Ronnie and Sally Horn built their retirement home 15 years ago. It was a vision of comfort set against a wooded background. The yard was well manicured. The picket fence was white. The pond out back was as clear as any in Oklahoma. A large “H” adorned the walkway.
Now their dream home lies in shambles.
Nearly every wall was collapsed less than a day after a tornado tore through and killed 24 people. A few interior walls still framed Sally’s red bedroom, which otherwise was exposed to the elements. A bathroom roof crumbled around a clawfoot tub. Three ornate crosses hung on one of the few remaining walls, dripping with water as the skies opened up a third time.
It was then that Sally Horn reflected on the most dangerous day of her life — and a prescient decision made 14 years earlier that would save her own life and those of 10 other people.
“I feel lucky and blessed to be alive,” she said.
The Horns bought 30 acres in 1998 and built their house for retirement, though they never quite made it that far.
Instead, they continued to work at Control Flow Inc., the company they owned just a hundred yards from the front porch. They raised horses and they lived simply. Friends and a close-knit family visited regularly.
“We have a big family, and this is the main place we come to,” said Sally’s brother-in-law, Gary Garland, as he helped sift through the rubble Tuesday.
The grandkids live a few miles south. The Horns’ oldest son, Hoby, owns and operates Horn Equipment down the street.
Another son, Jeffrey, is a school administrator in Moore. He spent Monday, May 20, rescuing children from the hard-hit Briarwood Elementary School and the even harder-hit Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died.
The Horns lived at the house through a number of storms, including the May 3, 1999, tornado that grazed their property and sent them scrambling for shelter at the high school. The devastation around them convinced them to install an underground shelter. They huddled there in 2003 when another killer tornado came their way.
The house also gave Sally peace, with its scenic surroundings and close proximity to her business. When Ronnie died in January after a long illness, she couldn’t imagine moving from the home she had built and shared with him.
It was a good thing for her employees at Control Flow that she stayed.
That Monday afternoon began typically for Jerry Mosley, the general manager at Control Flow. He’s been responsible for running the company for several years and has helped look after Sally since Ronnie’s death.
He was meeting with several coworkers — ironically discussing the need for an office television to monitor severe weather — when cell phones started to ring. Moments later, the shop hands showed up and Mosley started hearing reports of a nasty storm forming miles to the west.
“My wife called me and told me to get to the cellar right away,” he said. “I kept her on the line and told everyone we were going to Sally’s immediately."
The typical tornado shelter is little more than a hole in the ground. It’s uncomfortable for anything more than a handful of people and far too small for the 10 people at Control Flow at the time.
But the Horns’ shelter is atypical. Preparing for exactly the type of catastrophe that came to her door Monday, Sally had a second shelter installed 14 years ago.
That decision saved lives.
“Some of the guys wanted to try and drive home as the storm was coming,” Mosley said. “We would have been scattered, and they would have ended up driving right into the tornado trying to get home. I told everyone they weren’t leaving and they had to get to Sally’s. If it wasn’t for her, none of us would have survived.”
Sally’s home wasn’t completely leveled; Control Flow was another story. The tornado wiped away the building, leaving behind oil-soaked ground. It twisted, tossed and wrapped beams around each other in pretzels of steel.
It dropped a small car, recognizable only by its blown-out tires, on top of debris piled a dozen feet high.
Avoiding that disaster didn’t mean survival came easily for those working at Control Flow.
At first, Mosley and his colleagues stood on Sally’s wraparound porch. From the house’s perch on the crest of a hill, they had a perfect view of the approaching storm. They considered the chances it would hit them to be small. Mosley even snapped a few pictures of the approaching twister with his smartphone.
Conditions changed quickly. Baseball-sized hail rained upon them. The group scrambled to the cellar and huddled inside the cramped, damp and dark shelter.
Mosley couldn’t recall how many minutes passed inside the shelter. But he vividly remembered what he saw and heard: The sound of hail pounding the ground above their heads. The drone of a tornado that quickly grew to a deafening roar. A woman crying uncontrollably as she fought a panic attack.
Insulation flew into the shelter through the air vent. Mosley worried that a slow-moving tornado could suck out the oxygen from the air, suffocating everyone inside the shelter, even if the winds never reached them.
“I wanted to cry, too, but I had to try and keep my composure,” he said. “The roar was unbelievable and the power of it was incredible.”
There was one other sound: Throughout the tumult, Mosley’s wife held the line. His cell phone connection with her stayed intact even as others in the mile-wide path of the tornado lost all service.
Mosley stayed on the phone with her as he emerged from his daze in the shelter onto an unrecognizable scene.
There was no trace of the picturesque home that once was there.
Sally at first didn’t look at the pieces of her battered home. Her eyes immediately turned south.
“Our granddaughters live in an addition just south of us, and I needed to see if they were safe,” she said. “When I saw that their houses were still standing, then I began looking around. Then it just overwhelms you.”
The house is totaled, but all is not lost.
Sally rescued a few mementos. She and the 10 others who took refuge in her shelter survived.
The remains of Sally’s dream home will have to come down. The remaining walls aren’t sturdy. The “H” on the front porch, which she meticulously painted 14 years earlier and weathered so many storms, is obscured by debris and insulation.
Memories won’t go anywhere, but Sally, still reeling from the disaster, doesn’t know if she has what it takes to come back.
Gary Garland, her brother-in-law, thinks she does. He can’t imagine her doing anything else, but he knows it’s a decision she will have to make as she moves in with her son and begins the long process of rebuilding more than just a home.
With the faintest hint of a crack in her voice, Sally began to look toward a difficult future.
“I don’t know what I’ll do now,” she said. “You just put your faith in God, and he’ll show you the way.”
Corbin Holser writes for the Norman, Okla., Transcript.