Siblings survive storm in Chinese restaurant freezer

Guangdong migrant used to joke that walk-in cold store would save lives if a tornado struck. On Monday it did just that

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 5:05am


For years Anita Zhang's neighbours joked that if a tornado ever bore down on her Chinese restaurant, folks could take refuge in its roomy walk-in freezer.

On Monday, Zhang was forced to put their idea to the test - and lived to tell the tale - when one of the most destructive twisters to hit the United States in recent years ripped through this Oklahoma City suburb.

"I'm so lucky," she said, over and over, as she told her story through an interpreter on Tuesday in the driveway of her home in another section of Moore that escaped the tornado's raw fury.

A native of Guangdong, 57-year-old Zhang emigrated to the United States 10 years ago with other members of her family.

She opened the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant on Southwest 19th Street seven years ago in a commercial strip mall that catered to Moore's many middle-class residential developments.

It had a good reputation for such dishes as spicy fried General Tso chicken. "Great food at a great price," wrote one Google reviewer. "Very nice family-owned restaurant. The food is excellent. Service is quick."

Monday's tornado - which police say killed at least 24 people with its 320km/h winds cutting a 27-kilometre swathe through Moore - was quick, too.

She was watching live storm coverage on local TV in the restaurant with her brother Michael Zhang, 50, when suddenly the power went off, the neighbourhood disaster sirens wailed and the dark funnel of fury drew near.

Into the freezer the siblings went - with a blanket, thoughtfully - to sit out the twister as it passed literally on top of them, pulverising everything in its path.

"I thought it was an earthquake," recalled the Cantonese-speaking Zhang. "I felt the building was shaking and moving. There were loud noises and banging and wind blowing ... I thought only the glass door of the restaurant would be broken, but when we crawled out, everything was gone."

I felt the building was shaking and moving. There were loud noises and banging and wind blowing ... I thought only the glass door of the restaurant would be broken, but when we crawled out, everything was gone

Initially, the Zhangs struggled to open the freezer door against the debris. Michael was first to wiggle out; Anita was too scared to follow, until her brother announced that nearby buildings were on fire.

Once out of the freezer, Anita Zhang heard people shouting: "Anyone there?" Later, she learned from her daughter that it was the neighbours, coming to check on their safety.

To Zhang's misfortune, her business was on the wrong side of Southwest 19th Street, which turned out to be the southern edge of the tornado's track.

On the north side of the street, besides the restaurant, the tornado smashed the entire Camden Village strip mall, including a liquor store and a Walgreen's drug store. On the opposite side, however, a rival CVS pharmacy was unscathed - it has even reopened for business. An adjacent low-rise apartment complex also suffered no serious damage.

Police denied access to non-residents to the worst-hit residential streets in Moore, but the startling scale of the destruction was all too visible from the sidelines.

Zhang's family returned to the restaurant to salvage whatever they could - sacks of rice, cans of vegetables, a barrel of MSG - for safekeeping back at home.

Longer term, Zhang would like the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant to reopen. It was insured, she said, although 24 hours after disaster struck, the family is still coming to grips with everything that's happened so suddenly.

For now, she's more than content that her two granddaughters are unhurt. Their mother, who is Zhang's daughter, took them out of school before the tornado got too close and drove off with them to safety.