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Teacher Led Students Through Storm Despite Peril To Daughter

May 21, 2013
Originally published on May 21, 2013 5:17 pm

Suzanne Sells lost her house to Monday's tornado in Moore, Okla., but she's still helping other people.

Sells is a special education English teacher at Moore High School. It was spared a direct hit, but like other schools in town, it was closed Tuesday. Still, she showed up to let in a student who needed access to heart medicine that had been locked away.

She had spent hours trying to keep her students calm before, during and after the storm, but Sells is most grateful to other teachers at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where her daughter, Claire Gossett, is in the fifth grade.

"The teachers who broke protocol and did what they needed to do, those are the ones that saved my daughter's life," she says.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December happened again in Moore — teachers stepped up to try to protect pupils.

"It's sad how often this is coming up," says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "But the stories that come out of there, the acts of heroism, are just amazing."

'A Mouthful Of Mud'

News footage from helicopters shows the wreckage that was Plaza Towers Elementary. But it's still possible to make out the blue stalls in the bathrooms, where some teachers had the instinct to take kids out of the hallways; that's where emergency plans dictated they remain.

"The area they were in didn't collapse," Sells says.

As her daughter related the story, students were crammed into the bathroom, the teachers piling up on top of them, telling them to hold on. They were stern, but not panicked.

"Claire screamed and got a mouthful of mud," Sells says, "and she knew she should stop screaming."

Coping With Crisis

Teachers are trained regularly to cope with emergencies, whether it's fire drills or simulated lockdowns. Tornado drills are a monthly occurrence in towns like Moore.

"Protocols for intruders and violent situations have become much more deliberate and practiced than they were 10 to 15 years ago," says Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which provides teacher training in about two dozen large cities.

But it's easy to forget all the training.

"In the heat of the crisis, it's hard to remember where you put that brochure," Van Roekel says.

No matter how strong the preparation for a disaster, it's the aftermath that can be hardest to deal with. For extreme cases such as Moore and Sandy Hook, the NEA sends in teams of teachers who have been through comparable events in other states.

Dramatic events like a tornado "should make people be aware that we're going to take care of their kids," says Kim Paxson, who teaches in Shawnee, Okla.

Little Losses Can Upset

Paxson used to teach at Moore High School, and she arrived at the campus on Tuesday with shampoo and other goods to help out Sells, her former colleague.

Tuesday was Claire's birthday, and she was anxious to get her hair clean for the occasion. Her hair is frizzy enough that, though she came through a tornado with only a scratch on her hand, she spent Monday night picking out pieces of glass, wood and insulation from her hair.

"I went through a tornado and my hair still looks the same," she told her mom.

Sells doesn't mind that her daughter is making jokes. She's tried to shelter Claire from information about how many of her schoolmates died. Sells wants Claire to come to terms with the tragedy, but she knows the time for counseling will come later.

"She was mostly upset that we had her party on Sunday and all her presents from her friends were at the house," Sells says.

Sources Of Support

The house is gone, so they spent the night with another teacher. A friend has an apartment the family will be able to use. Sells says that other people in town are worse off and that she's grateful to have a network of resources to draw on.

She counts her students among them. She had made the decision to watch over the children in her classroom, rather than immediately leaving to hunt for her own children.

She spent 2 1/2 hours not knowing where Claire was or whether she was all right, unable to pick up cell or text service and hearing conflicting reports in the media about damage to area schools.

When her principal finally insisted that Sells leave, her students clued into the fact that her own daughter might have been in danger.

"Immediately the kids turned to me to give me support," Sells says. "I burst into tears."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Yesterday, after the tornado hit Moore, Okla., word began to filter out about schools - two elementary schools directly in the storm's path, flattened. Suzanne Sells' daughter, Claire, is a fifth grader at one of those schools, Plaza Towers. Today happens to be Claire's 11th birthday. As the tornado approached, Ms. Sells was busy at work taking care of her own students. She's a teacher at Moore High School, a couple of miles away from Plaza Towers Elementary.

As she told us today, she could tell from news reports that her school would not be struck by the tornado. But she saw that her daughter's school lay right in its path.

SUZANNE SELLS: You couldn't get any information or anything. And it was probably about an hour after everything had happened before somebody finally said Plaza Towers took a direct hit. It's leveled.

BLOCK: So what did you do?

SELLS: I pretty much lost it at that point. You couldn't get signal. We had to stay in the room with the kids until we were released. But, you know, as soon as I could do that, I went outside and got a signal and was able to get on Facebook and start posting and asking questions. But at that point, nobody really knew. And the news channels, you know, it was like, we would get one report that said Plaza Towers was leveled. The other one's like, no, all the kids are accounted for.

And finally, you know, it ended up that what - the information I got was accurate. Plaza Towers was, indeed, leveled and took a direct hit. And finally, my best friend has a brother who teaches at Santa Fe Elementary, and he had notified her that he had Claire. And what had happened, I guess, the kids, after - once the tornado had passed - the ones that were in the bathroom, the teachers, you know, gathered them and they all walked out of the tornado and down - it's probably about a mile to Santa Fe Elementary.

BLOCK: So your daughter was in a bathroom with the teachers.

SELLS: Yeah. The teachers, you know, they piled all the kids in there. Claire said they were just piled on top of each other, and teachers were climbing on top of them and, you know, telling them to hold on. And she said that she was screaming, and then she got a mouthful of mud and realized she should stop screaming, you know?

BLOCK: Oh, my goodness.

SELLS: You know, it just - I mean, then she, you know, and when she said you could just feel the roof get ripped off and all of a sudden there was light. And had they stayed in the hallway, the hallway had collapsed. So I'm very glad that they didn't stay in the hallway.

BLOCK: What has Claire told you about what was going through her mind during this?

SELLS: She really hasn't talked a whole lot about it. She is the one that confirmed for me that our house was indeed gone, that, you know, because when they walked out of there, she could see that it was gone. And then, you know, looking on the news, you know, looking at the pictures, there's nothing there.

But, you know, she kind of - since today is her birthday, you know, she's kind of made some jokes. And she has really kinky, curly, kind of crazy hair all the time. And, you know, she kind of made the joke: I just went through an F5 tornado and my hair still looks the same, you know?


SELLS: But she had to burst out crying at one point.

BLOCK: Ms. Sells, tell me about the moment when you were reunited with Claire. What was that like?

SELLS: As soon as I saw her, you know, I just got out of the car and ran and just hugged her. And, you know, she was like, whoa, whoa. I'm OK.


SELLS: So, you know, she was her normal, cheerful, happy self. But kind of waiting for that to all sink in.

BLOCK: Yeah, I bet. What kind of physical condition was Claire in when you saw her?

SELLS: You know, she had all sorts of debris in her hair. She, you know, was all muddy. But she only had one scratch on her hand. But, you know, the debris, it's just - I mean, she had - she was pulling - last night, she was pulling glass out of her hair, pieces of wood, insulation, just everything. And like I said, she's got like really kinky, curly hair, so it's just amazing how much stuff we're just finding in her hair.

BLOCK: You know, the way you're describing Claire, it sounds like she's a really stoic kid. I wonder if you're worried that it might sort of really hit her a little bit later, what happened, and to be prepared for that.

SELLS: Yeah. I'm kind of - actually, I'm worried about that. Moore Youth and Family Services has offered to do some counseling and stuff like that. And that's definitely something I'm going to check out. Like, right now, I'm just going to wait till she's ready to open up and talk and - as she learns more and finds out, you know, like how many of her schoolmates didn't make it. And, you know, I've been trying to kind of shelter her from everything to where she doesn't know about all that.

But I think most kids, even at Moore High School, you know, even if you weren't directly affected by it, you know, just even in my classroom, you know, there's been tears and the anxiety and just their heartfelt sadness over what they were seeing and hearing. And it's definitely something that they all are going to need, a little bit of love and support - a whole lot of love and support.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Sells, thank you so much for talking with us. And please wish Claire as happy a birthday as is possible under the circumstances.

SELLS: I will do that. And I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Suzanne Sells is a teacher at Moore High School. She and her family are now staying with friends after their home was destroyed. Her daughter, Claire, attends Plaza Towers Elementary which was leveled by the tornado. The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office says that seven children died at that school. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.