Chinese restaurant owner rides out Oklahoma tornado in walk-in freezer

MOORE, Oklahoma (AFP) - For years, Anita Zhang's neighbours joked that if a tornado ever bore down on her Chinese restaurant, folks could take refuge in its roomy walk-in freezer.

On Monday, Ms Zhang got the chance to test their idea - and to live to tell the tale - when one of the most powerful and destructive twisters to hit the United States in recent years ripped through this Oklahoma City suburb.

"I'm so lucky," she said, over and over, as she told her story to AFP through an interpreter on Tuesday in the driveway of her home in another section of Moore that escaped the tornado's raw fury.

A native of Guangdong, the southern Chinese province that's no stranger to merciless typhoons, 57-year-old Zhang emigrated to the United States 10 years ago with other members of her family.

She opened the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant on Southwest 19th Street seven years ago in a commercial strip mall that catered to Moore's many handsome middle-class residential developments.

It had a good reputation for such dishes as spicy fried General Tso chicken.

"Great food at a great price," wrote one Google reviewer. "Very nice family-owned restaurant. The food is excellent. Service is quick."

Monday's tornado - which police say killed at least 24 people with its 200 mile (320km) per hour winds cutting a 17 mile (27km) swathe through Moore - was quick, too.

She was watching live storm coverage on local TV in the restaurant with her brother Michael Zhang, 50, when suddenly the power went off, the neighbourhood disaster sirens wailed and the dark funnel of fury drew near.

Into the freezer the siblings went - with a blanket, thoughtfully - to sit out the twister as it passed literally on top of them, pulverising everything in its path.

"I thought it was an earthquake," recalled the Cantonese-speaking Zhang, whose Mandarin Chinese name is Zhang Jianci.

"I felt the building was shaking and moving. There were loud noises and banging and wind blowing... I thought only the glass door of the restaurant would be broken, but when we crawled out, everything was gone."

Initially, the Zhangs struggled to open the freezer door against the debris.

Michael was first to wiggle out; Anita was too scared to follow, until her brother announced that nearby buildings were on fire.

Once out of the freezer, Ms Anita Zhang heard people shouting: "Anyone there?" Later, she learned from her daughter that it was the neighbours, coming to check on their safety.

Ms Zhang's misfortune was that the business her immigrant family had toiled so hard to build had literally been on the wrong side of Southwest 19th Street, which turned out to be the southern edge of the tornado's scalpel-like track.

On the north side of the street, beside the restaurant, the tornado smashed the entire Camden Village strip mall, including a liquor store that on Tuesday reeked of broken bottles of booze, as well as a Walgreen's drug store.

On the opposite side, however, a rival CVS pharmacy got off unscathed - so much so that it reopened for business. An adjacent low-rise apartment complex likewise sustained no serious damage.

"We stood in the windows and watched it (the tornado) coming in," recounted Ms Karen Smith, who works at the apartment complex. She and daughter Elizabeth then rode out the storm under a staircase, snuggling up with their dachshund Lucy.

Police denied access to non-residents on Tuesday to the worst-hit residential streets in Moore, but the startling scale of the destruction was all too visible from the sidelines.

Ms Zhang's family returned to the restaurant on Tuesday to recover whatever they could salvage - sacks of white rice, cans of vegetables, a barrel of MSG - for safekeeping in the two-car garage back at home.

Longer term, Ms Zhang would like the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant to reopen.

It was insured, she said, although 24 hours after disaster struck, the family is still coming to grips with everything that's happened so suddenly.

For now, she's more than content that her two granddaughters are unhurt.

Their mother, who is Zhang's daughter, took them out of school before the tornado got too close and drove off with them to safety.

"They are back now," she said with a sigh of relief. "They are alive."

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