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Sailors stepped up, saved lives after Okla. tornadoes hit

Jun. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens praises Yeoman 3rd Class Travis Martin at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., on June 3. Martin pulled people from disabled vehicles in two separate incidents after the May 31 storm.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens praises Yeoman 3rd Class Travis Martin at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., on June 3. Martin pulled people from disabled vehicles in two separate incidents after the May 31 storm. (MC1 Thomas L. Rosprim / Navy)
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Glenn Erkenbrack was behind the wheel of his pickup, heading home to South Oklahoma City from his job with the Navy's Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 3 at nearby Tinker Air Force Base.

Glenn Erkenbrack was behind the wheel of his pickup, heading home to South Oklahoma City from his job with the Navy's Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 3 at nearby Tinker Air Force Base.

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Glenn Erkenbrack was behind the wheel of his pickup, heading home to South Oklahoma City from his job with the Navy’s Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 3 at nearby Tinker Air Force Base.

It was 2:45 in the afternoon on May 20.

A 19-year Navy veteran and senior chief naval aircrewman, he grew up in the Oklahoma City area. The violent storms and accompanying tornadoes that often rock the city aren’t strange to him.

“I’d seen tornadoes before, but I’d never seen anything like this,” Erkenbrack told Navy Times. “Who would have imagined we’d have two category EF-5 tornadoes in two weeks?”

As the storm passed just a mile south of him, moving from west to east, he could see it kicking up debris — and he knew the damage would be extensive.

He didn’t hesitate — heading off in his truck, following the storm’s path.

“It was pretty obvious to me there would be a lot of damage,” he said. “I knew it was a populated area and wanted to see if I could help.”

His reaction wasn’t unique: Sailors were among the first responders during and immediately after the two storms, with one saving three would-be victims trapped in their cars on May 31, in the wake of the second tornado. Hundreds more volunteered in the hours and days following the disasters, helping shipmates and the community at large.

“The magnitude of the devastation is mind-numbing,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, who visited the city of Moore and the Navy units at Tinker on June 3. “I can only liken it to a war zone.”

Reacting to disaster

Erkenbrack said he agreed with Stevens’ war analogy and compared the damage and human toll of the storms to what he’d seen on a yearlong individual augmentee tour in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

His trip into this Oklahoma war zone began May 20 with a detour to avoid pounding hail.

“I pulled into a car wash to get out from under the storm and listened to the reports on the radio,” Erkenbrack said.

And that’s when he saw the tornado.

“It was big and black, really big,” he said. “Even having grown up around here, this was not like anything I’d ever seen in my life.”

Still, he chased it — following it toward Moore, searching for survivors in the rubble left in its path.

“Many people were in their storm shelters,” he said. “Many times, we had to clear debris so they could get out — but seeing people walk out from such complete devastation with only 24 deaths — that was a miracle.”

Working his way east, he eventually ended up in Moore and found himself at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed.

“You couldn’t even tell it was a school; it looked as if a bomb went off,” he said. “We helped survivors get out of the rubble, and by this time, volunteers were coming in from everywhere, so we decided to regroup and found a command center.”

Tired and dirty, he said, the first thing he saw was “around 100 active and Reserve sailors, ready to get to work — and nothing gets a senior chief excited like seeing so many sailors ready to get to work.”

The word came down there were people unaccounted for in the school, so Erkenbrack and some of the sailors returned to the scene and went “room by room and brick by brick,” to ensure there wasn’t anyone still in the rubble.

He and the other sailors worked through the night and didn’t get home until 7:30 the following morning. He showered, changed into a clean uniform and headed into work. But by the afternoon — with the help of a short power nap — he was back at it, helping people sort through the rubble of their lives, trying to salvage what they could.

It was a routine he would follow for most of the next week, as did many sailors, including those whose houses were destroyed or damaged.

Life-saving sailor

One of the many sailors who volunteered to help out in Moore was Yeoman 3rd Class Travis Martin, who’s been in the Navy a little more than a year and lives on base at Tinker.

But at 6:30 p.m. May 31, he was visiting friends in Bethany, not far from El Reno, where the second mega-tornado hit.

“We were watching the news and following the tornado, and I went outside to see if I could see it,” he said. “I’m kind of a storm chaser and have always been interested in things like this.”

He didn’t see anything because of the intensity of the storm around him. But when he got inside, he heard the twister had taken a turn and “was heading southeast, toward Tinker,” he said. “So I got in my truck and got on the highway and almost immediately found an overturned car, so I pulled over to see if I could help.”

As he left his truck and approached the car, he could hear the couple in the car calling for help. He later learned they had hydroplaned on the water during a massive downpour.

“The windshield and both driver and passenger door windows were shattered and gone, but both were still in their seats,” Martin said. “I got down on the ground and helped him get free and pulled him from the car and together we freed her — they were cut up from the glass, but otherwise in good shape.”

A policeman arrived and told Martin he could go. Martin headed back to his friends, but in the 30 minutes or so he’d been gone, the streets of Bethany were now rivers, with 4 feet of water in some places, he said.

“It was such a heavy downpour and a slow-moving storm that the flood was nearly immediate,” he said. “At one point, I was directing traffic away from the flooded area when a driver either didn’t see me or totally ignored me and drove straight into the mess, and his car got swept away immediately.”

The current pinned the car against a guardrail, Martin said. The vehicle was in danger of tipping over the rail, possibly trapping and drowning the driver.

“I jumped in and let the current take me to the car,” he said. “I had a rope from another guy with a [Ford] Bronco and was able to tie it to the car, and he pulled both of us to safety.”

'Like bombs were going off'

Those whose houses are only damaged, even significantly, are able to count their blessings. Such is the case for Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class (AW) Michael Dansby, who rode out the storm with his wife and mother-in-law, along with a shipmate and his family who lived down the street.

It was 14 people in a small shelter designed to comfortably fit four, maybe five at most.

“It’s not the kind of situation where you put someone out on the street,” Dansby said. “You make do with what you have — the best you can.”

No stranger to natural disasters, Dansby grew up in Pascagoula, Miss. His grandmother died during Hurricane Katrina, and many in his family lost all their possessions.

Hunkered down in the shelter, Dansby said they could hear the tornado roaring around them.

“It was so loud, and it sounded like bombs were going off all around us,” he said. “It was noise like you just can’t imagine.”

The toughest decision was when to get out of the shelter, he said. When they finally emerged, their house was damaged, but largely intact.

“We still had a house,” he said. “But just 80 yards away from here are just slabs and debris — a lot of people only have slabs of concrete and rubble around it.”

For now, while they’re trying to repair their house, they’ll live on base in temporary housing set up by the command.

The stories of heroism and command outreach left Stevens “in awe” during his June 3 visit.

“It amazes me how our sailors perform when challenged by adversity like this,” he said. “They really epitomize everything we ask them to be, giving of themselves selflessly even when some of them have just lost nearly everything.”

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