FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Two Oklahoma teachers who used their bodies to shield kindergarteners when their school took a direct hit from a tornado were honored at the IndyCar race in Texas on Saturday night.
Jennifer Simonds and Anna “Sam” Canaday work at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., which was hit by an EF5 tornado May 20.
Before teaming with Canaday on an enthusiastic command for drivers to start their engines at Texas Motor Speedway, Simonds said the teachers don’t see themselves as heroes.
“I’m very thankful I’m alive and I’m thankful to do things like this,” said Simonds, who had never before been to or even seen a race. “But I don’t see myself as a hero.”
When the tornado bore down on the school, the teachers said they followed their instincts to do everything they could to protect the children.
“Those babies mean the world to us,” said Canaday, whose 5-year-old son was in Simonds’ class.
There were 24 people killed in Moore, including seven children at the Plaza Towers school.
More tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City area May 31, when Canaday’s house was hit and heavily damaged.
“May 20 took our classrooms, and our vehicles, both of ours in that one. … May 31, what tornado goes South? It hit my house,” Canaday said. “Neighbors and friends have come to help. The outpouring of love and generosity from the community in general is heartfelt and overwhelming.”
Simonds said people have been helping our more than she could have ever imagined. She said people have been donating money and materials to rebuild the classrooms, including books from England.
The Oklahoma City area is about three hours north of Texas Motor Speedway.
The honorary starter who waved the green flag was CJ Gillaspie, captain of the West Volunteer Fire Department, which lost five members in a fertilizer plant explosion April 17. Those firefighters were among 15 people killed. About 200 people were hurt in that small town about 1½ hours south of the track.
Gillaspie was among the first responders to the scene and is also the public works director in West, charged with rebuilding the infrastructure of the town so people can move back into their homes or rebuild. His home was among about 200 damaged in the fiery blast, his beyond repair and demolished just last week.
Gillaspie had never been to the Texas track, but said one of his good friends who died in the blast used to go to every race there and loved racing.
“I’m not just waving the flag for me, but I’m waving it for him and all the victims in West,” Gillaspie said.
The teachers and Gillaspie met with Mario Andretti and then attended the prerace drivers’ meeting, getting a rousing round of applause when introduced. They were each presented with checkered flags signed by all 24 drivers in the field, including Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan, who they visited with on the starting grid.
In conjunction with their appearances at the IndyCar race, the three were treated to a stay in a luxury hotel, giving all of them a brief reprieve from all they have dealt with in recent weeks.
“I was glad to have a hot shower,” Canaday said. “This is great. Everyone has been so wonderful. The invitation down here to just let us get away from things for a day or so, I just can’t thank them enough.”