June 24, 2018
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Bowdoin College professor waited out tornado that sounded like ‘a thousand freight trains’

People walk near destroyed buildings and vehicles after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., near Oklahoma City, on Monday. At least 24 people, including 9 children, were killed when a 2-mile-wide tornado tore through the suburb, trapping victims beneath the rubble as one elementary school took a direct hit and another was destroyed.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

Talk about bad timing.

Bowdoin College music professor Robert Greenlee returned to his home state of Oklahoma for his summer break two days before Monday’s deadly tornado touched down, spending the storm in the fortified cellar of his parents’ house blocks from the worst devastation.

“I don’t know how to describe the noise,” he said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was like nothing I’ve heard before. A thousand freight trains combined with continuous explosions. That’s what it sounded like heading in our direction, and we just prayed that it wasn’t coming right toward us.”

The 2-mile-wide twister passed south of his family home, scattering debris across the property but leaving the house intact, Greenlee said.

“Two blocks to the south of us there were buildings that were gone,” he said. “Nothing left but the foundation. Way too close for comfort. … There were people who were killed just a few blocks from where we were. The whole area now is like a war zone.”

Greenlee, a 30-year Bowdoin faculty member, spends 10 months of the year in Brunswick and returns to Oklahoma for two months to visit relatives. By Tuesday, he and his wife and parents had transitioned from his parents’ home in Moore, Okla., to his residence in Norman, where they had access to electricity and telephones for the first time since the tornado hit.

Greenlee said his brother, who is four years younger and no longer lives in Oklahoma, attended the Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit from the tornado.

Rescue workers continued to search the debris of the school Tuesday for teachers and students trapped in the rubble, according to the news service Reuters.

“I’m sure that he’s going to be shocked to see that his little elementary school is gone,” Greenlee said of his brother.

Fortunately, Greenlee doesn’t know anyone who was killed or seriously injured in Monday’s tornado. He knows many who have lost homes. He said his son, University of Southern Maine student Alex Greenlee, plans to come to Oklahoma this week to help with the cleanup effort in Moore.

“It’s an unbelievable mess, and a lot of people have lost everything,” the elder Greenlee said. “So there’s a lot to do.”

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