Twist of Faith: Tornado survivor shares her story of hope and resilience
Carolyn Stager jokes that she doesn't complain about bad hair days.
Her Del City home was destroyed on May 3, 1999, when powerful tornadoes pummeled parts of Oklahoma.
A large swath of the metro area woman's scalp was peeled off by debris and she suffered a fractured pelvis, while her pregnant daughter also was injured.
Twenty years later, Stager styles her blonde bob with confidence and smiles as she talks about clinging to her Christian faith in the aftermath of the storm.
"You have a choice. I could have crawled in a hole and pretended it didn't happen and that wouldn't have removed the fact that it did," she said.
"You can be angry and blaming or you can just accept this is where you are in your life and go on with a heart of gratitude and be grateful that you are alive."
Stager said she has tried to live out that life of gratitude that she talks about. Even throughout the numerous surgeries — more than 100 — to heal her injuries and the tragic loss of her daughter's first child, she's never lost hope that the Lord is still in control.
"I can tell you what a bad hair day is — when you have leg skin on your head that won't grow hair and you're wearing bandannas and hats and whatever will cover your head. God says 'even the hairs on your head are numbered' and it was probably easier at that time for Him to keep up with me," she said.
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"I don't have thick, lush hair, but what I do have is mine so I feel like I can never complain and say I'm having a bad hair day."
A day like no other
Stager shared her testimony about surviving the tornado in a book titled "Twist of Faith" that she co-wrote with Kimberly Lohman Suiters.
The book was released 10 years ago, close to the 10th anniversary of the storm.
Hers is a story of hope and resilience.
Forty-four Oklahomans were killed during what was an unprecedented outbreak of tornadoes that struck Bridge Creek, Oklahoma City, Moore, Midwest City, Del City and several other communities on May 3, 1999.
The tornado that flattened Stager's home in the Del Aire neighborhood was reportedly one of 14 produced by super cell thunderstorms that day.
Stager said she grew up in Oklahoma and her family had a storm shelter.
She was accustomed to watching the skies for severe weather, but that fateful day 20 years ago, she had planned on going to dinner with a colleague. The busy mom of an adult daughter, Christi Duren, and Nathan, 18, was a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Municipal League. She had a dinner engagement she'd planned to attend but her mother called her to encourage her to drop her dinner plans and stay home for the evening because the weather was predicted to be dicey.
Stager said she called and encouraged Christi to come over, thinking that it might be safer for her daughter to be with her in her two-story home than the small frame house Christi and her husband, Roman, lived in about a mile away. When Christi came over, the two chatted for a while but soon began to get phone calls telling them that weather conditions were getting nasty rapidly.
They cleaned out a closet in the stairwell of the home and that's where they were when the tornado struck the house.
Stager remembers hearing the roar of the twister — like the noise made by a fast-moving freight train — and her home was reduced to a pile of rubble.
"The EMS people said our house was at the worst part of where the storm hit. It took the carpet and tile out from under us. It left us flung out in the backyard," she said.
Stager said she spent about eight days in the hospital. She said Christi spent a month in the hospital and, sadly, her daughter, Abby, was stillborn about six weeks after the storm.
Hope and resilience
Stager said she has had so many things to be thankful for in the intervening years since the tornado wreaked its havoc.
"The will to live is such a powerful force," she said.
Stager said her daughter became pregnant again and she and her husband welcomed their son Roman "Bo" Duren Jr. into the world, followed by another son Ty some years later. Stager said she's excited because Bo will graduate from high school this month. She's also proud that that her son Nathan is a Moore firefighter.
Stager remarried in the intervening years and her career took an exciting turn when she became executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League. She served in that capacity for eight years until she retired in 2016.
She said she and Christi recently discussed the day in 1999 that changed their lives and they talked about how things turned out. She said she wouldn't have been at home if she had kept her dinner engagement plans and Christi would have stayed in her own home, which was untouched by the storm. Nathan, however, would have been at home doing chores but he had been out playing golf.
They don't dwell on what might have been.
They remember a picture of the two of them that was taken two days before the tornado. In it, they lounged on a sofa near a pillow emblazoned with words that would seem prophetic later: "Miracles happen to those who believe."
Stager said they choose to dwell on that — miracles and the God who creates them.
"I think there's a master plan for everyone," she said.
"I don't know the whys about it but guess what, He does because He wrote the script. He knows what the greater purpose is for my life so even though you don't know, you just have to accept."