Malika Likavec huddled next to her husband, arms wrapped around her two young girls, as the tornado ripped through her neighborhood Monday in Moore, Okla.
There, in the steel bunker beneath her garage, the Buffalo native realized she was a long way from home.
A voice crackled on the emergency radio, calling out street after street that the tornado was wiping off the map.
The street names became more familiar, and she realized the deadly twister was getting closer – and fast.
That’s when Likavec began to cry.
“Malika, stop it,” her husband, David, said to her. “You’re taking up all the oxygen.”
Halfway across the country, Likavec’s mother was watching the tragedy unfold on television from her home on Buffalo’s West Side.
She didn’t think much of the tornado, especially after receiving an email from her daughter saying she was home from work, and everyone was safe.
But soon another email popped up from Likavec: “Mom, the tornado’s headed toward us.”
“At that point, we just started crying,” said her mother, JoAnne Bracy. “To be so far away from her when something like this is happening, it’s just horrible.”
And when the tornado got closer to the Likavecs’ home in Moore, it sounded like a freight train ripping through the neighborhood, Malika said.
But she and her husband, high school sweethearts from City Honors, and their daughters survived.
The Likavecs were the lucky ones. When they climbed from the shelter a few minutes later, nature’s wrath surrounded them. An eerie silence gave way to rescue sirens – and total destruction.
“It destroyed the hospital our daughters were born in,” Likavec told The Buffalo News. “It destroyed the park we go in every day. It destroyed everything we know, really.”
“It narrowly missed us,” the 30-year-old Air Force sergeant recalled. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Forecasters had been predicting a strong storm for more than a week, and some of Likavec’s co-workers were already taking precautions.
Tornadoes are a way of life in Oklahoma, though, as the nation is finding out in the days since the storm killed 24 people, including nine children.
Likavec even went to work that day, although the Air Force let her out early to prepare for the storm.
It was a good thing, since she had only a half-hour to hurry her children into the 10-foot-deep storm shelter and prepare for the worst.
“The kids are screaming, it’s loud, there are lots of baseball-sized hail,” she said. “It’s not an ordinary storm.”
It was especially worrisome for Air Force Col. Stella Smith, another City Honors graduate, who oversees more than 1,500 who work on battle surveillance planes.
From her base 90 miles away, Smith was tasked with helping to coordinate rescue efforts in the Moore area.
Hundreds of her people were trapped in harm’s way, and Likavec, whom she knew well, was one of them.
The two struck up a friendship when Likavec showed up at an Air Force picnic wearing a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt.
They soon found out that they were not only proud Buffalo natives but graduates of City Honors High School.
But now, Smith recognized that Likavec and hundreds of others were in peril, and she had no way of reaching them.
“We started texting everyone,” Smith said. “Like teenagers. Text, text, text.”
Likavec was shocked at what she saw when she climbed from the bunker. The storm had missed her family by seconds, leaving a path of destruction just a few football fields away.
If the twister had shifted course for just a second, she said, it all could have been much different.
“It was a lucky experience,” she said, that her area only received physical damage and that no one in her family died.
Likavec, who is four months’ pregnant, has been stationed in the tiny Oklahoma prairie town for a few years with her husband, a law student at Oklahoma City University and a South Buffalo native. They have two daughters, Maliah, 5, and Amaya, 2, and a third on the way.
She insisted on building the bunker as soon as they bought the house – perhaps all those snowstorms in Buffalo had taught her to prepare for the weather before it hits.
“My daughter, she is so resourceful,” her mother said. “She was right on top of it.”
Many of the homes are built on clay, so basements are not common in that part of Oklahoma. The Likavec shelter, built beneath the garage, is about the size of a sedan.
Others, though, weren’t so lucky. Within sight of the Likavec home were toppled buildings, strewn debris and shattered lives.
Her fellow airmen were among the first to leap into action.
One man drove his wife and children away from the storm, then turned back around and pulled 10 people from the rubble.
“You know how Buffalo is,” said Smith, the colonel. “That’s how Oklahoma is. We’re used to Mother Nature beating us in the head all the time.”
A stronger sense of community has developed in the wake of the storm, Likavec said, with neighbors pulling together and some adopting the families who have lost their homes and all of their possessions.
Some might say it’s crazy to live in Tornado Alley, where a twister is just a few wind gusts away. After all, Likavec’s family heads down to the shelter about five times each year in anticipation of a major storm.
But that hasn’t driven her away. In fact, she plans to remain in Oklahoma for the long haul with her family. Five months from now, she plans to have her third baby there – tornadoes or not.
“The threat of a storm coming, all you can do is take precautions,” she said. “I can only control what I control. You can’t let it affect your whole life. That’s why people rebuild and stay here.”
“We all come together,” she added. “There’s nothing that’s been blown down that won’t be rebuilt.”