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'What I saw was soul-crushing': Janet Shamlian remembers Moore, Oklahoma tornado

May 20, 2014 at 4:02 PM ET

Shamlian, here interviewing Moore mayor Glenn Lewis, arrived just hours after the tornado hit.
Janet Shamlian/NBC News
Shamlian, here interviewing Moore mayor Glenn Lewis, arrived just hours after the tornado hit.

As that deadly tornado took aim at Moore, Okla. one year ago, the warnings were not unlike those issued just before Hurricane Katrina.

Forecasters said there was "imminent danger" and predicted a "probable loss of life."

I was close to Moore May 20, 2013, working alongside Al Roker and the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore in Shawnee, Okla., covering the aftermath of a deadly tornado there. But coverage came to an abrupt stop when we heard those piercing sirens indicating the area was under yet another tornado warning.

There was a hotel nearby, and that's where we watched our NBC station, KFOR, broadcast live pictures of the unthinkable as the tornado ripped through Moore. Of course, we all piled into our rental cars and headed there — even as the skies turned black and the storm passed in front of us.

It took 25 minutes to drive 28 miles. We were running on adrenaline. The last two miles took two hours as traffic inched toward Moore.

Power was out everywhere, no signals were working, and I was on the phone with NBC News describing everything in front of me. But I had no idea of what was to come.

The tornado left debris, including personal belongings from destroyed homes, spread throughout the town.
Janet Shamlian/NBC News
The tornado left debris, including personal belongings from destroyed homes, spread throughout the town.

As night turned to day, what I saw was soul-crushing. Children the age of my own died, huddled together in the basement of their elementary school. There are no words for that.

I saw horrors in every direction. Bodies had yet to be taken to morgues. The most personal of items were at my feet. Loyal family dogs sat on concrete foundations, all that remained of their homes, waiting for owners would would never return.

The tornado hit with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour.
Janet Shamlian/NBC News
The tornado hit with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour.

But it wasn't all bad. I spent a week in Moore, and during that time, I saw the best. A woman came from Texas to open a beauty salon — color and cuts for free to anyone who needed a little lift. Restaurants served for free.

"I can pay," I said," I didn't lose anything."

The tornado killed 24 people. The orange "X" on this car indicates no bodies were found inside.
Janet Shamlian/NBC News
The tornado killed 24 people. The orange "X" on this car indicates no bodies were found inside.

"No," a waitress insisted, "you're working... you're helping."

I won't be in Moore today, but Moore will always be in me. I'm attending my son's high school graduation and it's tragically bittersweet knowing that other moms and dads — the parents of the children who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School — will never have this day.

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