Images of barefoot little girls in the arms of Tulsa firefighters the night a tornado tor through their gym captured hearts in Oklahoma and nationwide.
The tornado destroyed the Aim High Academy seven months ago, and Thursday night the gymnastics ministry had its biggest fundraiser.
Video from the basement that saved nearly 100 lives shows what it was like inside Aim High Academy in the seconds after a tornado tore the gymnastic studio apart.
Aim High Academy coach, Kira Arbuckle, said, “Our name was out there, people got to hear about us, we got to share our story, and it's all for His glory.”
The story of Aim High Academy started eight years ago, when Jennifer Patterson founded the gym, which is more about ministry for north Tulsa children.
“God began to tell me earlier, intervention is necessary,” Patterson said.
She and her staff are considered heroes, by many, for how quickly they reacted to the storm sirens on March 25h.
“I just snapped my fingers and pointed, and they just, immediately, all those kids were on their way,” Patterson said.
Taking cover in the basement were 50 children and 30 adults.
Gymnast Shiloh Sells, said, “I was scared. Especially when the lights started flickering and then the pipes bust.”
But not everyone made it to shelter right away. Three coaches were upstairs helping folks from the community get to the basement. They were in the doorway when the tornado formed.
“We step in here. I shut the doors and then it's right there,” said coach Eric Smith. “We took off running.”
Arbuckle said, “It felt like a vacuum, and it was really dark all of the sudden...the ceiling tiles started coming down, and so we're feeling the ceiling tiles started coming down.”
They narrowly escaped the storm and made it safely to shelter, where the girls said they prayed and sang praise songs with their coaches.
“God was in the middle of all this,” Smith said.
Then, as quick as the tornado came, it was gone; and so was the gym.
Arbuckle said, “And all of the sudden it was like, I am so thankful we had enough notice, that all of our kids were in the basement. Because all I could see was the bar set, and it was completely crushed, and that's where we were 20 minutes before.
The Tulsa Fire Department showed up.
It was pouring rain, the basement was filling with water, frantic parents were trying to make sure their children had survived, and the firefighters made the scary situation feel safe.
“It was very cold and our girls were down here with just leotards on and bare feet,” Patterson said.
The firefighters gave the girls their helmets and jackets then carried them out, one-by-one, making sure their little, bare feet were safe from harm.
Even though there wasn't a single injury, the destruction was enough that it could have brought the group down, but it didn't.
Instead, they had a State meet to make just a few days following, where they dominated.
Gymnast Sheridan Ramsey said, “The tornado didn't stop us. We went state and competed and won.”
Aim High's story of survival catapulted the gym into the national spotlight and donations poured in.
Currently, the athletes are practicing out of two donated gyms - one in Owasso, one in west Tulsa.
The coaches and athletes are ready to, together, practice under the same roof again - hopefully in a brand, new gym.
Patterson has faith that will happen when the time is right and the finances are there; but until then, she can’t say thank you enough.
“I'm just really thankful. Really thankful,” she said.
She’s also certain that Aim High's story is only just beginning.
“Just thank you for today and we give you all the glory. In Jesus name we pray, Amen. AHA You know, God made me special with a purpose and a plan for my life,” Patterson said.
Thursday was a big night for the children and the gym, especially after the year they've had.
Olympic Gold Medalist Carly Patterson hosted the fundraiser, and the money raised will go toward finding a new, permanent home for Aim High Academy.