Battered, but not broken: Tornado sent teen and her aunt and uncle flipping and spinning inside RV
By Amy Dalrymple
Oliphant, visiting from the Baton Rouge, La., area, spent Memorial Day in Minot, where her grandparents live. After a family barbecue, the teen traveled with her aunt and uncle, Desiree and Eric Spencer, to their RV south of Watford City, where she was planning to spend two weeks.
As Oliphant and her aunt were making funny videos and talking about how to spend the two weeks, a tornado warning came on TV.
“I remember it looked like it was hailing, but it was actually gravel flying up from the high winds from the tornado,” Oliphant said. “It was all just coming at us.”
Oliphant, one of nine people hurt in Monday night’s tornado and the only one with critical injuries, is recovering at Trinity Health in Minot. She could be released to her grandparents’ home today, but she expects to need eye surgery, physical therapy and other follow-up care.
But her aunt and uncle feared the worst Monday night after the three were flipped two or three times by the tornado and dropped at least 200 feet away, with propane tanks, a Dumpster and other debris flying around them.
“I have no words to describe the strength of what it was like,” Desiree said. “We had to be inside of it. When I opened my eyes, I think we were in the middle of the funnel.”
Before they were ripped apart, the three huddled under the table with Oliphant on the inside and Desiree’s arm around her and Eric on top of them.
“The last thing I remember is looking up at her and she looked over at me and she told me that she loved me and everything was going to be OK,” Oliphant said. “Then the floor split between us.”
Desiree and Eric stayed conscious throughout the storm, but they think their niece was knocked out right away. They think her memory of the floor splitting was the RV’s slideout separating from the camper.
“It was really loud and we were flipping. I remember we rolled or flipped probably three times,” Desiree said. “We were just sucked up in it. I couldn’t touch anything.”
After they were slammed to the ground, Desiree tried yelling for her niece, but her mouth kept filling up with gravel and dirt.
Then Eric asked his wife, “Are these your legs?” and they discovered it was their niece, but she was unresponsive and her hand was cold and limp.
“This is the baby I held the day she was born. And her lying there, it looked like the whole side of her face was just smashed,” Desiree said. “Her hair was just full of blood and you couldn’t tell where it came from. And she wouldn’t move. I kept thinking that I didn’t save her, that I didn’t save my brother’s baby.”
After what they think was 30 seconds to a minute, Oliphant started moaning. But as she was coming to, the couple saw another funnel cloud forming. They wanted to seek shelter in a building at the RV park that was still standing, but Oliphant was in shock and was fighting and screaming.
They ended up having to drag her to the building to get her out of harm’s way.
Several eyewitnesses reported seeing two or three tornadoes Monday night. The National Weather Service classified the storm as an EF2 tornado, on the enhanced Fujita scale of 0 to 5, but said it was almost impossible to confirm whether there was more than one tornado.
While in the building, a man who said he used to be on a search and rescue team helped Oliphant, putting pressure on her head wound and trying to get her to calm down.
“I don’t know where he came from. I’d love to thank him,” Desiree said.
The family was taken by ambulance to the Watford City hospital, and then Oliphant was airlifted to Minot.
Meanwhile, Oliphant’s parents, Jill Lavergne and Ben Oliphant, were finding out bits and pieces about the tornado from relatives in North Dakota and images of the tornado on The Weather Channel.
“All I could think about was my baby was hurt and scared and I wasn’t there,” said Lavergne, who lives with her daughter in the Baton Rouge area.
Ainslea Oliphant’s 18-year-old brother, who also lives in Minot, and their grandparents were with her in the Minot hospital. Lavergne wasn’t able to get a flight to North Dakota until Wednesday night, and Ben Oliphant arrived Thursday night from Louisiana.
Ainslea Oliphant has a broken clavicle, a fractured cheekbone, mild bleeding on her brain and will require surgery to her eye.
She got up and walked for the first time Thursday, raising her family’s spirits as well as her own.
“Whenever I woke up, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know if I was alive. It was crazy,” Oliphant said. “But when I got up and walked, it was like ‘I’m OK.’ It happened and it’s over and I’m fine. I’m going to live.”
She anticipates she will stay with her grandparents for about a week until she is well enough to fly back to Louisiana.
Desiree and Eric, who work for Bilfinger Westcon, a contractor building a gas plant near Watford City, have bruises and scrapes all over their bodies, with Desiree so sore her husband is afraid to touch her.
Eric told his niece he wishes he could have been the one with the worst injuries. But Oliphant credits her uncle with dragging her to safety from a second funnel cloud.
“He saved my life,” she said. “If it wouldn’t have been for him, I don’t know if I would have been here.”