It was the usual drill, the one Alexander Ghassimi and other children who live in Moore, in a tornado-prone swath of Oklahoma, learn in school: Get to an interior hallway, get down, cover up. Then a teacher who had been watching the storm's progress outside Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday came tearing down the hall, yelling to get as many children as possible into the girls' bathroom, and 11-year-old Alexander knew this was not an ordinary tornado.
"We were in the hallway doing our procedure," Alexander said by telephone from an Econo Lodge in nearby Norman on Tuesday, where he is staying with his family. " 'Get down. Put your hands over your head.' "
Perhaps 70 or 80 children jammed into the bathroom within moments, he said. Some were standing. Some were sitting on the floor. His twin sister, Alexia, was huddled under a sink on the other side of the restroom. Some teachers were standing; when the tornado hit, they threw themselves on top of the children.
"We thought we heard hail coming, then we realized it was debris," he said. "Then we looked up, and the whole ceiling was gone."
Pressed up against a stall divider, Alexander watched the boiling storm pass overhead.
"It's kind of funny how it looked," he said. "It almost looked like 'The Wizard of Oz.' Just a bunch of papers and books above us."
The roof was gone, and mud and debris was raining in. Some of the children were calm, and others were unglued, he said. "Everybody was just screaming, 'Is everyone okay? Is everyone okay? I was almost on the opposite end of my sister, so I was trying to get to my sister. They were crying, screaming. A lot of people were just crying their butts off."
All the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in that restroom survived one of the most powerful tornados in recent years. But other children perished when the swirling winds obliterated the school.
Alexander's mother, Roya Partin, was huddled at home less than a mile away with her husband and two other children, blankets and pillows pulled over them. She credits the school bathroom fixtures for protecting the children there.
"They actually walked out. They were fine. I know, it's amazing," she said. Her home and cars were also destroyed, but the family survived unscathed. "If you look at the school, just imagine a box of matches thrown on the floor. That's what the whole school looks like, and everything around it.
"If you don't believe in God before something like that, you sure do now."
Partin said her children were scheduled to get out of school at 3:37 p.m. Monday, three days before the end of the academic year. "The tornado hit at 3:34 or 3:35," she said. At 2:45, an automated message went out to parents: The children would be sheltered in place.