Moore, Oklahoma hero teacher, students 'connected for life' after tornado

Mike McGregor / Today
"it was a really rough year," said Crosswhite, photographed here in October 2013.

Teacher Rhonda Crosswhite had planned not to come to school on one-year anniversary of the deadly Moore, Okla. tornado, but she couldn't break a promise she made to a student.

Crosswhite teaches fifth-grade social studies at Kingsgate Elementary, where one student, a Plaza Towers survivor, made a special request.

“One of the girls in my homeroom who was in 4th grade (last year) wrote me a really nice letter saying that ‘some days the only reason I come to school is to see you,’’’ Crosswhite told “I worry about getting out of bed that day (of the anniversary). All along, I said I'm not going to school that day, but I told that little girl I would be there, so I have to make an appearance. If she sees me cry, we’re both losing it.”

Crosswhite was teaching sixth-grade math at Plaza Towers Elementary School when an EF-5 tornado hit, killing seven students on May 20, 2013. Crosswhite used her body to shield several children in a bathroom as the building was ripped apart.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Kingsgate will hold a moment of silence to remember the victims.

“It was a really rough year — a lot of heartache, a lot of tears,’’ said Crosswhite. “The first day of school alone was really stressful, just shutting the door knowing I would be responsible for these children again. I kept thinking, ‘What if something happens again and I don't do the right thing? What if I panic?’ My husband just kept telling me, ‘You already proven you won't.’’’

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Teacher reunited with boy she saved during tornado

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She has kept in touch through Facebook and visits with the students she helped protect during the tornado. Some have moved away after losing their homes, while others have moved on to junior high school. She hears regularly from fifth-grader Damian Britton, with whom she had an emotional reunion on TODAY last year.

“We’re kind of connected for life,’’ she said.

"She saved our lives,'' Britton said during the reunion. 

For Crosswhite, the trauma of the tornado has manifested itself in subtle ways. For months, she dreamed that she was in labor with a child because of her back pain. She said children in the bathroom that day have told her they remember a large beam falling on her back that she deflected from hitting students, but she has no recollection of it.

“The kids said a big piece of steel landed on my back, and they didn’t know how I got it off,’’ she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that could be why my back hurts. Everything was such a blur when it happened.”

Crosswhite can't watch TV weather forecasts.

“My family laughs, but I’ll say, ‘So what’s the weather today?’’ she said. “My husband will tell me what to change into. I don’t watch the weather. If I know that something’s coming, it makes me anxious. It’s just still so raw.”

Recently she had to skip a Disney World ride with her daughter because she feared the children’s screams would bring her back to the day of the tornado.

“I told them that the screams bother me, and one woman who knew what happened during the tornado said, ‘You’re going to have to suck it up and just get over it,’’’ Crosswhite said. “I thought, ‘She has no clue, does she?’”

The new school buildings being constructed, including a new Plaza Towers Elementary School, have observed some of the strictest building codes in the country. Safe halls have been built, and Crosswhite said that she had skateboard-style helmets for the students in her classroom this year.

Despite the hardship of the past year, Crosswhite is also grateful to the strangers who donated money and supplies to help the town rebuild. The resilience of Moore has helped lift the spirits of those who were hit hard.

“I had a friend of mine say to me the other day, ‘You don’t look like you’re broken any more,’’’ Crosswhite said. “As bad as the year has been, I shouldn't have made it out that tornado alive. I had a lot of parents praying for me, and I’m just so thankful.”

Crosswhite and her family never considered moving.

“This is home,’’ she said. “If we lived by the coast, we would have hurricanes. In Oklahoma, it's just part of our life we're going to have a tornado. We just didn’t think it would be one that would change our life like it did.”