As Oklahoma tornado tore down school around her, teacher from Naperville saved 22 children
By David Sharos For The Sun May 24, 2013 11:40PM
Updated: June 27, 2013 6:47AM
Last week in Oklahoma, a hero emerged in the form of a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher originally from Naperville, who used her body to shield her students from falling rubble while a tornado completely demolished the school around them.
Jennifer Simonds, a 2005 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School, counts herself as blessed to have survived along with her entire afternoon kindergarten class of 22 after the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., was lost when a tornado struck the building around 2:30 p.m. Monday.
Simonds said she knew the school was in the tornado’s path, but that no one could possibly imagine what was about to happen.
“My students and I were in a hallway, and there was a lot of darkness and heavy rain beforehand,” Simonds said. “It had stormed the day before, and on Monday, things were still the same. By 2:15 that afternoon, there was an announcement at school that we were to move and take precautions. I looked at the weather on my computer, and saw we were right in the storm’s path.”
Simonds said she and her fellow teachers tried to keep students calm by singing songs and telling them it was just a drill. But as the storm approached, the sound became deafening and actually burst the eardrum of one of her students.
“The children were asking why a train was coming through the school,” Simonds said. “The next thing we knew, the entire roof of the building was torn off and we were being pelted with all this stuff. I laid myself over my students to protect them, and I remember praying that God be with us and keep us safe, and asking please — let it be me who dies if something happens — and not any of the kids.”
Worries back home
Meanwhile, in Naperville, Simonds’ parents, Banessa and John Rampton, were told via text message that their daughter was taking shelter as a result of the storm. For the next three hours, they had to endure as information slowly trickled out on the tragedy.
Simonds’ aunt Christy Rampton, who also lives in Naperville, said she saw pictures of the demolished school on television and went into shock when she realized the building was where her niece worked.
“Jennifer lost her glasses and purse in the storm and had to borrow a phone to let us know she was OK,” Christy said. “A lot of service was interrupted, and it was hard to communicate. I was driving home at about 5:15 that afternoon and when I got home, I saw pictures on the TV and thought: ‘Oh please tell me that’s not her school.’ We later found out that Jennifer’s husband had found out what happened and had to run two or three miles to reach her because the roads were blocked.”
A story of survival
At the school, a miraculous part of the story is that all of her students survived being buried under rubble and also an SUV that the winds had picked up and dropped on top of them.
“I don’t know how we weren’t crushed by that vehicle unless somehow the rubble that had already fallen protected us,” Simonds said. “I remember seeing wood and rubble everywhere, and then the SUV on top of us. I remember sitting up and realizing there was this vehicle we were lying under.”
Simonds said her students “were incredible and brave” throughout most of the ordeal, although many started crying when the roof was torn off.
“Most of them never really understood what was happening, and later when we got them outside and were giving them blankets and towels, they were all pretty calm while they waited for their families,” she said.
Christy Rampton said her niece never realized she was injured until she and her students were brought out of the building’s remains.
“She had glass down the back of her head and back, and I knew she must have sprawled out over her kids and injured her arm,” Christy said. “There were people there that were lifting kids over exposed wires, and Jennifer never realized she was hurt because she was still helping to collect her kids.”
Simonds said she was examined by doctors and her injuries have already begun to heal. \What remains are the memories of that horrible day that cost the lives of seven third-graders in her school, but also a day when so many lives were miraculously spared.
“I think it’s good that the school year has ended and the kids can go home and process this with their parents,” Simonds said. “We had a meeting with the kids on Thursday to say goodbye for the summer and it helped them to see we’re all OK. I basically have a lot of what looks like ‘road rash’ and the doctors say I am healing well.”
A stronger faith
Banessa Rampton said she remembers the relief she felt when she learned her daughter was out of the trauma center and would be fine. That night, she and her daughter had a long cry together on the phone.
“It finally hit us what had happened, and the stress of it all was finally released,” she said. “It’s terrible to know your daughter was in harm’s way, and you hope it never happens again.”
Simonds said the disaster has changed her outlook on life.
“I’m taking things a day at a time, and having a near death experience changes your perspective,” Simonds said. “There has been rain and thunder since, and when I hear it, I get emotional and it’s hard to process all of this. Seeing the kids again this week helped.”
She said her faith helped her through the tragedy.
“I went to college here at Oklahoma Christian where I met my husband, and today I feel an even stronger faith,” she said. “I shouldn’t have walked out of there, but I feel that someone’s hand made sure that we did.”