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Tinker airman, family narrowly escaped Okla. storm

May. 23, 2013 - 12:57PM   |  
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VALPARAISO, IND. — Picking through the debris of his tornado-demolished home Wednesday in Moore, Okla., Valparaiso native Jacob Schroeder hoped he might find things such as baby books, the computer with the family’s stored pictures or his daughter’s favorite stuffed toy.

With so much of their lives lost, it was only through a series of lucky breaks that he and his family survived the massive tornado that devastated the Oklahoma City area Monday, including wiping out his entire neighborhood and his daughter’s school.

Schroeder and his wife, Tiffany, are expecting their third child. They have two daughters, Leigh, 7, who is a student at Plaza Towers Elementary School, and Shay, 5.

Schroeder is in the Air Force and has been stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, just outside Oklahoma City, since 2003.

He was at the base Monday when Tiffany called to say she was experiencing labor pains and her doctor wanted her to have it checked out at Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. He left the base about noon and soon joined his wife and Shay at the hospital to await the results of her tests.

“I had heard there could be more storms,” Schroeder told The Times in Munster. “We had had storms the day before that missed Oklahoma City, but we did have the warning sirens.”

About 2 p.m., Tiffany Schroeder insisted he pick up Leigh at school because it was about time for her to be let out. When he arrived, a teacher was waiting outside to tell parents to just get their children and not check in at the office first. As he and Leigh walked to their car, it started to rain a bit.

Before returning to the hospital, he stopped at his house to bring in the family’s two dogs and put them in pet cages. As he drove to the hospital, the storm began to break with heavy rains and golf ball-sized hail. Schroeder said he told Leigh he wouldn’t be surprised if the hail broke the windshield.

Driving in those conditions was hazardous enough, but he also had to swerve around vehicles stopped under overpasses for protection against the storm. As he dodged cars and was pelted by hail, he looked to the west and saw a tornado for the first time in his life.

“I pointed it out to my daughter,” he said.

Arriving at the hospital, he saw a nurse watching the weather news on TV and asked her how things were in Moore. She mentioned several places near his home that had been hit by the tornado already.

“I told my wife we needed to watch the news. That’s when I saw our neighborhood. Even without all the houses, I was able to recognize it. It was demolished. It was flat. I told her I had a bad feeling.”

They got the hospital staff to expedite his wife’s discharge papers and headed for Moore to see what was left of their home. And the dogs. They could get no closer to their home than a couple of blocks before police and emergency crews blocked them from entering the area because it was too dangerous.

Schroeder said he pulled back, then walked through broken houses, to where his home had been. He had to count driveways to make sure which pile of rubble used to be his home. As he walked, he met a man who asked him to keep an eye out for any sign of his disabled brother, who had been at home when the tornado hit.

Arriving at his home, Schroeder found an overturned kitchen table and beneath it were the dogs. They were still in their kennels and tossed about a bit but otherwise unhurt. “Freaked out but healthy,” Schroeder said.

Back in Valparaiso, his mother, Margot Peuquet, said, “We heard from him before I even knew that was happening out there. My husband was on the phone with Jake talking about the storm, and I thought he was talking about the day before when they had the tornadoes. I never for a moment thought he was in trouble.”

When she saw the video of the devastation on TV later, she immediately recognized it from the many visits. Then they started talking about Plaza Towers school, which was destroyed by the tornado and where several students were killed.

“I was relieved to know they were all together,” Margot Peuquet said of her family. “It was such a freaky, awful day. Everything just worked out so well (for them). Having the pregnancy checked saved their lives.”

She said her son plans to rebuild in Moore, but she wants a condition on that plan.

“The rule for me is they are going to have to have a storm shelter in the backyard or they can’t live there.”

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