Search for Oklahoma tornado survivors nears end

A monstrous tornado about 2 miles wide roared through Moore, Okla., devastating the town and injuring hundreds of people.

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

  • The fire chief of Moore, the Oklahoma City suburb that was smashed by a mammoth tornado, says the search for survivors and the dead is nearly complete. Gary Bird said Tuesday he's "98 percent sure" there are no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in Moore, a community of 56,000 people.
  • Monday's storm weaved a 17-mile path of destruction, flattening homes and demolishing an elementary school. It killed at least 24 people, including at least nine children. No additional survivors or bodies have been found Tuesday, Bird said.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said an early afternoon news conference that at least 237 people were injured.
  • Damage is likely to exceed that caused by the 2011 twister in Joplin, Mo., that killed 161 people, Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak told Reuters. The Joplin storm caused about $3 billion in damage, he said.
  • The National Weather Service said the tornado was an EF5 twister, the most powerful type, with winds of at least 200 mph. The agency upgraded the tornado from an EF4 on the enhanced Fujita scale to an EF5 based on what a damage-assessment team saw on the ground.
  • Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating told MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" there could be as many as 20,000 families displaced by the tornado.

Oklahoma tornado: A massive tornado hit Moore, Okla.USGS

  • The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore. Among them was Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN Tuesday afternoon that all the other children at the school have been accounted for.
  • Thunderstorms and lightning slowed the rescue effort Tuesday, but 101 people were pulled from the debris alive overnight, Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman Betsy Randolph told Reuters.
  • President Barack Obama said search and rescue teams from Nebraska, Texas and Tennessee were headed to Oklahoma to help with rescue efforts. "For all those who have been affected, you face a long road ahead. You will not travel that path alone, your country will be with you." Obama earlier declared a major disaster in Oklahoma and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. 
  • Oklahoma has reinforced tornado shelters, called "safe rooms," in hundreds of schools across the state but the two that were hit by Monday's storm did not have them. Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, says a safe room would not necessarily have saved more lives at the Plaza Towers Elementary.
  • Oklahoma organizations are collecting financial donations for tornado victims.  

MONDAY'S TORNADO BY THE NUMBERS  

  • 200 mph — less than 1 percent of all tornadoes reach such wind speed.
  • The tornado first touched down in Newcastle, then hit Plaza Towers Elementary School, 10 miles away.
  • Gov. Fallin said the tornado was about 2 miles wide at one point. 
  • The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center provided the town with a warning 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3:01 p.m. local time (4.01 p.m. EDT), which is greater than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning.The notice was upgraded to emergency warning with "heightened language" at 2:56 p.m., or five minutes before the tornado touched down.
  • The Moore tornado is the deadliest U.S. twister since one killed 161 people in Joplin two years ago. "This was the storm of storms," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornet said.

Schools destroyed by Moore tornado

Schools destroyed by Moore tornado
Duration: 2:19 Views: 28k MSN News/Newsy

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Several students were pulled alive from the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.

The storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.

Before and after: An Oklahoma community destroyed

James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching tornado 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.

Students were placed in the restroom.

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.

Gallery: Tornadoes rip through Oklahoma town     

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.   

RESCUE EFFORTS

  • An 84-member search and rescue team from Texas Task Force One was on its way to Oklahoma to help with rescue efforts in Moore, KVUE-TV reported. The team includes first responders, K-9 units, communication specialists and structural engineers.
  • Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with search-and-rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.
  • Obama sent FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to Oklahoma to coordinate federal help.
  • Officials in Joplin, Mo., have assembled a team of about a dozen police and firefighters they are sending to Moore.
  • How to help Oklahoma tornado victims

AS IT HAPPENED

The town of Moore was devastated with debris everywhere, street signs gone, lights out and houses completely obliterated.

Another elementary school and a hospital were among the buildings leveled.

Related: Moore woman and her dog shelter from tornado in her bathtub

"We thought we died because we were inside the cellar. ... It ripped open the door and just glass and debris started slamming on us, and we thought we were dead to be honest," survivor Ricky Stover said while surveying the devastated remains of his home.

Cyndi Christopher was at work and went to pick up her son from day care when she heard the storm warning. After taking her son home, she was forced to flee when she noticed the storm was coming their way.

"I drove as fast as I could, and I outran the storm," Christopher said.

In video footage, the dark funnel cloud moved slowly across the landscape for more than half an hour, scattering shards of wood, pieces of insulation, shingles and glass over the streets.

Block after block of Moore lay in ruins. Cars and trucks were left crumpled.

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

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Briarwood Elementary School, which also stood in the storm's path, was all but destroyed. On the first floor, sections of walls had been peeled away, affording clear views into the building, while in other areas, cars hurled by the storm winds were lodged in the walls.

Across the street, people picked through the remains of their homes, looking for any possessions they might salvage.

1999 TORNADO

Monday's powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5, meaning it had winds over 200 mph.

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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. The 1999 storm had winds clocked at 300 mph.

The 1999 tornado ranks as the third-costliest tornado in U.S. history, having caused more than $1.3 billion in today's dollars. Only the devastating Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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