When a deadly tornado touched down south of Oklahoma City the afternoon of Monday, May 20, TV stations once again contended with the all too familiar challenge of covering a disaster as victims came to grips with its devastating impact. Here’s an account of how a reporter and photographer from Griffin Communications' KWTV faced up to the task. They were one of six crews deployed by the CBS affiliate that day.
Behind The Scenes At Tornado’s Ground Zero
Chasing the tornado, KWTV reporter Karl Torp and photographer Andy Hargrave followed speeding police cars into South Oklahoma City’s Westmoor subdivision — and straight to a neighborhood flattened just 15 minutes before. “Every single house was destroyed as far as I could see,” Torp says.
With rubble making roads impassable, Torp and Hargrave ditched their SUV at the intersection of SW 144th Street and Robinson Avenue, just four blocks away from Briarwood Elementary School in adjacent Moore, Okla., one of two schools that were leveled in the cyclone.
Within five minutes, Hargrave starting shooting, using a Teradek bonded cellular ENG system to send back live video.
Residents were just starting to emerge from the rubble of their homes in various states of confusion and disbelief. They had taken refuge in the storm shelters in their own homes or the homes of neighbors.
Amid the sounds of emergency sirens in the near distance, Torp and Hargrave watched as residents responded to calls for help. Some greeted each other with hugs.
A Michigan native, Hargrave had not experienced anything like this. He was careful of what he shot. He didn’t want his footage to include any particularly gruesome shots — mangled bodies or gravely injured survivors. “You don’t know what’s going to come out of certain houses,” he says.
At first, he “didn’t know what to do personally,” weighing whether he should put his camera aside to help victims. Figuring he might be more hindrance than help to the first responders, he finally decided to stick to his job.
He and Torp started working their way through the devastated neighborhood, climbing over the debris, trying to avoid getting hurt by the nails, glass and other hazards that were everywhere.
Many of the neighbors were willing to talk. “They would just kind of tell us their story,” Torp says.
One woman “was a mess, but she was strong enough to talk to us right after she got out,” Hargrave says. One of the first things she said was that she was amazed to be alive.
Torp says the already dire situation — unusable roads, downed wires and smashed cars — was compounded by the fact that rescue workers had a hard time getting to the damaged section of Westmoor. Once they did, they had even more difficulties because key markers like street signs were gone.
“Even people who lived in the neighborhood for years, had a hard time figuring out where their house was after the tornado,” Torp says. “This added to the challenge of trying to find those missing.”
Crews spent precious time responding to two separate, but erroneous, reports of women being trapped in storm shelters.
“After moving debris and two cars with a tractor, searchers didn’t find the woman [they were looking for]. There was not even a shelter at that home.”
The confusion persisted. One father stood crying, believing his 17-year-old daughter was buried in the debris of their house, only to learn an hour later that she wasn’t at home when the twister hit.
Those who were injured, but not gravely, some of them with bandaged wounds, sat waiting for ambulances so they could get medical care.
One woman, somewhat dazed as she wandered holding her small dog, “knew she needed to get to the hospital but she didn’t know what to do,” Torp says.
A stick impaled another woman’s leg, going in one side and out the other just below her knee.
Both men saw a police officer carrying the covered body of a young child, presumably lifeless. The officer was walking slowly enough that they knew there was no rush to get the child to safety.
Dogs, displaced family pets, ran loose among the tumult. The body of one dog killed in the storm lay in the road, ignored.
When Torp and Hargrave finally took a break, heading back to their truck a few hours into the ordeal, Hargrave broke down during a phone call with his folks in Michigan.
“I told them that I’m here at ground zero and it’s pretty rough,” he says. “And next thing you know I’m bawling my eyes out.”
Worn down both physically and emotionally, the pair wrapped up their continual disaster coverage of the disaster around 10:30 p.m. and were told to go home to get some rest.
Monday’s Coverage (Karl Torp’s reporting begins at about 4:10)
Without the initial adrenaline rush that keeps journalists going when disasters like this one strike, covering the story the following day, Tuesday, was in some ways more difficult. It was then that they confirmed that four Westmoor residents had been killed.
On that Tuesday, Hargrave finally saw the town of Moore — the schools, the medical center, the bowling alley — with his own eyes. The magnitude of the destruction there, combined with the onslaught of national media and officials, made him feel as if he was gone on a long journey to uncharted territory.
“I just said, ‘Where the hell am I?’ ” Hargrave says. “How far did I have to travel to get here?”
In fact, he was just 30 miles from where he and his wife had just bought their first home.