Every patient and area resident who sought shelter inside Moore Medical Center (MMC) during the deadly tornado that destroyed the surrounding area on Monday survived the ordeal relatively unharmed after hospital staff quickly moved them into safe zones, according to staff interviews.
The two-mile-wide twister leveled much of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, on Monday, killing at least 24 people and sending hundreds of wounded residents to area hospitals. It destroyed MMC—a 45-bed hospital—and two elementary schools.
On Tuesday, the National Weather Services determined that the tornado was an EF-5, the highest category on the tornado intensity scale.
ED manager: Hospital was 'lucky'
The patient load that day was lighter than expected, with just 30 patients total. "We were actually pretty luck," says ED manager Nick Stremble, adding, "On a typical Monday, we would have had a lot more than that."
According to clinical nurse manager Shannon Largent, the hospital was on high alert all day. But when the tornado sirens sounded just 16 minutes before the EF-5 tornado hit Moore, hospital staffers quickly realized the two-story facility would take a direct hit, according to Stremble.
In addition to the 30 patients in the facility, an additional 250 to 300 people sought shelter at the hospital, hoping it would withstand the twister better than their homes.
Hospital staff quickly moved everyone to designated safe zones, according to Stremble. Patients were moved to a windowless safe space. Largent had been trained to take patients on the second floor into the hallway, but she decided at the last minute to take them to the first-floor safe spaces. The second floor of the hospital was almost completely destroyed by the twister.
Largent said only a few tiles fell in the windowless space. "We were in a really safe place," she said. None of the patients or staff members were injured.
During his final check before seeking shelter, Stremble saw the tornado bearing down on the area out of hospital windows. "It was more than obvious it was going to be there in under a minute," he said. He ran down to a safe zone, told patients to hunker down, and braced his back against the door to keep it closed.
"My door got [blown] inward and I got pinned between the door and the wall," he told NPR's "Shots," adding, "I was facing down the hall, and I could see all the folks being hit with the wind that was coming through the building, and the people that were kind of along the wall just kind of starting to tumble and roll and be pushed down the hall. And they all kind of ended up in a pile, down in front of another set of doors."
Some of the residents who sought shelter at MMC but were not in the windowless space sustained injuries, although they were mostly just bumps and bruises,
After the storm
Just three minutes after the twister passed, first responders pulled up to the front of the hospital. Stremble managed to climb out of the decimated front entrance and informed workers they would have to evacuate people through the back of the facility.
At least nine patients were transferred to other hospitals in the Normal Regional Health System, while the rest were left with their families, according to ABC News.
Once everyone was moved out of the building, hospital staff and first responders began to help the walking wounded, who arrived at the hospital with a range of injuries.
Largent commended the hospital staff's ability to remain calm during the chaos. "I think preparation is important, and we certainly have drills and know what to do, but you can’t ever anticipate what it’s actually going to be like when it happens," she told the Norman Transcript, adding, "Everybody was calm. We all knew what the right thing to do was. We were keeping our patients safe and each other safe, and that was the work we needed to do at that time."
The MMC staff now is working at other NRHS hospitals and bracing for the possibility of future storms in the area, NPR's "Shots" reports (Lupkin, ABC News, 5/21; Chowdhury, "Shots," NPR, 5/21; Cruz, Norman Transcript, 5/22; Rice, USA Today, 5/21).