Early Wednesday evening, Anna Canaday returned to the twisted wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where she and a fellow teacher had used their bodies to shield as many kids as they could.
“The car they pulled off you is back of the pile,” her husband, Fred Dooley, said.
He meant a black Ford that the tornado had blown into the school hallway and landed atop Canaday and her colleague Jessica Simonds as they shielded the youngsters at their own dire peril. A part of the school had then fallen on top of the car.
“I’m pretty banged up, but nothing’s broken,” Canaday now said. “I’m just cut and bruised everywhere.”
She remembered that as the tornado bore down on this school in Moore, Okla., she and Simonds took the kids into the hall, among them her own daughter, 5-year-old Kali.
“I just grabbed as many kids as I could, eight of 10 kindergartners,” Canaday recalled.
Canaday took half the children and Simonds took the others. The teachers had them get down on their knees against the wall and cover their heads, just as they had often done in the school’s regular drills. The tornado roared ever near.
“We just held them and told them to keep their heads down,” Canaday remembered. “I kept telling them they were going to be just fine and God was going to take care of us. I prayed as loud as I could.”
The twister was right upon them in all its fury.
“When it hit it was so loud,” Canaday said. “I just kept telling the kids under me, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I prayed aloud…‘Just take me instead because they’re the babies.’”
Much of the school around them was destroyed.
“A car ended up in the hallway on us, I guess,” she said.
As the twister moved on, Canaday regained a sense of herself and got a glimpse of the monster from under the car and through the wreckage.
“When I came to, I guess I was looking at the back of the tornado,” she recalled. “It was just black and stuff was blowing around and around.”
Some people from the neighborhood hurried into the school and hoisted away the car to free the two teachers. And under the teachers were the kids.
“A couple of them had scratches, a couple had busted eardrums,” Canaday said.
Her daughter had one small scratch on her leg.
“And that was it,” Canaday said.
Canaday and the other teachers in her wing of Plaza Towers Elementary formed a line to help the kids from the mass of rubble and twisted beams that had been their school.
“We just passed kids out until everybody was out,” she said. “The teachers got out last.”
The kids themselves were remarkable.
“Of course, they were scared, some were crying, but they were organized, real troopers,” Canaday says, “They listened to us. They did what we told them.”
The husband of another teacher, Aimee Bocock, arrived.
“He said, ‘Glad you’re OK,’ and he went in to help,” Bocock recalled.
The husband joined the neighborhood people who had continued to do all they could.
“Pulling walls off people, bricks and blocks,” Canaday said.
“I just kept telling the kids under me, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I prayed aloud…‘Just take me instead because they’re the babies.’”
The principal’s husband is a local firefighter, and in the rubble was a stack of toy fire helmets with a Moore FD logo. Real-life firefighters now joined the search, but they were unable to save seven kids who had been buried under a collapsed wall in another section of the school.
Simonds had a broken arm and was taken away by ambulance. Canaday was still so worried about everybody else three hours later that she was unaware of her own injuries.
“I didn’t even know I was hurt,” she says. “A guy looked at my back and said, ‘We have to get her to the hospital.”
As she was taken to a hospital in the nearby town of Norman, her husband arrived at the school, searching frantically for his wife and daughter.
“I cried until I could cry no more,” he recalled.
He finally got word of where they were and hurried to see them. His daughter remembered that he had often told her not to break her glasses because they were costly to replace.
“She said, ‘Daddy, I’m OK, but my glasses broke when the school fell on me,’” he reports.
Canaday still had the hospital bracelet on her wrist when she returned to Plaza Towers on Wednesday evening. The school had been all but obliterated.
“To think I was in it and we survived it,” she said. “How could anybody survive this?”
She wore blue flip-flops and gray shorts and a gray t-shirt, which she raised at the back to show a reporter the cuts and bruises from protecting her kids in the magnificently selfless way that Simonds and a number of other teachers at the school had.
“Everybody did everything to protect those kids,” she said.
Her husband walked over to the pile to search for her purse she had left behind. He spotted her desk, but the drawer where she thought she might have left it was smashed and empty. He noted as he continued searching the destruction that his wife had dismissed any suggestion that she was a hero.
“She just said it’s her job to save the kids,” he said.
He added that her psyche has taken a battering along with her body, particularly when she thinks of the seven youngsters in the other wing who did not survive.
“She wakes up at 3 o’clock in the morning wishing she could have saved the other kids,” he said.
He was unable to recover the purse, but he did find a plastic jar that had been used to collect PTA money for the teachers’ lounge. The top had been torn away, but a few dollars remained, mixed in with some debris.
“There’s some rocks,” Canaday noted, sounding still stunned by it all.
The husband answered his cell phone and told her that a parent was driving over to thank her for saving her child. Canaday was scheduled to be reunited with all the kids on Thursday.
“I’m just going to give them a great big hug,” she said. “Reassure them we’re going to protect them no matter what.”
She smiled when asked if she thought the school should be rebuilt.
“I would love it,” she said. “This is home now. I don’t want to be anywhere else. We’ll rebuild and go on.”
She added, “I just hope we can find a way to make our kids a little safer.”