Teacher Karen Marinelli is huddled on top of her three young students. She can feel the deadly force of the raging tornado that surrounds them pushing at the school’s walls, and she knows that they won’t hold for long. She tries to think of another way out of this mess, but it’s useless – they’re trapped. Instead, she shields the boys with her own body as best she can. Then the brick wall begins to tumble down over them…
Before that dreadful day in May 2013, however, Karen Marinelli was working as a teacher of a first-grade class at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma. She was also a busy mom to four lively boys and a wife to her husband Dominic.
Needless to say, Marinelli loved her job, and she cared for her students as much as she did her own children. But on the day of Moore tornado that devotion would be put to an incredible test.
The tornado touched down on May 20, 2013 at 2:46 p.m. It was intensely violent and incredibly destructive, and it wrought a trail of devastation some 17 miles long.
What’s more, the tornado generated wind speeds of up to 210 mph and notched up a maximum five rating on the EF-Scale. Plus, by the time it had run its course almost an hour later, it had obliterated more than 1,000 homes and caused death and destruction across Moore and its neighboring towns.
Sadly, 24 people lost their lives, more than 350 people were injured and around $2-billion-worth of damage was caused to the city. Indeed, it transpired to be the deadliest tornado to hit the United States in two years.
And the teachers and students of Plaza Towers Elementary were directly in the path of this incredible danger. So, following procedure, they headed for cover in the designated areas.
Consequently, Marinelli found herself with three six-year-old boys in her care. But as Liam, Damian and Dacari looked to her for reassurance, she realized the full extent of the danger they all were in. Marinelli recalled in an interview with Oklahoma’s News Channel 4 that she was thinking, “It’s going to hit, it’s going to hit, I can’t believe it’s really going to hit.”
This thought process led her to text her husband to tell him that she loved him. Then she braced herself to shelter the three young boys with her own body. Indeed, as the full force of the tornado crashed into the school, she did everything she could to protect her students from harm.
Liam later described the terrifying ordeal and Marinelli’s selfless actions to Oklahoma’s News 9. “The roof came off and bricks were falling on top of us,” he said. “My teacher laid on top of us and jumped on top of us and was saving us.”
At one point, however, a 2,000-pound car was thrown through the building, knocking down a wall and crushing Marinelli beneath the rubble. In fact, when rescuers finally arrived, they found the teacher pinned down with the three children still safely huddled beneath her body.
Some of the other students that day, tragically, weren’t so lucky. Indeed, seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary sadly lost their lives as a result of the tornado. But thanks to Marinelli’s actions, Liam, Damian and Dacari escaped unhurt. However, Marinelli’s astonishing bravery did come at a cost.
Following her rescue, Marinelli was taken to hospital with serious injuries, including a broken back, a crushed pelvis and fractured ankles. Later, after eventually being discharged, she was confined to a wheelchair for several months.
And although Marinelli was able to return to work with her beloved students, she found the experience of using a wheelchair a physically challenging one. Indeed, as she explained to News 9, “I just can’t do normal things like walk across and grab something.”
So Marinelli must have been relieved when, three months after the tornado, she was finally able to leave her doctor’s office on her own two feet. Furthermore, she was expected to make a full recovery with continued physiotherapy. But that’s not where the story ends.
That’s because while Marinelli was in the hospital, the community of Moore had rallied round in support. In fact, a crowdfunding campaign, led by the mother of one of the boys whose life Marinelli had saved, raised more than $7,000 to help with her recovery. And the publicity that Marinelli’s heroic sacrifice had garnered meant that strangers from all over the country were soon sending care packages to her door.
In one package, for example, Marinelli was surprised to discover a bundle of baby girl’s clothes. Bemused, the mother of four boys tucked them to one side and planned to donate them at a later date. That is, until an unexpected revelation made her change her mind.
Indeed, soon after that package had arrived, the Marinelli family received some stunning news – Marinelli was pregnant with her fifth child. What’s more, the baby’s due date was May 20, 2014, which was exactly one year after the deadly tornado had torn through their hometown.
Marinelli told local news station KOCO, “Since it wasn’t something that we planned, it wasn’t something we tried for and we were just given it. We just feel like God gave us a blessing.”
Then, on May 8, 2014, Lily Claire Marinelli was born. For her mom, the little girl was a welcome touch of happiness after a year filled with such tragedy and pain. “I feel like she’s my reward,” she said at the time. “I always wanted a little girl and I feel like she’s just my gift.”