, faith

Posted Monday, Jun. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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"Good luck…I love you."

Those words are the last ones Rhonda Crosswhite read in a text before her phone disappeared.

And those are the words that caused the relatively calm, native Oklahoman’s heart to skip a beat.

Rhonda, a 1987 graduate of Weatherford High School and sixth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Okla., recalled how that text from a cousin on May 20 made her realize that what she thought was a "normal day" was, in fact, anything but.

"We get tornadoes all the time but we were all watching our cell phones, obviously, and saying it’s coming really close to us and when my cousin who was watching from a ways away sent me that text, that’s when I got a little scared," Rhonda remembers. "That’s the last text I got on my phone because I have no idea where my phone is now."

Shortly after the message, Rhonda and 24 other people crammed into the school’s boys bathroom to ride out a deadly EF5 tornado that devastated a community and brought the country to tears.

Letting out early

On that Monday morning, Rhonda said she went to the school not expecting much to happen. Her sixth-graders were practicing for graduation and though there was some possible storms coming, everything was normal.

"We live in Oklahoma so I didn’t go to school that day and say, ‘I think I’m going to get hit by a tornado here today,’" she said. "It was just a normal day like any other."

After the students practiced for the ceremony, Rhonda said they all went to lunch and she joined a girlfriend herself to grab a bite.

"We were talking about how they said the weather’s going to get bad and we were kind-of like, ‘Yeah, that’s what they always say,’" she admitted. "Something was said about another school district letting out early and [my girlfriend] said ‘[Moore ISD] doesn’t let out school early.’ I said, ‘Like we’re going to let out school for a tornado,’ and we laughed.

"I mean, you could let out school early every day in the state of Oklahoma for a tornado threat."

So, after lunch, Rhonda went back to the school and picked up her students for recess outside. After, at about 2 p.m., Rhonda’s last group of students for the day joined her. Twenty minutes later, she said, it started to rain.

"A couple of my girls were getting a little antsy and I was like, ‘Guys, it’s just rain, no need to get all upset,’" she said. "About 10 minutes later, it started thundering and one of the little boys was mocking my voice and said, ‘Girls, it’s just thunder, no big deal.’"

Realizing her students were getting a little frightened, Rhonda said she asked them if they’d ever heard of anyone dying from thunder. When they said no, she told them there was not need to worry then.

A few minutes later, one of the girl’s whose cell phone was equipped with an app to warn of impending weather went off, loudly.

"I didn’t know anything about this app but even if the phone is on silent, which hers was, it comes out really loud anyway," Rhonda said. "She looked at me and everyone was [a little panicked] and I said, ‘It’s not a big deal, it’s just telling us that there is severe weather in the area. Severe weather doesn’t always mean bad things.’"

Tornado drill

It was then that principal Amy Simpson came on the P.A. system and told the teachers to bring all the students to the cafeteria because parents were checking out kids "left and right" so she thought it would be better if everyone moved to a central location for checkout.

Rhonda had her students get their backpacks and line up but another announcement said plans had changed and that everyone needed to go into tornado drill preparation. The principal stressed that it was just a precaution but Rhonda said she knew that was just to keep the kids calm so they wouldn’t panic.

"We do a little practice of [the drill] with the kids putting their backpacks over their heads to protect them and it was still pretty calm, or as calm as sixth-graders can be," Rhonda said. "Some of them think its kind-of funny but I have a couple girls who are thinking this is serious so they’re kind-of upset."

Lined up in a hallway now, Rhonda said parents continued to pick up their children.

"Parents were coming down the hall and we were asking, ‘Who are you here for?’ and we’d yell out the name and they would go with their mom, dad or grandparents," she said. "I had one little girl who was hysterically crying and I was standing beside her and finally her dad came and I told him, ‘I am so happy to see you. She is so upset and I am glad she’s going to be with you to keep her calm.’"

‘Everybody in the bathroom, now!’

As Simpson continued to give teachers direction on the P.A., the children who weren’t being picked up by parents moved from the hall to the bathroom.

A male teacher Rhonda didn’t identify was walking up and down the row of kids still left in the hallway as Rhonda played hand-jive with them to keep them calm. A few minutes later, the principal ordered everyone into "tornado drill."

"All the kids we have in the bathroom are having to put their backpacks and stuff over their heads and I’m still in the hall with about 10 or 12 kids," Rhonda said. "The male teacher comes running down the hall and says, ‘I need everybody in the bathroom now’ and I’m like I’ll put the kids in the bathroom and I’ll just stay out here. He says, ‘You’re going in the bathroom, too.’

"I didn’t know until the next day when he told me but the reason he was frantically putting us in the bathroom was because he was watching the tornado hit our library."

Knowing it had already hit the school and that it was just at the other end, the male teacher saw how slow it was going and knew it was going to last a long time, Rhonda said.

It was about five minutes later before anything happened, Rhonda said, and though they could hear the raging storm, she didn’t realize it was right on top of them.

"I am in the stall with the kids and I am laying on top of the group that I’m with and there was one little girl who was hysterically crying and I kept telling her it was going to be OK," Rhonda said. "I was praying, ‘God please don’t strike us, please don’t strike us’ all while saying [to the kids] ‘It’s going to be OK guys.’

"I am screaming above all the kids who were crying and saying ‘I want my mom, I want my mom.’ I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to be fine; you have to calm down, you have to concentrate on calming down.’"

Admittedly, Rhonda said she didn’t know if that was calming her or calming the children but that she felt like if they could hear her voice, they would know she was still OK and that would be calming for them.

"I’m pretty loud so I knew that they could hear me; I am not that teacher who needs the microphone in the cafeteria to talk," Rhonda quipped. "I had a little boy in the stall with me and he kept saying, ‘I love you Mrs. Crosswhite, I love you Mrs. Crosswhite.’ And I said ‘I love you’ and he said, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.’

"I said to him, ‘I am NOT dying today. I have other things to do in my life and I am not dying today and you’re not going to die [either].’"

Though it felt like hours to her, Rhonda said it was probably only about 10 minutes before the storm passed.

"It finally stopped and it started sprinkling on us just a little bit," she said. "It wasn’t pouring but it was wetness."

Because the ceiling had been blown off, Rhonda knew she had to find a way to get out of what was left of the building. She said she had one big, strong boy and another who was very limber so she and the stronger boy lifted the limber one to the top of the building to see what their options were.

"I told him it was going to be scary," Rhonda said. "He got up there and looked down at me and said, ‘There’s nothing left.’ I said, ‘I know but I need you to tell me how we’re going to get out of here. I don’t know who’s hurt and I don’t know who’s OK.’"

The little boy explained that if they moved some of the debris, they could go out the same way they went in. So, a father who had been in the bathroom with them helped them dig their way out. That’s when the fear set in for Rhonda.

"I smelled gas," she said. "That scared me more than the tornado because I am watching fire in the distance and then I thought we were going to catch on fire or something."

Thankfully, nothing exploded and Rhonda found an assistant and had that person escort the children to the church nearby and wait. She had one of the older, stronger children stay with her and help her dig out who they could before they were told to leave the area.

Everybody in Rhonda’s care survived but not all of the children were that lucky.

"Unfortunately, seven of our children lost their lives that day and we still have one teacher who is really hurt and is going to need a lot of physical therapy; she’s pretty banged up," Rhonda said.

Two days after the tornado, all of the students got together and the teachers were able to see them for the first time since that fateful Monday.

"That was the best thing because we needed to see them and they needed to see us," Rhonda said. "I told one of my girlfriends that I just needed to touch them and put my hands on them and know they’re fine."

God prepared her for that day

Rhonda moved to Weatherford from Oklahoma when she was in the seventh grade. She graduated from Weatherford High School in 1987 and was even the school mascot – a kangaroo - her senior year.

"I lived there for 10 years so I call Weatherford home," Rhonda said. "When I graduated high school, I moved back to Oklahoma to go to [University of Oklahoma]."

In January of this year, she was asked to take over the sixth-graders at Plaza Towers for a teacher who was retiring.

Though she remembers the May 3, 1999 tornado that hit Moore – she lived in a neighboring town - this is the first tornado Rhonda said she has gone through personally.

"I didn’t fear them," she said of the storms.

She added, however, that she knew what devastation could be caused and that she was prepared for what she saw when she got out of the rubble at the school.

"It didn’t surprise me because I had seen it before," she said. "I knew coming out of there what I was going to see based on what the inside looked like."

Sadly, Rhonda is no stranger to tragedy. The last five years or so, she has lost several family members to cancer and her husband was diagnosed last May, though he is "doing well."

"The May before [her husband was diagnosed], my dad was diagnosed and passed way; the October before that, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and she had just passed away; and about a year and a half before that, my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and he passed away," Rhonda said. "So I have lost my dad, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my husband’s been diagnosed with cancer and on that same week, one of my first cousins was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is my cousin by marriage and her step-dad was my uncle and he died of cancer."

Though she admits to feeling guilty that God spared her life but took that of seven children, she said she knows He has a plan for her.

"My girlfriend says it was God’s plan for me to be in that tornado because he’s been preparing me. She said, ‘I know that your life has been very hard but I really felt like God had planned all this stuff because you needed to be calm at the tornado,’" Rhonda said. "I was so surprisingly calm; I even surprised myself at how I never lost control.

"I never cried until that night when I knew I could let down my guard. Honestly, I didn’t cry until I saw my husband."

A physician at one of the local hospitals, Rhonda said she saw her husband because she rode in the ambulance with some of the children to the hospital he works at.

"I was fine until I saw him and I just broke down," she said. "I knew I had to be strong for them [during the storm], and so I was."

As for her own personal losses, Rhonda said she lost her car and about $8,000 worth of classroom items.

‘I did what teachers aren’t supposed to do’

Contrary to what some may have heard, Rhonda said she wasn’t fired for praying and that, in fact, she was praised for it. She was one of the first to go on national television and admit she prayed with the children and her quote, "I did what teachers aren’t supposed to do…I prayed, I prayed out loud" went viral shortly after her interview.

Now, in an effort to help the victims of the tornado, Mardel Christian and Education is partnering with In the Spirit Designs to have T-shirts made with that quote. For every shirt sold at $14.99, Mardel will match the profits and give that back to the teachers at both Moore ISD schools that were affected.

The shirts will be available at Mardel.com sometime this week, said Sunni Atkins, Social Media and Event Coordinator for the company.

“[In the Spirit] contacted us directly and asked if we wanted to be involved,” Atkins explained. “Our Education Merchandise Manager Jennifer Reasnor didn’t hesitate to say yes.”

When asked why her first instinct was to pray, the answer is simple for Rhonda.

"When I go to school each morning, those are my children and you love them as if they’re your own," she said. "Every child has something good about them and parents send us every day their prize possessions and they’re children and we have to love them."

Melissa Winn, 817-594-9902, Ext. 104 Twitter: @scoopmdw3701

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