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When Disaster Strikes

The story of two Sailors on leave in the wrong place at the right time.

When Cryptologic Technician (Collections) 2nd Class Arturo Guerra and Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class Sean Kelley traveled to Moore, Okla., on leave in May, they never imagined they would be providing life-saving assistance in the wake of one of nature's most destructive forces.

The pair, assigned to Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63), left San Diego in early May to attend a mutual friend's wedding in Baton Rouge, La. On the way back home they decided to drive up to Moore, where Kelley's parents live, for a few days of rest and relaxation.

When they arrived at the Kelley residence they began hearing reports of a large weather system - one that had already produced several tornadoes - sweeping toward their town.

"May is tornado season and there is usually at least one in the area every year, but it had been 13 years since the last tornado came through my town and caused some serious damage," said Kelley.

On the morning of May 20, with weather reports turning ever darker and a looming storm system on the horizon, family and friends huddled together in the Kelley living room, waiting to hear confirmation of the danger they knew was coming.

"Everyone that is close with my family and people in the neighborhood who don't have shelter know to come to us for shelter during a tornado," said Kelley.

What they didn't know though, was that the storm was about to produce an EF5 tornado, the most destructive there is.

When the tornado touched down, Kelley's mother received a text from a neighbor a few houses down. She was alone with her two small children and needed help getting them to the shelter because large hailstones had begun hammering down, damaging everything in their path.

Kelley and his father didn't hesitate. Braving the bruising hail and strong winds, they ran down the street to grab the family. With the two children wrapped in Kelley's arms and his father protecting their mother, they fought the elements to bring them all back to the shelter safely.

"It was hailing super hard but we got them down into the shelter without anyone getting seriously hurt," Kelley said. "Once it passed over we came up out of there. It was really hot down in there, lots of people jammed into a small space for a while; it's like a sauna almost, so we got out to get some radio reception and some water to rehydrate."

The tornado, reported by some witnesses as "a giant black wall of destruction," stayed on the ground for approximately 39 minutes and covered about 17 miles. With peak winds estimated at 210 mph, it crossed through a heavily populated section of Moore, killing 24 people and injuring 377 others.

Plaza Towers Elementary School was completely destroyed during the storm; 75 children and staff were present when the tornado struck.

"It was probably about five minutes after we got out that we got the report about the elementary school," said Kelley. "When we heard that, my dad told me, 'Grab your gloves. Let's go.' My dad, two of his friends that were in the shelter with us, Guerra and I jumped into my neighbor's Suburban and headed to the school to help out."

When they arrived at the school, they discovered things were worse than they had expected.

"It was post-apocalyptic," Guerra recalled. "Houses were completely demolished; the elementary school was gone; there was maybe one wall standing at the school."

Kelley's father, a retired Navy command master chief who trained as a hospital corpsman, immediately went to help set up a triage station and begin treating the survivors, while the others set out to help search the destruction for more survivors.

"We were all stepping through it, looking around, realizing that this must be what things look like after an airstrike or a building is demolished or something - except you could still see kids' backpacks and schools supplies mixed in with the rubble," said Kelley. "Luckily, the teachers had stuck to emergency plans and gathered all the children in a central location. It made the rescue efforts a lot easier."

Firefighters, police officers and the National Guard had begun pouring onto the scene with numerous civilians frantically searching through the wreckage.

Authorities soon began clearing the area of non-essential personnel in order to reduce confusion during the rescue efforts and maintain safety.

"CTR2 and I weren't in uniform since we were on leave, but we told them we are in the Navy and have egress and basic medical training, so they let us stay and help," said Kelley.

"We were hoping to not have to use the medical training we have received," Guerra added. "I knew though that, had it come down to it, I could have stepped in and delivered."

While digging through the rubble, Guerra and Kelley came across a teacher and four children trapped under a cinder brick wall that had collapsed onto them.

Thankfully, the collapsed wall had caught on what was left of the wall opposite it, allowing a very small gap that protected the survivors from serious harm.

With the help of firefighters and National Guardsmen, Guerra and Kelley were able to lift the wall enough to crawl under and help the teacher and children escape the danger precariously perched over their heads.

After securing the group, Guerra and Kelley continued to search what was left of the school for anyone in need of help.

"I was actually shocked at how few casualties there were when you see the damage because there were hundreds of houses that had been destroyed," Kelley recalled. "The elementary school was like an isolated incident, very terrible that there were so many people there that got hurt, but given the fact that there were like 200 or 300 houses that got destroyed, it was amazing that so many people survived."

When things at the school began to slow down, Guerra and Kelley started canvassing the surrounding neighborhoods. After seeing a National Guardsman go from being a rescuer to getting injured by stepping on a plank with nails sticking out of it, Kelley walked mostly with his head down, staying vigilant for any dangers that might sneak up on the pair.

"I didn't want to get hurt and not be able to help other people," said Kelley. "So I was walking along looking at my feet when all of a sudden I hear Guerra yell 'Watch out!' and I got yanked backward by the collar of my shirt. I looked up and there was a downed power line right in front of me. Guerra had seen it and pulled me back before I walked straight into it. I'm pretty sure he saved my life on that one."

When the day was done, the pair had spent about six determined hours searching through the ruins left in the wake of that afternoon's tornado, stopping not by choice, but because authorities were shutting off the area overnight in an attempt to prevent theft by anyone trying to capitalize on others' misfortune.

By the time they got home, the sun had gone down and the adrenaline rush was just starting to wear off. One by one, the five men who answered the silent call to help that afternoon appeared back at the Kelley house, exhausted and hungry. They sat in the garage that night, eating and drinking, celebrating being alive and toasting those whose lives were stolen by nature that day.

Back home in San Diego aboard the Cowpens, Guerra and Kelly set about attending to their duties as usual, though both would forever remember that fateful day in May. And as it soon turned out, so would we all.

Through news outlets and the military grapevine, word quickly spread of the pair's deeds in Oklahoma. On June 12, they were each awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for their heroic efforts.

"What makes these guys special is that when they were in Oklahoma and they saw a job to go do, they just went and did it," said Capt. Robert Tortora, commanding officer of USS Cowpens. "I don't think they wanted any recognition, they just wanted to do the right thing."

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