COOKSON — Mostly hidden in the darkness and rain save for a few glimpses in the lightning, a tornado stayed on the ground for an estimated 70 miles Friday, leaving behind pieces of trees, homes and storage buildings strewn along its damage path.
It touched down near Gore and paralleled Oklahoma 100 along the length of the lake and into several lakeside marinas, mobile home parks and a small airport about 10 p.m.
Just before crossing Oklahoma 82, the tornado hit Elk Creek Landing, a cluster of lakeside mobile homes across the water from Cherokee Landing State Park.
Doyal Spencer and his two young sons — 4 and 5 years old — were in a camper on the edge of the lake.
“I pushed them under the bed and held on to each one of their arms,” Spencer said. “The trailer came up in the air and it was like it rolled around two or three times and then just splattered the ground.”
By the time the storm passed, the only thing left of Spencer’s home was a pile of debris and the home’s frame wrapped around a tree between the axles. He and his boys were lying behind a tree.
“When I opened my eyes, it was gone on down the creek bank,” he said of his camper. “I started hollering at my boys, the littlest one stands up and said, ‘Daddy!’ like I did it.
“You know, remarkably, the youngest one has a scrape on his chin and a couple of little scratches on the side. And the other boy he only has one little old scratch. Of course, I took most of the brunt by trying to cover them up and keep them safe. Jabbed a stick through my ear and ... got scratches all over my back and arms and all over my face.
“I’m just thankful the Lord allowed me to keep my boys. Nothing else; it destroyed everything else I had, which wasn’t much, but I had my babies.”
After the storm passed, Spencer and his sons trekked through the wreckage and scattered trees back to the highway in the lightning-lit night.
Spencer had volunteered to stay at the park through the winter, cleaning up after boaters and those who came in to picnic.
With the damage the storm left behind, Spencer said he isn’t sure when it will look normal again.
“It’s going to take me all summer and winter just to get this all cleaned up,” Spencer said. “I guess I’ll just have to move back into town.
“I stayed out here most of the summer and was going to stay most of the winter because the boys really enjoy fishing and stuff. That’s all they ever want to do. I guess they’ll have to wait until next spring now. Maybe Daddy can get stuff back together.”
‘I heard the roar’
At the Tenkiller Lake Airpark, sheet metal blanketing tree branches clanged like wind chimes, the drone of portable generators and chainsaws almost deafening by Saturday morning. The storm had tracked along the runway and smashed into the nearby homes and hangars.
Mark Stafford was on his roof patching a hole Saturday afternoon where a tree had gone through it.
Stafford and a friend were staying at the family house Friday night ahead of a scheduled fishing tournament. Stafford, who survived a 1996 tornado in his hometown of Van Buren, Arkansas, said he knew the second his house would take a hit.
“I came to the door and heard that roar and I knew,” Stafford said. “I heard the roar, shut the door and ran in the bathroom with my buddy. You could just hear the vibration, the pressure; it put this tree through the house and into the kitchen.”
Although Stafford’s house still stood after the storm, few of the nearby hangars storing boats, vintage planes and cars survived the chaos. Yellow insulation filled trees, fences and grass like snow along the length of Skyline Drive next to the runway. Every tree that wasn’t snapped had much or all of its roots pulled from the ground as it leaned in the south wind.
Stafford doesn’t live near the airpark full time, although his next-door neighbor, Jack Chapman, does. Chapman and his family moved to Oklahoma from Minnesota for warmer weather.
“Warmer weather and tornadoes,” Chapman said, laughing as he walked across pieces of his roof in his front yard. “We had the TV off and I wasn’t watching the texts on my phone. Someone had texted me they had a tornado on the ground in Cookson.
“Next thing I knew, it sounded like big 4-inch hail hitting the roof. What it was was all this tin and debris circling around and banging the house. Then the windows broke out, the power went out and it was history from there.”
Although the storm didn’t stay overhead long, the wind and churning ball of debris as it passed through southeast Cherokee County left its mark on dozens of homes.
Some lost power and a few shingles, a trampoline wrapped around a tree. Others, like the Bumbaugh house, lost almost everything but the walls.
David Bumbaugh was house-sitting for his father, Merle, who had been in the hospital in Tahlequah for three weeks before the storm. On Saturday morning, Bumbaugh stood exhausted next to his truck, its side mirror snapped off where a branch had hit it on the way down.
The tornado rolled and wedged a wooden shed into a tree in his front yard. His father’s Dodge pickup was still buried in debris. David and volunteers, who had their own front door blown open across the lake at Pettit Bay, spent the morning cutting out his own truck from underneath a pair of trees.
“Folks were running around knocking on doors, making sure everybody was OK,” Bumbaugh said. “I don’t think anybody got hurt, to my knowledge, just property damage, stuff that can be replaced. Sort of. Except for the sentimental value stuff.”
The worst, though, was his father’s hangar. Apart from two buried cars and countless other things tossed out of the building was his father’s 1948 Luscombe.
The plane, which Merle intended to restore and had only 500 flight hours, had its tail smashed and wadded up in the storm. David hadn’t had the chance to tell his father about the damage done.
At the command post at the Cookson United Methodist Church, Pastor Kyle Clark showed up to check for damage along with other church members hoping to help out. Before long, they were cooking breakfast for first-responders and those helping to clear the roads.
“Just on a whim, we thought we were going to make breakfast,” Clark said. “Breakfast has turned into lunch, and lunch is going to turn into dinner. However we can be most helpful for all the responders, we’re so thankful for them and what they’re doing.”
Photographer Joseph Rushmore contributed to this story