By Melanie Ave
On Monday afternoon, May 20, Pastor Mark Bersche of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Moore, Okla., was working in his church office.
“It was kind of a light day,” he recalled.
He looked outside and noticed the sky growing dark. “When you live in Oklahoma, you know to keep an eye on the weather,” Bersche said.
He heard a weather radio alert. A tornado warning had been issued for the south Oklahoma City suburb where he has cared for the 400-member congregation for the past two years. A twister had been spotted north of Newcastle, about 12 miles away. Packing 200 mph winds, the tornado was ripping a mile-wide path of destruction on its way to Moore.
“I’m thinking, that’s exactly where I live,” Bersche said.
He texted a weather update to his wife, Wendy, a hospice nurse who was visiting one last patient in Oklahoma City before she headed home.
One of their three children, Ashleigh, 11, was at Briarwood Elementary School a few blocks away. There was less than an hour left in the school day when the principal came over the intercom and told the teachers to seek shelter. They led the children into bathrooms and hallways and told them to keep their heads down in their practiced tornado positions.
“I was afraid,” Ashleigh said.
Bersche drove to his home in Oklahoma City, gathered his dogs and opened the storm shelter in the garage. Outside, in the distance, he saw a gray cone in the sky moving toward his house. He snapped a picture with his phone.
“I’ve seen tornado funnel clouds for years and years,” the native Oklahoman said. “I’ve never seen anything of this size.”
Before long, there were eight neighbors, or maybe nine, and three dogs in his underground shelter. They peeked out and saw tin, limbs, wood and other debris — the remains of homes and buildings and livelihoods — falling from the sky like rain and littering the yard.
The ground shook.
Bersche texted his wife: “Do not come home.” He sent her another text: “Things are not good here. We may not have a home tomorrow.” She would not get the text for 15 minutes. It would take her four frantic hours to get home because of the debris and chaos in the aftermath of the monstrous tornado.
At Briarwood Elementary, the school was in full tornado mode. Ashleigh said her teacher was on the verge of tears as she kept telling the children, “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK.” Many of the children screamed and cried as the tornado towered over the school, darkening the hallway, ripping off the roof and doorways, and pelting the school with wood and metal. A wall fell on top of them.
“We had little kids with us,” she said. “They were screaming. They wanted their moms and dads.”
At Bersche’s home, after the debris stopped falling, a neighbor told him and the others how the Orr Family Farm, a local tourist attraction, had been destroyed.
And, the neighbor said, the schools were leveled.
Briarwood Elementary was directly west of the destroyed farm, where dozens of animals were killed by the storm. Ashleigh was finishing her sixth-grade year.
Bersche and another family jumped in the car and drove as far as they could through the storm-strewn streets of Moore to get to his daughter.
“I got out and we ran” toward the school, Bersche said. “It’s one of those scenes I’ll never forget. Everything was twisted and demolished. I know everyone says it, but it’s true. It looked like a war zone.”
Some people were limping; others bleeding. Ashleigh’s teacher had a broken ankle.
“If you looked at the school, you would think there is no way anybody could have walked out of it alive,” Bersche said. “It was nothing but rubble.”
He could not get through the sidewalk on the school’s playground — where his daughter walked to school every day — because of fallen power lines. Word began circulating among the parents and others who rushed to the school and crowded the damaged landscape: All the children at Briarwood were safe.
Sadly, that was not the case at Plaza Towers Elementary, about two miles away. Of the 24 people who died in the tornado, seven were children from that school.
Bersche found his daughter in the parking lot and wrapped his arms around her. She had been crying. She was wearing one shoe. Her glasses, backpack and bicycle were missing. He scooped her up and carried her from the scene, past flattened homes, shredded metal and spewing gas lines. A stranger whose home was severely damaged loaned Ashleigh a pair of shoes.
Bersche’s daughter was not injured. His home and church suffered no damage. But the homes of five members of St. John’s were damaged, as were the homes of four members from Trinity Lutheran Church in Norman, Okla. (Click here to read a related story, “Synod approves $100,000 grant for tornado needs.”)
A block to the west of Briarwood Elementary, on the Moore-Oklahoma City border, all that’s left standing of the three-bedroom home of Trinity member Linda Shoemake is four walls. She’s lived there for 14 years and was not at home when the tornado came through.
“Your heart just falls out when you see it,” she said, fighting tears.
Trinity and St. John’s held prayer services on Wednesday, May 22. They began planning how they were going to reach out with the love and mercy of Christ to the community with the help of LCMS Disaster Response and the LCMS Oklahoma District office.
The congregation is gathering a list of volunteers and plans to become a distribution site for aid efforts. Already shipments of food and water are arriving.
At Wednesday’s prayer service, Bersche said he focused on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
“Right now, we’re just trying to shuffle through,” he said. “Just pray for us. I’ve had so many phone calls from churches all around the nation. We really appreciate the heartfelt concern. We are so thankful people are praying.”
To see a photo album of the LCMS response to the tornado, click here.
To support those in need through LCMS Disaster Response:
- Make an online gift at https://www.lcms.org/givenow/disaster.
- Mail checks payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (with a memo line or note designating “LCMS Disaster Relief”) to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- Call toll-free 888-930-4438 (8:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday).
Melanie Ave is a senior writer and social media coordinator for LCMS Communications.
Posted May 24, 2013 / Updated May 25, 2013