Stories behind viral Oklahoma tragedy photos brought to light

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 2:31 p.m. MDT

A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers Monday, May 20, 2013. This photo and others of the school were taken by Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

In a town decimated by tragedy, the photos that have brought a nation to its knees are coming to life.

ABC News was one of the first sources to interview the Cobb family, whose emotional photo made the front page of The Oklahoman, a newspaper that covers the greater Oklahoma City area, on May 21.

The Cobb family — Steve, LaDonna and 9-year-old Jordan — each gave their first-hand accounts of the EF5-rated tornado as it ripped its way through the town of Moore, Okla.

LaDonna Cobb, who works for the Moore Public School system, threw herself on top of students at Briarwood Elementary School as the tornado, with winds upwards of 200 miles an hour, raged on overhead.

"I was just grabbing onto whatever I could. Once the roof lifted off the building I felt myself being sucked and I knew that if I was taken, then all the little babies underneath me would be gone too, and so I just held on," LaDonna said in the interview with Diane Sawyer. "I held on for dear life until the wall fell on top of me and knocked me out."

In the interview, LaDonna, who has a black eye and a bruised face, expressed her sincere concern for not only her family, but the families of the children at school she had come to love.

Her husband, Steve, is pictured carrying his daughter Jordan away from the demolished school. He too expressed sincere empathy for the children he had to leave behind.

"I just tried to be the best dad that I could at that time, and I wanted (Jordan) to feel like she was safe and that we were all going to be OK," Steve said in the interview. "I wished I could have split myself into two and stayed there and try to kind of help out some of those other kids because I can imagine how they were feeling at that time, when their parents weren’t there, they’re kind of wandering around."

Meanwhile, at the same school, a young first-grade boy named Hezekiah Darbon was photographed in the middle of an emotional hug with one of the first responders, 47-year-old Jim Routon.

But the connection between these two runs deeper than the trauma of the moment.

Hezekiah and Routon are next-door neighbors. In fact, the pair are so close that the 6-year-old gave them nicknames: Big Dog and Little Dog.

When the boy emerged from the rubble, he saw Routon, which Hezekiah said came as a surprise to him.

“I was so happy that I saw him,” Hezekiah said in an interview with "Good Morning America." “I didn’t know that he was coming. I thought my mom and dad were going to be the first ones.”

Routon, who described the scene as chaotic, expressed what the moment the two were reunited meant to him.

“I think I needed that hug as much as he did,” Routon said. “The embrace that we had, it was a very emotional connection.”

Emotions ran high not just for those directly involved, but for photographers capturing the stories as well.

ABC News interviewed Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki, who photographed many iconic photos from Plaza Towers Elementary, including many photos of children being recovered from the rubble.

“When I ran to the corner and saw the building, I didn’t even know that it was a school. I had to ask someone,” Ogrocki told ABC. “But that’s where, I think, the best images came from, and they were images of children being saved.”

Ogrocki said that she was able to capture the beauty of humanity, even in spite of a horrific tragedy.

"What I saw through my lens yesterday was kind of like a saving grace, because there was all this destruction here and bad things and people died, but what I got to see was people getting saved,” she said. “And you don’t get to see that very often as a news photographer.”

Ogrocki, who shared her experience firsthand on ABC, said she felt relief every time she saw a child pulled out alive.

Though the great tornado that swept through a town of more than 56,000 claimed the lives of 24, including seven children, Ogrocki said that of the children she saw pulled from the rubble, all were alive.

Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan

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