Monster tornado lays waste to Oklahoma City suburb, death toll lowered

Elementary school hit; entire neighborhoods flattened by EF4 storm

A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.

A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. Photo by The Associated Press.

NDN-Video

Oklahoma: Images of devastation, reunion

MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Emergency crews searched the broken remnants of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday for survivors of a massive tornado that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children, and those numbers were expected to climb.

As the sun rose over the shattered community of Moore, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half but warned that the number was likely to climb again.

Spokeswoman Amy Elliott said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

“It was a very eventful night,” Elliott said. “I truly expect that they’ll find more today.”

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

New search-and-rescue teams moved at dawn Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who worked all night. A helicopter shined a spotlight from above to aid in the search.

Fire Chief Gary Bird said fresh teams would search the whole community at least two more times to ensure that no survivors — or any of the dead — were overlooked. Crews painted an ‘X’ on each structure to note it had been checked.

“That is to confirm we have done our due diligence for this city, for our citizens,” Bird said.

The community of 56,000 people, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, braced for another long, harrowing day.

“As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors,” said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

More than 200 people had been treated at area hospitals.

Other search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said she watched up close late Monday as rescuers tried to find people in the wreckage of the school.

“It was an incredible sight to see how big the debris field was and how much destruction there was,” Fallin said. “It would be remarkable for anyone to survive.”

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.

Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said Tuesday.

Many parents of missing schoolchildren initially came to St. Andrews United Methodist Church, which had been set up as a meeting site. But only high school students were brought to the church, causing confusion and frustration among parents of students enrolled at Plaza Towers. They were redirected to a Baptist church several miles away.

“It was very emotional — some people just holding on to each other, crying because they couldn’t find a child; some people being angry and expressing it verbally” by shouting at one another, said D.A. Bennett, senior pastor at St. Andrews.

After hearing that the tornado was headed toward another school called Briarwood Elementary, David Wheeler left work and drove 100 mph through blinding rain and gusting wind to find his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. When he got to the school site, “it was like the earth was wiped clean, like the grass was just sheared off,” Wheeler said.

Eventually, he found Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him. His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head — but he was alive. As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood were initially sent to the halls, but a third-grade teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — thought it didn’t look safe and so ushered the children into a closet, he said.

The teacher shielded Gabriel with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces, Wheeler said.

“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” Wheeler said.

The tornado also grazed a theater, and leveled countless homes. Authorities were still trying to determine the full scope of the damage.

Roofs were torn off houses, exposing metal rods left twisted like pretzels. Cars sat in heaps, crumpled and sprayed with caked-on mud. Insulation and siding was smashed up against the sides of any walls that remained standing. Yards were littered with pieces of wood, nails and pieces of electric poles.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most powerful type of twister. It estimated that the twister was at least half a mile wide.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The area at risk does not include Moore.

In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.

Monday’s tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998.

The 1999 storm damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses. Two or three schools were also hit, but “the kids were out of school, so there were no concerns,” recalled City Manager Steve Eddy.

At the time of Monday’s storm, the City Council was meeting. Local leaders watched the twister approaching on television before taking shelter in the bathroom.

“We blew our sirens probably five or six times,” Eddy said. “We knew it was going to be significant, and there were are a lot of curse words flying.”

Betty Snider, 81, scrambled inside with her son and husband. She put her husband, who recently had a stroke, in a bathroom, but there wasn’t room for both of them. So she and her son huddled in a hallway.

“That is the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said.

She said she didn’t have time to do anything. She couldn’t duck, couldn’t cover her ears, couldn’t find another place to hide.

Snider lived through the 1999 tornado, but said this was the closest a twister had ever come to her house, which was still standing.

Monday’s twister also came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

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AP photographer: 'It was a miracle' they got out

EARLIER COVERAGE

By NOMAAN MERCHANT and TIM TALLEY

Associated Press

MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Search-and-rescue crews worked through the night after a monstrous tornado barreled through the Oklahoma City suburbs, demolishing an elementary school and reducing homes to piles of splintered wood. At least 24 people were killed, including at least seven children, and those numbers were expected to climb.

As the sun rose over the shattered community of Moore, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half.

Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

Teams were continuing to search the rubble in Moore, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, after the Monday afternoon tornado.

The storm stripped leaves off trees and left scores of blocks barren and dark. Rescuers walked through neighborhoods where Monday’s powerful twister flattened home after home, listening for voices calling out from the rubble. A helicopter buzzed above, shining lights on crews below.

By early Tuesday, the community of 41,000 people braced for another long, harrowing day.

“As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors,” said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

More than 200 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children.

———

Associated Press writers Sean Murphy and Sue Ogrocki contributed to this report.

EARLIER COVERAGE

MOORE, Okla. (AP) — A monstrous tornado at least a half-mile wide roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds up to 200 mph. At least 51 people were killed, including at least 20 children, and officials said the death toll was expected to rise.

The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of the city. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.

The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful type of twister.

More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. Search-and-rescue efforts were to continue throughout the night.

Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office, told The Associated Press early Tuesday that officials could see as many as 40 more fatalities from the tornado.

Tiffany Thronesberry said she heard from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, shortly after the tornado.

"I got a phone call from her screaming, 'Help! Help! I can't breathe. My house is on top of me!'" Thronesberry said.

Thronesberry hurried to her mother's house, where first responders had already pulled her out. Her mother was hospitalized for treatment of cuts and bruises.

Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at the school, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.

Fallin also spoke with President Barack Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

Many land lines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.

In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.

The tornado also destroyed the community hospital and some retail stores. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis watched it pass through from his jewelry shop.

"All of my employees were in the vault," Lewis said.

Chris Calvert saw the menacing cloud approaching from about a mile away.

"I was close enough to hear it," he said. "It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it."

Even though his subdivision is a mile from the tornado's path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa Claus' lap in his yard.

Volunteers and first responders raced to search the debris for survivors.

At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.

Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled alive from the rubble. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.

James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school, where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.

"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he said.

The students were sent into the restroom.

A man with a megaphone stood Monday evening near St. Andrews United Methodist Church and called out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons' and daughters' names.

Don Denton hadn't heard from his two sons since the tornado hit the town, but the man who has endured six back surgeries and walks with a severe limp said he walked about two miles as he searched for them.

As reports of the storm came in, Denton's 16-year-old texted him, telling him to call.

"I was trying to call him, and I couldn't get through," Denton said.

Eventually, Denton said, his sons spotted him in the crowd. They were fine, but upset to hear that their grandparents' home was destroyed.

As dusk began to fall, heavy equipment was rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors.

Because the ground was muddy, bulldozers and front-end loaders were getting stuck. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.

Douglas Sherman drove two blocks from his home to help.

"Just having those kids trapped in that school, that really turns the table on a lot of things," he said.

A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City's rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.

Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system.

Monday's powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999.

The weather service estimated that Monday's tornado was at least a half-mile wide. The 1999 storm had winds clocked at 300 mph.

Kelsey Angle, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo., said it's unusual for two such powerful tornadoes to track roughly the same path.

It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. A twister also struck in 2003.

Lewis, who was also mayor during the 1999 storm, said the city was already at work on the recovery.

"We've already started printing the street signs. It took 61 days to clean up after the 1999 tornado. We had a lot of help then. We've got a lot of help now."

Monday's devastation in Oklahoma came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

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