Recruiter’s post-tornado effort has lasting impact

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Kwang Woong Kim
  • Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

As the massive 1.3-mile-wide tornado approached Moore, Okla., May 20, Staff Sgt. Tim Smith took shelter along with his family, neighbors and dogs.

"I arrived home 10 minutes before the tornado hit my neighborhood," said Smith, an enlisted accessions recruiter in Norman, Okla. "My wife, my son and I were able to make it to my neighbor's shelter."

"About the time it was on top of us, all of our ears started popping repeatedly and we were silent," Smith said. "The only thing I heard was the wind and the debris hitting the roof and garage door. We were in the shelter for about eight minutes before the noise stopped and we felt it was safe to come out and look around."

The EF5 tornado had destroyed everything in its path, including his neighborhood, Smith said.

"When I opened the shelter, the garage door was smashed in and we could only see our severely damaged house across the street," Smith said. "The neighborhood had been destroyed and there was still debris in the air and you could still see the tornado."

As Smith and his neighbor went to survey the damage of their homes, they noticed that the local elementary school, which was in session, was no longer there.

"I yelled at Tim and said, 'There are still kids in the school!'" said Phillip Rowland, Smith's neighbor. "We immediately took off running down the street towards the elementary school."

"Briarwood Elementary School was left with just a few walls, a pile of rubble, and what looked like a junkyard of mangled cars out front," Rowland said.

Without hesitation, Smith took control of the scene. He coordinated a group of volunteers and led search parties to help those trapped inside vehicles and the school.

"When I got to the first car, there was a young girl in the back seat crying and waiting for her father who was in the school, so Phil stayed with her as I worked my way through all the other cars," Smith said. "In front of the school there was a small pond where several cars were turned over. In order to check them I had to swim under the water to feel around to ensure the car was clear and about halfway through clearing the cars, another young man was there helping me."

Searching through debris and cars, Smith and several volunteers rescued and aided those in need of help.

"We searched the school for about an hour until all the children were accounted for," Smith said. "We managed to pull out the last two children who were missing and administered first aid to them while several officers came through evacuating the area due to gas leaks and live wires."

"You would think he did this every day from the way he was able to search with urgency and efficiency," Rowland said.

As first responders arrived at school, Smith said he headed back toward his neighborhood to look for those still trapped. Street after street, Smith and fellow volunteers continued their search through debris looking for trapped survivors and rendering first aid ranging from small cuts and puncture wounds, to large head wounds.

"As Phil and I headed into the streets of the neighborhood, I started yelling to hopefully hear a response," Smith said. "Fortunately, I heard a man's voice yelling, 'We are here! We are here!' I used a pry bar to remove debris from the top of the shelter and got it open. We were able to pull him, his wife and grandchildren who were stuck in their shelter."

While attending to the injured, Smith and fellow volunteers supported first responders who were unable to get to the scene.

"We transported the injured by loading them into pickup trucks because their vehicles could not to make it through the neighborhood," Smith said.

"Every point that I ran back into Tim he was still working with the same urgency as he was when we first stepped out of the shelter," Rowland added. "I started to slow down quite a bit because of the physical and mental strain, but just seeing him push on really motivated me to keep up. I saw him organizing people and doing so many things I'm not even sure he realized what he was doing."

Smith was not the only member of the family providing a helping hand. His wife, Staff Sgt. Brandi Smith, a unit deployment manager, had taken in several children whose parents were helping in the search efforts.

"Without her taking in those children those other parents would not have been able to help with the rescue efforts," Smith said. "During all of this, she also had our own son she was trying to watch. At one point she had as many as five children and one of them had special needs."

"It's hard to say an exact number of lives impacted that day by Tim's acts, but I would describe it as a ripple," Rowland said. "For every person he either helped or inspired that day I'm confident that individual went out and was able to help at least one other person."

Rowland admitted that he and his wife were tossing around the idea of moving away from Moore after the tornado, but soon changed their minds.

"As soon as we found out that the Smith family was going to rebuild we couldn't think of a better place to be. Tim and Brandi both did so much that day for the neighbors and so many people they didn't even know. I can't think of anywhere else we could find better people to raise a family around."