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DeLong: Turning down a ride helped save teen's life
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He would have been in that convertible, the one covered in bricks and stained with blood.

But Jim DeLong decided to walk to school that day.

On the morning of April 6, he turned down a ride and headed through the square with his brother and a friend.

The darkness came in like a shroud. The black of the funnel - the beams and nails and shingles and soot that twisted around its core - rolled up Washington Street. As it hit eye level, he turned back.

"We just ran up this way, back where we had just come," said Jim, now 90, pointing to a clothing store, a restaurant and then a coffee shop that now sit on the path he took.

It was just before 8:30 a.m., just before opening time and many of the shops were still locked. As the wind whipped their backs, the boys pulled on the handles, hit against the glass.

At the end of the street, a stock boy at the Imperial Pharmacy popped his head out of the storefront, then braced himself against the door as the boys ran in. The tiles were slick and Jim slid across on his stomach, clamoring to a radiator in the middle of the store and then wrapping his arms around the metal.

The windows shattered, glass jumping across the soda fountain counters. All around him, the square fell to ruins, buildings reduced and flattened on every side as the tornado's center passed over.

The Imperial Pharmacy shook but stood strong. And in moments, the storm vanished.

As he lifted his head, Jim saw a Roadway Express delivery truck wedged into the showroom window, the same truck he had passed blocks away on his walk to school that morning.

He stepped over the cotton balls and pill bottles and bandages mixed with glass across the floor. Outside, a large white dog walked down Washington Street, wading in the water that gushed from open mains.

"There's no knowing where that dog came from," Jim said. "It could have been there or it could have been blocks away. It could have hauled him from blocks away."

Smoke began to billow from hardware stores and as hail beat against his bare face, helplessness set in.

It was pitiful, he said, the water pooling in the gutters as the trapped screamed for help.

"You could hear the next day, the cartridges, shotgun shells, bullets, all that in both stores - you could hear the things exploding as the fire would get to them," he said. "You'd hear them go off and they'd just BAM, BAM, BAM, just sounded like a small war for a few minutes."

At the Methodist church, a pastor set up a radio in the steeple. As messages poured in, voices looking for the lost, their loved ones, those who had not called home, Jim took to his bike. For days, he rode around town visiting the hospitals and the morgues until the missing had either been found or their names had been noted on the list of the dead.

As rebuilding began, Jim filled his days hauling brick from the rail yard to the square. He lifted the bundles, six bricks tied with a strap, into the back of a truck and then drove them a few blocks to be unloaded.

They started at the corner where Saul's sits today, then worked until all the need had been filled. Still, when looking up at the side of that building, a lighter section tilts down in a jagged swoop toward the street where the bricks Jim hauled went to rebuilding the broken city.

One boy died in the car Jim almost got into that morning. The driver pulled into a downtown alleyway to escape the wind. And as the buildings collapsed around them, the boys were pinned beneath the bricks.

Every so often throughout the years, Jim pauses with the solemn weight of how near he was to death. Why he lived, he said, is just a guess.

"Maybe I'm supposed to be what I am. Maybe it's just a break. I don't know," he said. "But I think a lot of times about how close it was, just a step off the curb and into the back of that car."