The morning after a huge tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, Port Matilda Deputy Fire Chief Steve Kibe got a text from Gideon Schwartz, a friend and a fellow firefighter.
The text read: “Do you want to go to Oklahoma?”
Later that day, Kibe, Schwartz and three other members of the Port Matilda Fire Department headed for Moore, Okla., to assist emergency crews there.
Also making the trip were Abbie Spackman, Mark Hale and Derrick Reese.
They had arrived in Moore on Wednesday morning in time to assist search and rescue units going from building to building. Thursday, they helped Red Cross and Salvation Army teams distribute food, water and other supplies.
All five helped fight a garage fire Sunday in Miles Grove, a neighborhood along Eagle Valley Road. They were just a few days back from Oklahoma.
“The annihilation … Man, you couldn’t believe it,” Hale, safety officer at Port Matilda, said of the tornado damage. “There had to be an incredible amount of force. We saw a pickup truck that was literally wrapped around a tree.”
“As far as you could see, it was flattened,” Kibe said, “just pulverized.”
The storm hit Moore late in the day on May 20, cutting a swath of destruction 17 miles long and a mile wide. It killed 24 people, including 10 children, although early estimates were much higher.
The tornado leveled homes, businesses and schools.
“It was the equivalent of having something come through our entire call area here, having the (upper Bald Eagle) valley wiped out,” Schwartz said.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen before,” Reese said. “It was amazing, the level of destruction.”
Despite the devastation, the local firefighters also saw sights that amazed them.
In one house, a china cabinet and its fragile contents were intact, although the house around the cabinet was leveled.
In another place, the dinner table was set for a meal and food had been prepared, but the walls around the table were gone.
A church withstood the intense winds, even as schools collapsed.
“Seeing that church still standing was pretty powerful,” Spackman said. “People were able to go there and get shelter.”
The local team found two dogs in the rubble of houses. The pets were reunited with their families.
“That felt pretty good, finding somebody’s pet,” Reese said.
On the day they decided to head west, more than $1,500 was raised locally to support their travel expenses. Reese said his parents, Quay and Nancy, immediately gave $100. Pastor Ryan Smith, of Port Matilda Baptist Church, gave $200 of his own money, and then the church took up a collection to support the effort.
Other churches, groups and individuals also contributed.
Schwartz said the department plans to establish a fund that will support future emergency assistance needs in faraway places.
He said the local quintet drove to Oklahoma in a Port Matilda fire police vehicle and was immediately welcomed by Moore emergency teams.
“The staging officer, when he saw us, he broke up a little bit,” Schwartz said. “When he realized how far we had come, he was pretty emotional.”
All five local volunteers said they encountered a force in Oklahoma that was stronger even than any EF5 tornado: A close-knit community.
“I’ll remember the devastation, all the rubble, but the most memorable part was the people,” Spackman said. “They welcomed us and supported each other. They were already cleaning up, already making a comeback.”
“The reception we got was amazing,” Schwartz said. “We did what we do here, they just had a bigger incident. We told them we could take over for a while, that they could let us take on some of the weight.”
Spackman said she was reminded of the brotherhood of firefighters and the value of the services all departments provide.
“We saw that there were people in need out there, and we felt there was something we could do,” she said. “You’re supposed to help your neighbors, whether that’s down the street or across the country.”