Correction: Melissa Lacey Nagy's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.
The halls of Briarwood Elementary School are filled with water, bricks, insulation and just about everything else you can imagine in a disaster zone.
On Thursday afternoon, fifth-grade teacher Robin Dziedzic – who grew up in Arkansas City – walked into what used to be her classroom to salvage some personal items. An EF-5 tornado had ripped through Moore on Monday afternoon, and what bits and pieces were left suffered water damage after thunderstorms early Thursday.
“I don’t even know what all to take,” Dziedzic said as she tried to salvage some teacher appreciation gifts from her room, which had several inches of water on the floor, scattered debris and sunlight peeking through the ceiling. The clock was stopped at 3:17.
Dziedzic moved to Moore in 2003 and started teaching there in 2008. She still has family and friends in Kansas.
‘You are safe’
On Monday afternoon, they were expecting severe weather, but had no idea how bad it would be, she said.
The school’s tornado plan was for people to go into interior hallways and bathrooms. Briarwood has no storm shelters.
When a large number of parents started to pick up their children that afternoon, she started to worry.
“I noticed the parents seemed a little more panic-stricken,” she said. “I usually don’t get too overly concerned about the weather, but lots of people were checking their kids out.”
Around 2:30 p.m., they started tornado procedures. The storm hit about 45 minutes later.
“I told my students, ‘We are in a concrete block building. You are safe.’ I felt kind of a pressing heat and everything fell in on us,” Dziedzic said.
While Dziedzic was taking care of a classroom of children, her own children were in other classrooms at the school.
“I don’t even remember what it used to look like,” said 7-year-old Sam Dziedzic-Williams, as he searched for odds and ends in the rubble on Thursday – a piece of the school’s rock climbing wall, a Christmas ornament, a brick.
He started to put them all in a box on Thursday afternoon, calling them his “souvenirs,” and was set on finding a new owner for a water-logged book he found on the ground.
His older sister, 10-year-old Mari, was gathering things, too, slowly picking up the pieces of her elementary school.
“I didn’t cry during it,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was just surprised.”
Help from Kansas
The support from everyone back in Kansas has been overwhelming, Dziedzic said.
“I feel like a Kansas girl at heart,” she said. “Kansas and Oklahoma are closely tied, rivals at times, but it makes me feel so wonderful to know that even though I haven’t lived there in years, people remember someone who has moved away.
“I’m still a Midwestern girl, and this could have just as easily happened in any Kansas town, and I know it has.”
Their future remains largely unknown, Dziedzic said. The school district will likely have to rezone. She doesn’t know where the kids will go to school next year or where she will be teaching.
A firefighter on the scene said it was likely the school district would bulldoze the site as quickly as possible. Portable classrooms may be put on it, but Dziedzic says she “can’t see the community going for that.”
She said the community has been generous in the past in passing school bond issues.
“The community of Moore is going to decide, not the school district,” she said. “They’re going to decide what’s best for the students and that’s all that matters. Moore will make it happen.”
Despite the unknowns, Dziedzic said her outlook on life has changed.
“I can tell you what’s going to be different: We’re going to be smelling a lot more roses around our house,” Dziedzic said.
“I am just so thankful that my kids are OK and that no one in my school family was hurt. It’s devastating to see what has taken place here, but we’re just so thankful that we have our lives.”
No one died at Briarwood Elementary. Another Moore school that was hit, Plaza Towers, had several fatalities, including children.
Dziedzic’s home in Moore sustained some damage, and her crushed car is now sitting upside-down in a pond next to the elementary school. Several other crumpled cars remain on what parts of the school’s roof still exist.
When her friend, Melissa Lacey Nagy of Wichita, heard about the tornado, she panicked.
“It was just so painful, not knowing if she was OK,” Lacey Nagy said. “When I heard someone say Briarwood Elementary (was hit), the wind was sucked out of me.”
The two have been friends since fourth grade when they met at Jefferson Elementary in Ark City, Lacey Nagy said.
When Lacey Nagy started seeing posts on Dziedzic’s Facebook page, she knew she was safe. The two were finally able to talk on the phone Tuesday night, and after hearing about Dziedzic’s car, Lacey Nagy decided she could help by starting an online campaign – http://disaster-relief.fundly.com/robin – to raise money for a new car.
“I wanted to give people an outlet to help an amazing person, especially those who know her and reached out to her on Facebook but who had no realistic means of helping her,” Lacey Nagy said. “ As my closest friend, all I want to do is help her catch a break. I’m hoping something good can come out of something so terrible for her because she deserves it.”
“I’m just so thankful she and the kids are safe because I was terrified Monday,” she said. “I’m just thankful I still have my best friend.”