Photo captures snapshot of courage after tornado levels school - WNEM TV 5

Photograph captures courage, love after tornado levels school

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One of Hellstern's photographs captured a child leaping into a man's arms. The man cradles the child's head with one hand and hugs his waist with the other, his face flushed with emotion. One of Hellstern's photographs captured a child leaping into a man's arms. The man cradles the child's head with one hand and hugs his waist with the other, his face flushed with emotion.

Jim Routon considers next-door neighbor Hezekiah Darbon his "part-time kid."

That close bond was apparent when the 7-year-old emerged from the debris of his elementary school and leaped into the first responder's arms.

"I think I needed that embrace or that hug as much as he did," Routon said. "He just ran up and said, 'I'm so glad to see you Big Dog.'"

That's their nicknames for each other. Routon is Big Dog and Hezekiah is Little Dog, and they enjoy playing basketball and football together.

When the EF-5 tornado reduced Oklahoma City's Briarwood Elementary School to rubble, Routon rushed into the chaos and destruction. Hezekiah's parents couldn't get there immediately. The student was in shock. His arms were stiff as a board and he wouldn't move because he was so frightened.

A photographer captured a child leaping into Routon's arms. He cradles his 7-year-old neighbor's head with one hand and hugs his waist with the other, his face flushed with emotion.

The raw moments between the two "partners" would be beamed around the world via the Associated Press wire service. The photo went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

Oklahoma City newspaper photographer Paul Hellstern snapped his shutter just minutes after the tornado pummeled Briarwood.

In that fraction of a second, Hellstern captured the courage and selflessness that overcame adults at the school in the moments after the Monday devastation.

"I'd just arrived, probably five minutes after the tornado passed and came into that neighborhood and noticed that school there and children pouring out," he told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "It was pandemonium with children crying everywhere, bloody teachers and so forth."

Cameras ready, the photographer for The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City area's only daily newspaper, ran as quickly as he could to capture images from the scene.

Routon had no idea someone captured the moment he found Hezekiah alive.

Hellstern said he was amazed by the adults' response, especially those who gathered their composure to bring children out of the school, then returned to the rubble to search for more.

Police and emergency officials soon joined them in the search. Hellstern said he was moved to see distraught children and parents reunite at the school of about 700 students in Moore, a southern suburb of the Oklahoma capital.

"The emotion of seeing parents come together with their children for that first moment, finding them alive and still well, was exciting," Hellstern said.

Hezekiah, a first grader, described the picture to Routon: "I knew that you were going to pick me up, so I just jumped. And I just started hugging you really hard. I was crying a little bit. And I was happy that I survived."

Routon couldn't believe what he saw.

"It was so chaotic. We just weren't sure, the school was pretty much devastated and mostly destroyed. We weren't sure if anyone was going to come out alive," Routon said. "To go over and see one of my favorite neighbor's child emerge, it was awesome. It was just an amazing feeling."

"He was just laying there. His arms were straight as a board. He wouldn't move he was so shocked and scared," said Routon's daughter, Sheyna. "They had never been through anything like that in their lives."

After the tornado hit, Jim Routon and his daughters, Sheyna and Jaycie, ran toward the school to help.

"Had a lot of cut and bruises. One lady had a pole through her leg, that was scary," Jaycie Routon said.

Instead of panicking the family helped calm the terrified students.

"To see my daughter sprinting to help other kids. After that was over, I just grabbed them both squeezed and hugged them. I told them how important it was and how proud I was of them being so selfless and willing to help others," Jim Routon said.

The girls say someone taught them well.

"Because he acts real tough to everyone, but to see his soft side come out, I was very, very proud of my dad. Very proud of him," Sheyna Routon said.

Jim Routon said it's hard to believe a photograph of him and his neighbor is among the iconic images of the storm seen far beyond his state's borders. But the stories of recovery that photos of the storm tell are inspiring to many Oklahomans, too, he said.

"It actually helps us, you know, in the healing process," Routon said. "And helps us to learn and see that ... we have to depend on one another to get through these types of things."

The two were reunited on Good Morning America Wednesday morning. And their special bond jumped off the television screen as Routon clasped his arms around Hezekiah's waist and the boy held onto his friend's hands during the entire interview with anchor Robin Roberts.

"It was very special, just to, when we came on the scene and to see everything, all the devastation, just to come on and to not expect anything good to come from what I saw and then to see my 'Little Dog' here run up," Routon told Roberts.

"It was pretty satisfying to see something familiar and he wasn't hurt, wasn't scratched, bruises or anything like that," he said.

And he thanks God that no one died inside that school that day.

"We're very blessed. We feel very, very blessed," Routon said.

He said Oklahoma residents will depend on each other to get through the coming difficult days during the recovery.

"That's the Oklahoma spirit. Oklahomans are resilient," he said.

To see the entire GMA interview, click here.

CNN's Eliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and CNN. All rights reserved.

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