Cowpens Sailors Awarded for Rescue Efforts During Oklahoma Tornados
Two Sailors from USS Cowpens (CG 63), homeported in San Diego, were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal June 12 for their life-saving efforts during the devastating tornados in Moore, Okla. last month.
Cryptologic Technician Collection 3rd Class (SW) Arturo Guerra and Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class (SW) Sean Kelley were visiting family and friends when the EF-5 tornado struck the city on May 20. EF-5 is a category reserved for only the fiercest and most devastating of tornadoes, and it’s based on what little is left rather than the force of what swept through.
After seeking shelter with 13 other family members, neighbors and three dogs; Kelley’s mother received a text message from a neighbor down the street, saying she needed shelter. The tornado was already on the ground. Kelley and his father climbed out of the shelter and ran down the street, bringing the woman and her three daughters to safety.
“I grabbed her two babies and my father grabbed the toddler, at which point we ran back to our shelter and miraculously fit everyone inside,” Kelley said.
Huddled around an emergency radio, the group heard reports of the elementary school being destroyed with children trapped inside. To this, Kelley said, “my father looked at me, and said ‘Let’s go.’”
Kelley, his father, Guerra and others got in a truck and headed to the elementary school.
“The tornado’s path came within less than a half mile of my house, and the rescue chopper reported total destruction of everything in its path,” Kelley said.
The group was among the first responders on site at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Utilizing firefighting equipment and various objects of debris as tools, they attempted to recover children buried among the rubble.
“The elementary school was completely leveled,” Guerra said. “The rubble and destruction that I saw firsthand… I have no words to describe it. The four kids that were there, as I handed them off to the next person in line… I choked up.”
“I have never been in—let alone trained for—chaos of this magnitude,” Kelley said. “You had to do as much as you could while you were there.”
For several hours the two Sailors continued to lend assistance. They aided in rescuing four children and their teacher, three injured personnel, and assisted a dozen other families.
After helping set up a triage for the injured, Guerra and Kelley helped search hundreds of nearby houses for others.
According to Kelley, at their scene alone, they recovered the remains of eight others.
“We did as much in one day as we possibly could,” Kelley said.
Kelley plans to collect donations for the American Red Cross, Moore Relief, to provide assistance to his neighbors who lost everything in this disaster.
“Their actions are exactly what we expect from anyone wearing the uniform of a United States Sailor,” said Cowpens executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Aujero. “Petty officers Guerra and Kelley are living proof of honor, courage and commitment. We here on Cowpens couldn’t be prouder.”