MADISON, Wis. (5/24/13)--While a vault in the now-destroyed Moore, Okla., branch of Tinker FCU is getting credit for saving the lives of 22 people during Monday's tornado, the stories they brought out with them indicate heroic measures taken by credit union staff to keep the vault door closed and people inside safe.
National media, knowing a good miracle story when they hear one, began reporting on the survival of the 14 employees and eight members Wednesday. Reports of the group making it safely through the tornado appeared on CNN, NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams, ABC News, the Huffington Post, NPR and more. The story went around the world, with United Kingdom's Daily Mail picking it up with photos of the vault's occupants being helped out of the vault after the tornado.
Jan Davis, the branch manager, and employee Teresa Price described to CNN's Wolf Blitzer how they hid in the small vault as the building around them." Blitzer asked if it were crowded. Davis didn't hesitate. "It was crowded," she said, "but if there had been more people we would have crowded them right in."
Price described the loud crashing sounds and feeling the walls taking the impact. "The vault was rocking, cracking," and "people were praying out loud."
Davis said staff tried to keep everyone calm with constant conversation and good feelings and positive statements. When it was over, there was "devastation," said Price. Davis added they knew there would be nothing left when they opened the door.
"I was one of the members in the vault yesterday," Dena Clarke wrote on the credit union's Facebook page. "You all should be so proud of your employees! Everyone, especially Jan the branch manager, acted so heroically to keep everyone safe. I am so thankful! Our family loves TFCU!"
ABC News reported that Clarke, 23, was in the middle of a transaction, when the tornado sirens went off and the teller told her they needed to go into the vault.
As the group crowded into the vault, Davis and a police officer monitored the situation by watching the TV and looking out the window. At least one passerby came into the credit union seeking shelter. The group included a 10 year-old-boy with an iPad and elderly members.
The power went off and they closed the door just before the tornado hit.
But there was a problem. They couldn't get the door closed all the way from the inside. Someone took off a belt and looped it through an opening meant to let in oxygen and they tugged the vault door closed as much as possible. The manager, the police officer, and another employee held the door shut "just in case."
As the tornado hit and they could hear what sounded like a freight train and felt immense pressure in their ears, things started hitting the vault, said Clarke, who said that Davis, hanging onto the door to prevent it from opening, yelled, "Don't let go. Don't let go."
Clarke said she doesn't know how they kept the vault door shut. Debris began flying in the cracks of the door and glass cut the feet of people wearing sandals. It became difficult to breathe because of the dust and debris.
Then it was over. They tried to open the door, but debris was piled up against it. Someone texted 911 to say they were trapped and could smell gas. Before authorities arrived, however, the group heard people passing by and shouted, and everyone was rescued.
Comments on the CNN site after the interview lauded the credit union's staff for "quick thinking," although Davis said they were following the disaster procedures. One commenter wrote, "Those credit union members really got their money's worth on their membership."
Comments on the ABC site included one from a tornado survivor in Missouri. "I tried to seek shelter at a Bank of America in Missouri when tornado sirens were going off. The employees had locked the door and were carefully not looking outside" for security reasons.
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