Oklahoma City tornado: Grim search and rescue

5:35 AM, May 21, 2013   |    comments
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Trevor Hughes, Jonathan Shorman and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

MOORE, Okla. - The grim work of search, rescue and recovery spun into a second day Tuesday in central Oklahoma after a massive and murderous tornado blasted through the area, killing at least 24 people, flattening neighborhoods and destroying two elementary schools.

There was a strand of good news Tuesday: Authorities dramatically reduced the death toll after earlier reporting that at least 51 people had died.

The storm cut a path more than a mile wide through this Oklahoma City suburb of 41,000 people. The National Weather Service said the tornado spent 40 minutes on the ground, a 20-mile swath of death with winds approaching 200 mph.

PHOTOS: Oklahoma tornado
PHOTOS: Oklahoma tornado damage

More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. Moore is no stranger to such tragedy; the Tornado Alley town was torn apart by another massive twister 14 years ago.

Rescuers, many of whom worked through Monday night, continued digging through rubble Tuesday as lightning flashed in the morning sky. Even in areas where destruction was not complete, pieces of fencing were scattered across once-green lawns now covered in mud and chunks of wood. Garage doors were buckled and ripped from hinges, cars had been smashed by flying debris.

Judy Odom, who has lived in the same home here for 40 years, said she stayed there Monday night despite some damage.

"I don't even know what I'm supposed to do," she said. "I suppose I'll go talk to my insurance company."

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Firefighter Russ Locke was among those who helped search through the crushed remains of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where about 75 students and staff had huddled when the tornado hit. Several children were killed there; others were pulled alive from the wreckage.

"You have your own kids, and you want to find other people's kids and for it all to be OK," Locke says, tearing up. "And sometimes it doesn't work out like that."

In Moore on Monday, everyone was a first responder. 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.

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

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

About a mile away, the walls tumbled down at Briarwood Elementary. Miraculously, no one there died.

Trisha Ulrey, 46, said she had just pulled into the parking lot of Highland West Junior High to pick up her children, Rachel, 14, and Jacob, 12, when she was told the storm was too close -- school officials weren't letting students go.

"People were screaming mad," Ulrey said. "They wanted to go home to their own shelters. But teachers were saying, 'You can die between here and your shelter.'"

The storm roared around them and the school's roof rattled. After the 45-minute ordeal was over, she said she knew school officials had done the right thing.

"It could have been much, much worse if they had let them go," Ulrey said.

President Obama, who declared a major disaster in Oklahoma late Monday, was scheduled to address the nation at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Pope Francis tweeted: "I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them."

Many of the injured were listed in critical condition. At Integris Southwest Medical Center, 10 of 37 patients were in critical condition, a spokeswoman said. The hospital was treating five children, including two rescued from the elementary school. The OU Medical Center was treating 20 patients, including eight children.

More than 60 patients were being treated at Norman Regional Medical Center, some in critical condition, spokeswoman Kelly Wells said.

One patient was Kaileigh Hawkins, 9, who was at one of the schools destroyed by the twister, Wells said. She is doing fine, but hospital officials have been unable to locate her parents.

The twister heavily damaged Moore Medical Center, ripping off its roof but causing no injuries. Staff had to move 30 patients to nearby Norman and another hospital.

A water treatment plant was knocked offline, and residents and businesses in southeastern Oklahoma City were advised to stop using water.

The preliminary rating of the tornado that hit Moore at 3:17 p.m. CT (4:17 p.m. ET) was put at EF-4, which means wind speeds from 166 mph to 200 mph, the National Weather Service said.

On May 3, 1999, a record-setting EF-5 tornado obliterated the city of 55,000 with winds measured at 318 mph, the highest ever on the earth's surface. The storm killed 36 people, injured hundreds and caused about $1 billion in damages.

The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said a tornado warning was in effect Monday afternoon for 16 minutes before the twister developed.

Rescuers were "going house to house and block to block to try and find any survivors that are out there and trapped,'' said state emergency management spokesman Jerry Lojka.

"We can only imagine that there are still many others there that are unaccounted for,'' he said.

He said the funnel cut a path 1¼ miles wide, traveling the entire width of the city.

"It went through an area and demolished complete subdivisions,'' he said. "It affected shopping centers, a theater, two schools that we know of.''

"We've been through this before,'' city manager Steve Eddy said, referring to the 1999 tornado and others over the years. "Our citizens are resilient.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called up 204 Oklahoma National Guard personnel. She also spoke with Obama, who offered her a direct line to his office and federal aid. She said she had been in touch with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Oklahomans who escaped the destruction counted their blessings and offered to help others less fortunate.

Holly Porter and her husband, Tracy, loaded up their truck with water and blankets, hitched up their horse trailer and set out on for what normally is a 40-minute drive to Moore, where their son and daughter-in-law live.

Because the tornado sucked away barns and fencing, she said, residents may have nowhere to keep their animals.

"We have 60 acres and we can take cows and horses," she said. "We're just going to help anyone we can."

At Plaza Towers Elementary, end-of-the-year festivities that began last week continued Monday. First- and second-graders got their awards, with third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students scheduled to collect their honors Tuesday morning after "Rise and Shine" activities.

Monday night, the school's PTA Facebook page was awash in condolences and prayers.

Numerous charities have swung into action, delivering food and water for first responders. Fallin visited the Plaza Towers school late Monday night, thanking first responders in person and via Twitter for "their hard work and tireless dedication."

On Sunday, a tornado packing winds as high as 200 mph left two people dead in Oklahoma. Tornadoes and high winds injured more than 20 in the region.

So far this year - not including this most recent five-day outbreak - severe storms have caused $3.5 billion in economic losses in the USA, said meteorologist Steve Bowen of global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield. Of that $3.5 billion, at least $2 billion was covered by insurance.

"By the time the current storm system finally winds down by the middle of this week, I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up as the costliest U.S. natural disaster event we've seen so far in 2013," said Bowen.

Trevor Hughes reports for The Coloradoan in Fort Collins; Jonathan Shorman for The News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

Contributing: Donna Leinwand Leger, William M. Welch, Michael Winter, John Bacon, Susan Davis USA TODAY; The Associated Press.


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