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One block: How neighbors saw twister's deadly path

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 5:36pm  ET

Colleen Perdue stands at the door of a closet in her devastated home in Moore, Okla., on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. She and her husband were cowering on the floor under a blanket Monday when an EF5 tornado ripped apart their home and much of their town. (AP Photo/Allen Breed)

ALLEN G. BREED
AP National Writer

MOORE, Okla. (AP) -- Dan Garland could feel the latch on the shelter door begin to turn in his hand. It was as if the storm outside were a living, breathing thing -- and it was trying desperately to get in.

Huddled beside him in the darkened 5-foot-by-6-foot hole were not just his wife and 91-year-old mother, along with five neighbors and two friends from a mile away -- 10 people and two dogs, all together. Johnny Knight was among them; he sold the Garlands their home at 1324 SW 149th St., and he knew his family could cross the street and find refuge there.

As bricks from nearby homes pounded on the steel hatch in a deafening staccato, the two men hung from the handle, praying their combined weight would be enough to keep the monster outside at bay.

They didn't know it yet, but the tornado raging around them was an EF5 -- the highest ranking on the scale. More than a mile across, it would carve a path of destruction nearly 17 miles long and leave 24 dead in its wake.

Block by block, a storm ripped apart Moore for the second time in 14 years, leaving survivors to wrestle with the awful calculus deciding whether to rebuild or move on. This is the story of one of those blocks.

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Back when his parents farmed it, the 80 acres between Oklahoma City and the Canadian River were home to grazing cattle, and rich crops of cotton and wheat. In the late 1990s, Knight decided to carve up the land and open it to development.

He called it Country Edge Estates, because it represented the best of both worlds.

Each family had 5 acres to roam and play on. But people are still close enough that if one of Jalayne Jann's three horses or Wayne Osmus' seven dogs showed up, everyone knew where to return it.

But no one in this cluster of one-story brick and frame homes was under any illusion that this was paradise -- at least, not after May 3, 1999.

Dan and Rebecca Garland were still laying sod for their lawn that day when a tornado packing winds over 300 mph -- the highest ever recorded -- ripped through the town, killing 36. As soon as it was over, they applied for a federal grant to help put in their concrete storm shelter.

Every couple of years, Rebecca Garland would go through the 2,500-square-foot house, opening cabinets and closets and taking photographs of the contents -- documenting their possessions in case they ever had to make an accounting. The latest set would go into the floor-mounted safe in her husband's office.

The couple and his mother, Roberta, had spent much of Rebecca's 63rd birthday Sunday in the little bunker as storms raked the nearby town of Shawnee. They'd invited Johnny and Janice Knight to join them, but he declined.

In 13 years as chief of the Moore Fire Department, the 68-year-old Knight had responded to his share of tornados. The old first responder had seen countless people saved by home shelters, but he didn't have one.

He never thought he'd need one. And he hadn't -- until Monday.

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After watching the news coverage all day, Knight decided this storm was different from the ones that had driven his neighbors underground. He corralled his wife, their daughter, Angie Shelton, and her 15-year-old son, Chase, and headed across SW 149th Street to join the Garlands, who had already taken cover. Chase was concerned that the Garlands' next-door neighbor, Amber Bowie, did not have a shelter. He ran to get her.

Knight could see the massive cloud churning toward them as they crept inside.

His neighbor at No. 1311, Jalayne Jann, was just arriving home. Jann was at the insulation company she and her husband, Darrin, own with relatives on 12th Street in Moore. The 40-year-old bookkeeper decided she would be safer in their backyard shelter than a metal building downtown and headed home.

She was talking on the phone with Darrin, who was up in Norman inspecting some jobs, when she heard the announcer on his truck radio say the storm was at 149th and Pennsylvania Avenue -- just up the street. She looked up and saw a wall of debris.

"Get in there," her husband shouted.

Her "weenie dog," Hoss, was already in the shelter. She scooped up Cheerios, the couple's pit bull, and sprinted for safety.

As the wind screamed around her, she struggled with the bulkhead door, turning the handle while the locking mechanism was still caught on the outer lip.

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