A tornado hit an Oklahoma newsroom built in the 1920s. The damage isn’t stopping the presses

SULFUR, Okla. — When Oklahoma and state officials held a news conference Monday to discuss the extent of the devastation from the tornadoes two days earlier, Kathy John did what she always does: She showed up to report on it for the city’s weekly newspaper, the Sulfur Times- Democrat.

But before she could write her story, John had to help her staff rescue computers from the newsroom, which found itself in the middle of the path of destruction on April 28.

‘We’re going to get a piece of paper. It may be a day late, but we’re going to put out a newspaper,” John said outside the 1926 brick building that houses the newsroom.

Sulfur suffered the worst devastation in Oklahoma during a burst of severe weather, when a tornado ripped through downtown in the community of about 5,000 residents south of Oklahoma City. Four people were killed across the state, including a woman who was in a bar near the newspaper’s offices.

Kathy John’s husband, James John, joined the staff in 1968 after his father ran it for 27 years. Together they have been active in Sulfur, the provincial capital, for more than 50 years.

In the 83 years their family has owned the newspaper, it has never missed a printing, Kathy John said. It has come close before.

There was a time about twenty years ago when an overnight freeze followed heavy rain that snapped trees and power lines in half. Some residents were without power for weeks, but the Sulfur Times Democrat newsroom ran on a generator and kept running.

But this week the newspaper put three employees to the test.

“I’ve been trying to write a headline all day, but you just can’t put into words what happened,” said James John, looking at the newspaper’s layout on a computer on his kitchen table.

Their downtown newsroom is without power, so the Oklahoma Press Association provided a Wi-Fi hotspot and other equipment to help staff turn out the paper at John’s house a few blocks away, where they weathered the storm ​​and fortunately suffered no damage.

The newsroom was built in 1926, the same year the paper began printing, and they are likely the original tenants, although no one can say for sure. The building was once an air raid shelter and may be one of the few buildings that will survive. But they fear the city will condemn the structure and destroy it along with the rest of downtown, James John said.

Several buildings have completely collapsed. Others show the strange precision of tornadic winds, such as a store with its front wall missing while the clothes inside remain neatly folded or hanging on a rack.

Not far from the newsroom, a sports grill under the roof was flattened. One resident, Sheila Hilliard Goodman, died there Saturday evening while sheltering from the tornado.

Brick, wood and metal debris have been pushed to the curb and maintenance trucks line most of the downtown’s five modest blocks, where disaster responders repair downed power lines or sweep debris from the few remaining roofs. Business owners and their families are saving what they can by loading truck beds and trailers.

Some buildings in downtown Sulfur predate statehood in 1907 and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town was built on tourism for Chickasaw National Recreation Area, a 4,046.86-acre park across the street that features natural springs that travelers once believed had medicinal properties.

Visitors often compare the smell of the sulphurous water in the springs to rotten eggs. But on Monday the rich smell of leather was in the air, wafting through the broken windows of Billy Cook Harness through the block. & Saddle.

Sulfur is teeming with reporters from across the state and country, so newspaper staff decided they could best serve their community by writing about its strength and resilience.

“This week we’re trying to focus on all the people who help here and the helpers, and how blessed we are that we’ve only had one fatality,” Kathy John said. “I just think it’s the most integral thing to do.”

On Tuesday, the Johns had decided to publish the paper on Thursday, a day later than normal. The paper is printed in a nearby town that was not affected by the tornado.

It had been a rough few days and their heads were still spinning as they tried to keep track of where the next FEMA press conference would take place and whether the city would allow them back into their building to retrieve their archives.

As the recovery continued around them, James John was still writing that headline.

“It was a treasure,” he said of Old Town, thinking that might be the angle. “Something along those lines, you know: ‘Treasure Lost.’”