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Untold Stories: Hear from the firefighters at Plaza Towers

MOORE, Okla. - The Moore Fire Department is no stranger to tornadoes. The city has been hit by three violent tornadoes since the historic May 3, 1999, F-5 tornado.

Corley Moore has worked for the Moore Fire Department for more than two decades and lives in Moore with his family.

"You get that okie sense, it's so muggy and still. Oppressive almost. And you're like, oh, this is a bad day for weather," Moore said.

But, he had no idea the weather would spawn a killer tornado.

Kyle Olsen has worked for the Moore Fire Department for 14 years. He was off duty that day.

"Went for a run and that's when my wife called me on my cell phone and said, 'You need to get home,'" Olsen said.

Moore's daughter called, "she said, 'Dad, it's getting crazy.' So I said, 'Okay, I'm on my way.'"

He picked up is son from Brink Junior High. They made it home just in time, before the tornado hit.

"It's like all the cliches, it's like a freight train. Just the rumble, just the - almost other worldly," said Moore, describing the tornado from when he was in his storm shelter.

Olsen listened to the storm coverage and his heart dropped.

"One of the choppers in the air was saying Briarwood was totally destroyed," he said.

His mom and brother live in the Briarwood edition of Moore. Many of the firefighters had to choose work over family in the face of disaster.

"I was torn and carried a lot of guilt because I turned around and I wanted to check on my mom and my brother first, but I knew I needed to get in and I didn't know how far I could get in," said Olsen.

Moore didn't realize the extent of damage.

"When I came out of the shelter, I did not think it was that bad. I thought, okay, a small tornado had just passed over us," he said.

He didn't realize an EF-5 tornado had just passed south of his location. He jumped in his truck and headed down 12th Street to go to work.

"Oklahoma City fire trucks just started flying down Santa Fe and I thought, oh boy, this is bad," Moore said.

After watching the tornado pass, Blake Munsey reported to Station One.

"There wasn't anybody here. I was the only person here. Phone was ringing off the hook and I answered it. People were like, what do we need to do? I was like - I have no idea," he said.

Munsey hopped into a brush rig with another firefighter.

"Initially, we headed to the house fire, which so happened to be in the Plaza edition," he said.

They did not know the horror ahead.

Moore made it to Station Two and it was empty. He said except for a brush rig, all of the vehicles were gone.

Olsen reported to his station and called dispatch and said, "where's it hit the hardest?" Dispatch responded, "Plaza Towers."

When Moore arrived, he couldn't believe the devastation.

"It was just twisted metal sticking up where it shouldn't be, walls gone where it should be," he said.

Olsen hitched a ride on an ambulance to Plaza Towers.

"We pulled up to Plaza and it was just a pile of rubble. And, um, that's when I opened the back of the ambulance. It wasn't a good site," he said.

The city they knew so well, now completely unrecognizable.

"Landmarks were gone, buildings were gone, the 7-Eleven was gone, debris everywhere, telephone poles, wires in the streets," Olsen described.

Just when they thought the urgency couldn't get any higher, the firefighters hear reports of children trapped in the debris.

"You know, as firemen, it doesn't matter what kind of call we run on, kids are always tough," said Olsen.

Munsey joined the group effort.

"I opened up all of the compartment doors on Engine 1 and we just started carrying extrication equipment and air bags and cylinders for lifting bags," he said.

Munsey, Moore, and Olsen worked on the area of Plaza Towers where seven little bodies were removed from the rubble. Olsen tried to focus on the task at hand, but couldn't help but think of his own children.

"At the time, I had two young boys, and I tried to work as hard as I could for them, knowing there were parents out there that - that was a very bad day for," said Olsen.

Moore said there were glimmers of hope.

"I know the first three kids we pulled out were alive. Then we had a teacher, I believe it was the pregnant teacher," said Moore.

While there were rescues, there were also heartbreaking recoveries.

"That's the hardest part, you know, knowing that - there were parents out there that weren't going to see their kids anymore. And, you know, I almost feel guilty that I was going to be able to see mine," said Olsen.

One memory haunts Moore to this day - when he had to report the number of casualties from Plaza Towers.

"I said there was 14 dead, I only put hands on 7 of them. Okay, and at the time it didn't mean much, but that memory sticks in my head because I said there were 14 dead, but I put my hands on 7 of them because that's the only part I can verify," Moore told News 4.

He realized later the magnitude of that statement.

"That means I pulled out all 7 dead kids," he said.

Olsen tried to describe his time at Plaza Towers saying, "it was almost like a dream. There was a lot of times where it was like, I was in a nightmare and couldn't wake up."

Munsey echoed Olsen's sentiments saying, "it was such a blur, from when it hit, to the time I went home that night. It was, I mean, it happened so fast."

"There was nothing we were going to do to save the ones that didn't make it. Nothing we could have done different," Moore said.

The three worked into the night, only taking small breaks. The next day, they continued to work.

"We got a list of storm shelters to go around and make sure no one was trapped," said Moore. He worked for 48 hours straight, briefly went home and had to return work the next day.

"It was crazy. But there was so much to do that you couldn't do enough," he said.

He says reuniting with his family was bittersweet.

"You almost feel guilty that your family is okay. But at the same time, you're ecstatic that they are all okay. That you wouldn't trade it for anything," he said.

Adding to the chaos, many of the firefighters had family in Moore. After several days of work with the city, Munsey started helping his family clean up after the storm.

"My aunt and uncle's house got hit, my sister's house got hit, and my cousin's house was hit. So, I had a lot of family involved," he said.

Olsen didn't see his family until four days after the tornado hit.

"I remember calling my chief and telling him, 'Hey, you got to send me home. I have to see my kids,'" said Olsen.

He recalled the emotional reunion, saying "I don't cry too much. My wife's seen me cry a couple times, but when I saw them, I just lost it. Just held onto them."

Even five years later, the loss of seven children is still very raw and real.

It took probably three years, and you know, it's still hard to go by the school. I know it's new, but it's still hard," said Olsen.

In all, the May 20 EF-5 tornado took the lives of 24 people, including ten children.

Olsen reflects 5 years later, saying "we take life for granted a lot of times and just how fragile it is until something like that happens or something close hits home and you realize how precious life is."