552nd ACW Airmen put 'Wing' in Wingman

  • Published
  • By Darren D. Heusel
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Driving home from work at Tinker Air Force Base recently, a helpless feeling came over Curtis Swift as an EF-2 tornado was bearing down on his home in Bridge Creek while his wife and family pet were inside and he was still some 4 miles from the house.

The 552nd Air Control Wing historian, who had recently returned from a five-month deployment to Afghanistan, was just starting to get his affairs back in order when the twister turned his life upside down all over again.

Fortunately for Mr. Swift, he belongs to an organization that puts the "wing" in Wingman, as members of "America's Wing" came to his aid within hours of the disaster.

"The Air Force is a family business," said Col. Jay R. Bickley, 552nd ACW commander. "When something happens to a member of the family, you roll up your sleeves and pitch in to help. That's what being a good Wingman is really all about."
Mr. Swift was traveling southbound on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike, which authorities had shut down because of the storm.

He said he was listening to one of the local meteorologists giving live updates on the radio when they announced the tornado had just crossed a section of I-44 about a half mile south of his neighborhood.

"The tornado came straight up Sarah Road and that's when I knew I was in trouble," Mr. Swift said. "My wife called me about five minutes before that and told me not to come down I-44."

Mr. Swift said the tornado came ripping through the neighborhood, turning north on Sarah Road and taking out homes on both sides of the major thoroughfare.

"From the debris path, I figured the winds were wrapping around the north side of the house and the east side of my shop because that's where the most damage occurred," Mr. Swift said. "The north side of my house had no roof and the garage was completely gone. I just knew everything was gone, or severely damaged."

Mr. Swift said a second storm arrived about an hour after the one that produced the tornado. He said the second storm actually caused more damage because it became stationary over his house for nearly an hour and dumped several inches of rain.

Mr. Swift said his wife, Tracie, and the couple's dog, Remi, an 8-year-old Vizsla, took shelter in a safe room inside the garage as the storm approached.

"When I got home, I got my wife and dog out of the shelter," he said. "The roof from the house covered my wife's car, creating a small tunnel to the house. I put the dog in one of the spare rooms and went to work saving the electronics and other valuable items."

The initial damage assessment, according to Mr. Swift, was not good.

"The garage exploded, it's gone," he said. "The swimming pool was destroyed. The master bedroom and closet are total losses - not much could be salvaged. My wife had a quilting business upstairs and all of her equipment and everything was soaked and covered in insulation."

Mr. Swift considers himself a preparer, but said you can never be prepared for what happened to him and his family on that May 6 afternoon.

"When you come out of that (safe) room, you're not thinking clearly," he said. "You kind of go into auto pilot just trying to save stuff - turn the gas off, the electricity off, so you don't cause a fire."

Mr. Swift said having the number of a reputable moving company, having a plan for someone to come look for you, and having homeowner's insurance that's worth its weight are all critical in the immediate aftermath of a storm.

"It's going to be crazy immediately following a storm...emotionally, it's overwhelming," he said. "The first thing you think about is the safety of your loved ones. Once that's intact, you start thinking about your stuff. Having that person you can trust and rely on to come check on you is important."

Mr. Swift said the overwhelming support he's received from the base and local agencies has been great. He said it's the perfect example of what being a good Wingman is all about.

"The thing that chokes me up is when people take time out of their day to come help me out," he said. "They're busy and they have their own problems.

"The people from my command have been great! They told me they were giving me a 72-hour pass and I had people showing up the next day to help. Having the support of the base and knowing I don't have to worry about work is a relief."

Mrs. Swift said she appreciates the support they've been given from the base.
"It's just amazing to see how everyone has stepped up to help," she said. "The Airmen from Tinker have been wonderful."

As for being at home at the time of the twister, Mrs. Swift said, "It was scary. Mostly because you have no service, so I couldn't contact anyone to find out what was going on.

"I'm just so thankful they're so many people willing to help out," she said. "I just really appreciate that they're willing to do whatever we ask of them."

The morning after the tornado, six 552nd ACW members came to Mr. Swift's home to help him dig out and assist with removing debris. In the days that followed, others came out sporadically to assist as needed.

Others first learned of the damage several days after the event and came out at their first opportunity.

Master Sgt. Christopher Robertson, a member of the 552nd ACW's Security Forces team, was one of the Airmen to volunteer with the cleanup effort.

"My house got hit by the May 19, 2013, tornado that hit Little Axe and Shawnee, so I know exactly what he's going through," he said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."

Tech. Sgt. Joshua Tilse, another member of the 552nd ACW Security Forces team, said he volunteered to do what he could to help because Mr. Swift is a member of the wing staff family.

"I've known him for years," he said. "When I found out his house got hit, I wanted to volunteer to help right away."

Tech. Sgt. Kevin Baynard, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the 552nd ACW's command section, said he's known Mr. Swift for a long time as well, adding, "I just try to help people when they're down."

"We just can't have military members being stressed out trying to take care of things on their own when disaster strikes."

Colonel Bickley said Mr. Swift and his family suffered a tremendous loss, but as is the standard for the people of Oklahoma, "they have responded with a tremendous amount of resiliency and have begun the healing process."

"I'm proud that members of our wing, Curtis' wing, were able to set them on that path," he added.