Monday, 30 June 2003 10:00

Staff huddles in downdraft booth pit as tornado strikes

Written by Karyn Hendricks
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It was 5:05 p.m. on May 8 when Mike Myers and his staff gathered around the TV to check up on the weather. At 5:15 p.m. they were all huddled together in the pit of the downdraft booth, listening to the devastation taking place above them. 

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A motel on I-35 in Moore, Oklahoma was completely destroyed by the May 8 tornado. A local body shop, Myers Bodyworks, sustained heavy damage, as did a GM body shop.
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The too-deep pit became a life-saving shelter.

As the power failed, as doors were ripped off and the infrared heaters in the ceiling were crashing to the floor, Myers, owner of Myers Bodyworks in Moore, Oklahoma, led his staff to safety below the paint booth. When Myers dug the pit for his full downdraft booth, he made it too deep, much deeper than normal. Little did he know that it would turn into a tornado shelter.

Fortunately, the group did not have to stay in the pit very long. Those few moments were quite dramatic, though, as a large hydraulic pump from the business next door blew in through the garage door and hit the paint booth, setting off the fire suppression inside the booth. Wind blew through the pit at over 200 mph. With the power out, there was no circulation and it was feared that people would be affected by the fumes and chemicals raining down upon them.

The situation was even worse on the outside. Every car outside the shop was totaled - customer cars, employee cars, and some city fleet vehicles. "The tornado took out half the city of Moore," said Myers. Damaged cars were everywhere.
The shop was down for about two weeks. After the power was restored almost a week later, the doors and infrared lights had to be replaced and the roof repaired.

When asked how this was affecting his business - lots of cars to repair, but unable to do so, Myers replied that "customers are waiting until the shop is up and running to have their cars repaired. Customers know the quality work we do, so they are willing to put off elective repairs until we can accommodate them.

"We actually have a waiting list to get on the waiting list. We may have lost some business from people who simply had to have their cars repaired immediately, but most of our clients are sticking with us. They know that our shop policy is that things are done right. "

General Motors Paint and Body Shop, Oklahoma City

The tornado hit this shop at about 5:30 p.m. causing severe damage. Approxi-mately 1,000 employees were in the plant at that time, with about 80 in the paint shop. All of them took shelter in designated areas within the plant and no injuries were reported.

According to management, employees practice tornado drills on a regular basis and were very well prepared. Their preparation, combined with the early warning from the weather monitoring systems enabled everyone to remain safe. All production employees were sent home when a safe exit was found.

The paint shop incurred significant structural damage, primarily external. Most of the equipment was unharmed and functional. Extensive structural repair and cleaning is currently underway around the clock to prepare for the targeted restart of production on June 30.

There were a number of employee vehicles and GM Oklahoma City-built vehicles outside the facility that sustained major damage. Damaged production vehicles were scrapped as deemed appropriate.

According to Melanie Payne, spokesperson for GM, "the work completed since the tornado hit the plant on Thursday, May 8, has been nothing short of miraculous." Here are some examples of the effort so far.

• Over 50 GM engineers and managers have mobilized to assist plant management in the reconstruction effort. The Washing-ton Group International is the primary construction manager, leading the demolition and reconstruction efforts. • Demolition, steel reconstruction, roofing, and siding work are being done simultaneously.

• In addition to more than 400 GM Oklahoma City employees, the plant has over 800 building trade craftsmen on site assisting in the effort.

•More than 100 tons of structural steel already delivered to the plant.

• Removal of 2.1 million gallons of water from the plant's paint shop

• Temporary 'stadium' lighting, putting out nearly 300,000 watts of light, erected to allow for 24 hour-a-day operation. There are 25 cranes on site, including 5 large cranes, some weighing 90,000 pounds, to facilitate the removal of the debris and assist with the reconstruction effort (the large cranes typically take weeks to be transported across state lines, but with the assistance of the State of Oklahoma, GM had them on site within days). "GM OKC leadership feels very fortunate to have endured this traumatic event with no injuries, proud to be exceeding even the most optimistic initial estimates for time to recover, and grateful for the support that's been lent by the UAW, GM employees throughout the nation, government officials and members of the community. They're looking forward to getting back to business as usual in the very near future," said Payne.

Ultimate Paint and Body, Bethany

Ultimate Paint and Body in Bethany managed to avoid the devastation of other shops, but took a hit just the same, according to owner Barry Hicks. The tornado hit in front of the body shop, taking a building from in front of Ultimate, carrying it over the roof and throwing it into the building behind Ultimate. The fence was knocked down and 31 cars damaged, with one totaled. Repairs on six cars had been completed and were simply waiting to be picked up.

Hicks points out that the compressor rooms were demolished, two paint booth stacks, and some signage were badly damaged. The shop was closed until the power came back on, then reopened for business. He now has a backlog of cars waiting to be repaired.

The tornado hit Bethany at 11:00 p.m. so no one was in the shop. Hicks was at home and was notified because the motion detector alarm went off.

Normal tornado stuff

Other shop owners contacted in the area indicated that they had little or no damage. Some seemed downright blasé, calling the experience "just normal tornado stuff - outside damage and flying debris."