Olney Arnold couldn’t bear to watch on television the horror unfolding amid the shattered remains of an elementary school in Oklahoma after a tornado shredded the campus.
From his living room in Seminole in the middle of Pinellas County, some 1,300 miles away from the devastation, the former principal switched off the set and put on some classical music instead Tuesday morning.
“Enough is enough,” Arnold said. “I don’t care to see it. Maybe that’s selfish, but it doesn’t do me any good.”
The images from Oklahoma also touched Bette Ra Ivey of Seminole, another retired school district employee.
“It’s amazing how it brings it all back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.”
Thirty-five years earlier, the two had seen firsthand how a twister can turn an elementary school into a war zone.
Arnold had witnessed the bodies of small children trapped beneath rubble. He had watched frantic parents running to the school trying to find their children, just like Monday in the suburbs outside Oklahoma City.
It was May 4, 1978, when a tornado dropped from the sky without warning near High Point Elementary, slamming into the western portion of the building where Elizabeth Lovely was teaching her kindergarten class.
Like some of the teachers in Oklahoma, Lovely used her body as a shield to try to protect her students as the walls gave in before winds of more than 150 mph.
But she couldn’t protect them all.
Three boys from her class died. The trio was walking back into the classroom after a trip down the hall to get a drink of water. A fourth boy who stopped to tie his shoe in the hallway was spared.
Arnold, the principal at High Point for 11 years and overall in Pinellas for 24 years, had been at a principals’ meeting at the vocational school across the playground when the tornado hit. He and other administrators sprinted across the grassy field to see what they could do.
“The building was gone. It was incredible,” the 78-year-old retiree said. “I had never seen anything like it in my life. One teacher’s car was tangled up in the power lines.”
He remembers digging through the rubble, searching for those who were injured and in need of help.
Ivey, the kindergarten supervisor for Pinellas County schools at the time, was in Lovely’s class just the week before doing a teaching demonstration.
She put the names on the children’s chairs. She knew their faces.
“It became very personal to me because I had been there,” Ivey said.
She remembers visiting the classroom soon after the tornado hit to see what could be salvaged.
Amid the destruction, a stack of papers in one area seemed untouched. A couple of paint easels were still standing, paint still in the pots the kids would use for artwork. In other pots, however, there was no paint to be found.
“On the wall to the east the tornado had sucked the paint out of the pots and sprayed it on the wall like an artist would take a big brush and just sling paint,” Ivey said.
Lovely suffered an injury to her leg and even deeper emotional scars. She never returned to the classroom.
When school resumed at another location, Ivey was the one who taught the children from Lovely’s class the first week. Some arrived with bandages; some had invisible scars of the trauma they had endured.
They were terrified of sudden, loud noises – such as a booming they heard one day when a Dumpster fell back to the ground from a trash collection truck.
“I thought those kids were going to go nuts,” Ivey said. “They screamed and it scared them to death.”
Watching the news unfold in Oklahoma disturbed her greatly, she said.
“It came back very fresh,” she said. “Homes can be rebuilt, schools can be rebuilt, but the loss of those children is forever.”
Arnold, the former principal, has the same thoughts.
“I don’t want to relive it. It’s hard enough,” he said. “I don’t know how those people are going to eat or sleep. The whole town is gone. It’s unbelievable.
“I really feel for those people. I think we all do.”