Joplin Survivor Tells OK Parents: 'Have to Try to Be Strong'

PHOTO: Shante Marie Caton and Trentan Caton, seen here in these undated handout photos, were killed in 2011 when a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri.PlayAleta Whitely/
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Crystal Whitely lay in a hospital bed not knowing the whereabouts of two of her three children, Shante, 10, and Trentan, 6, both of whom were torn out of her arms by the fierce tornado that demolished her Joplin, Mo., home in 2011.

"She got them all in the bathtub and was holding them down, but the tornado was so strong," said her mother, Aleta Whitely. "She had to hold on to three kids. Crystal was so upset. She couldn't find Shante and she couldn't find Trentan. She never did see the kids again."

Aleta Whitely, who doted on her grandchildren twice a week, knows first hand how the families in Moore, Okla., are reeling from the horror of a tornado today, a force of nature that can quite literally rip a baby from its mother's arms.

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"It's been a rough two years," said Whitely, 55, sobbing sporadically throughout the interview with "It's not something you get over."

In Moore earlier today, parents stood outside a local church, listening carefully to hear whether their children were on a list of survivors of the two-mile wide tornado that tore through this suburban town, killing at least 24, including nine children.

READ: Children Among Victims of Oklahoma Tornado

For many the news was happy as they reunited with children who had been at school when the storm hit Monday, but for others, fear escalated.

Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools were in the direct path of Monday's tornado, which the National Weather Service gave a preliminary rating of at least EF-4, meaning churning wind speeds of up to 200 mph.

Oklahoma City police spokesman Sgt. Gary Knight said seven of the young victims were from Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis and National Guard members told ABC News the search-and-rescue operation at the school is now a body-recovery effort.

"You have to try to be strong," said Whitely, offering advice to those who have lost loved ones in Moore. "We went to counseling and it really helped.

"Some people say it gets easier when people lose a child, but it never gets easier," she said. "It never goes away. You have to just learn to live with it."

In an eery coincidence, the two-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado -- the deadliest in U.S. history since the 1947 Texas-Oklahoma tornado -- is May 22. An EF5 multiple-vortex tornado, it was the third to strike the town since 1971, killing a staggering 158, 13 of them children, and injuring 1,110.

SEE: Search for Survivors in Joplin Tornado

Crystal Whitely, who had recently divorced, was clinging to her three children in the bathroom when the tornado hit her Joplin neighborhood. The children's father had called to warn them of the approaching storm.

She learned later that Shante, who was found under a door, had died instantly. Trentan, 6, managed to survive but was "beaten up badly," said Aleta Whitely, works for a boat manufacturing company.

Trentan was taken to Childrens Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where family members eventually decided to take him off life support. Only her youngest daughter, Keana, now 6, survived.

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A good Samaritan whose name the family never learned found Crystal Whitely and Keana and helped get them to separate hospitals. Power was out and only texts worked on the cell phones.

Crystal Whitely finally got through to her mother on an old cell phone number, something Aleta Whitely said was as "an act of God."

"They thought Keana's neck was broken and she was in traction, but six hours later a nurse let Crystal use the phone and she actually got through to me," her mother said. "The first thing Crystal asked me was where are Shante and Trentan? I had to tell her Shante had died and Trentan was somewhere and we didn't know the details."

Aleta Whitely said that it seemed like "hundreds of miles" she and her husband walked to see if the family had survived.

"I had heard Crystal had been taken off to the hospital with Keana," she said. "When we got to her house we had to park and walk what seemed like hundreds of miles. The house was gone.

"A gentleman who never gave his name came up and said, 'Well, I hate to tell you this, but one of the grandkids is underneath that blanket' -- my granddaughter. "

On the way to the hospital in Kansas City, Trentan's heart stopped. He was resuscitated, but determined to be brain dead.

"His dad was with him," Whitely said. "Crystal was in the hospital and he called her to let her say goodbye to her son."

Today Crystal Whitely, 32 and a single mother, continues to work at the hearing center at a local hospital, but she wants little to do with publicity.

"Crystal really has a hard time with it," said her mother. "The first anniversary comes, and then the second anniversary and there are more things on TV about it. She really hopes people understand that she doesn't want to keep going through it again."

The TV show, "Extreme Makeover," rebuilt the family's house, outfitting it with storm shelters in a garage, with a computer and a weather radio, everything she needs for the next time a tornado strikes.

Despite living in so-called tornado alley, Whitely said she accepts fatalistically the force of nature that took her grandchildren.

"No matter where you go, there is something: earthquakes in California and hurricanes [on the East Coast]," she said. "No matter where you go, you can't get away from something happening. Look at the guy in Florida who was swallowed up by the earth."

Whitely said she, like the survivors of Moore, Okla., lives "day to day."

"If you are a religious person, ask God to help you with all the pain and suffering," she said. "I know they are in heaven, and I know I will see them one day, but it's still hard for us here on earth. It's nothing you ever forget."