MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Students from two elementary schools destroyed by a tornado last spring returned to classes Friday, eager to reunite with their classmates but worried about what would happen the next time bad weather sweeps in.
"He's a little anxious. He didn't want to eat," Julie Lewis said Friday, wiping tears from her cheeks after escorting her son Zack to school on his first day of fourth grade.
An EF5 storm with winds greater than 200 mph plowed through Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools May 20 as classes were wrapping up for the school year. Seven of Zack's schoolmates died at the Plaza Towers school when a wall collapsed on them.
Zack's father had plucked the boy from his classroom as the weather grew threatening, so the child wasn't on campus when the storm hit. But before leaving for school Friday, Julie Lewis said her son wanted to make sure someone would pick him up again if another tornado bore down on the Oklahoma City suburb.
Five therapy dogs greeted the children outside the Central Junior High School, which will share its campus with Plaza Towers students for at least the next year. Parents snapped photographs of their children in front of flowers, balloons and a red-and-white banner reading "Plaza Towers Elementary School. Welcome."
Cam'ron Richardson, also entering the fourth grade, had trouble sleeping Thursday night as a storm rolled through central Oklahoma. He didn't speak much while preparing for school but looked sharp in his black jeans shorts and new basketball shoes.
"I am nervous for him. I just hope it doesn't storm the next few days," his mother Alicia Richardson said.
Cam'ron was one of several children whose rescue was captured by an Associated Press photographer following the storm — and he keeps an image of his rescue on his cellphone to share with others.
School officials were hopeful that Friday's return to school would help students put the memory of the deadly tornado behind them. Many in town had already returned to a familiar routine, but not the children.
The tornado killed 24 people, including the seven at Plaza Towers, as it tore a 17-mile path through Moore and other Oklahoma City suburbs. Scores of homes and businesses were destroyed — along with the two elementary schools.
"I'm a little nervous about the beginning of school because I want the kids so badly to feel good and comfortable at school," said Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson, who took cover from the storm in a 4-by-5-foot bathroom with her office staff and emerged to find a mangled car on a co-worker's desk.
Since the storm, different students have found different ways to cope with their memories of the mayhem. Haley Delgado, 8, carries headphones to block out the noise of the wind and her brother, Xavier, 10, says he is scared by loud thunder.
Ruby Macias, 9, who was trapped under the same wall that crushed her classmates, remembers the screaming and the crying.
"She says she dreams about her friend," said Ruby's mother, Veronica Macias. "I don't know what to tell her."
The site where the Plaza Towers school once stood, in the heart of a neighborhood decimated by the tornado, has become a makeshift memorial for the dead and a meeting spot for volunteers, even though there is just a slab where the school used to be.
A handful of wind-battered trees are beginning to grow new leaves and branches again. Seven crosses, each carrying the name of a child killed in the storm, are accompanied by an eighth that has a black "7'' inside a red heart.
"I'm not going to act as though those first couple of weeks (after the storm) weren't so terribly difficult, because they were," said Superintendent Robert Romines, a longtime Moore resident who took the district's top post over the summer. "But since that day, we have turned a lot of corners. After our last funeral, we turned a corner."
The district will build new schools at the sites of the old ones; the new ones will have tornado-safe rooms.