Survivors pulled from Oklahoma tornado debris as toll falls
MOORE, Oklahoma (Reuters) - Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital in an Oklahoma town hit by a powerful tornado, and officials lowered the death toll from the storm to 24, including nine children.
The 2-mile (3-km) wide tornado tore through Moore outside Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon, trapping victims beneath the rubble, wiping out entire neighborhoods and tossing vehicles about as if they were toys.
Seven of the nine children who were killed died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit, but many more survived unhurt.
"They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out," Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said. "They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them."
The Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said 24 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage, down from the 51 they had reported earlier. The earlier number likely reflected some double-counted deaths, said Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the medical examiner.
"There was a lot of chaos," she said.
Thunderstorms and lightning slowed the rescue effort on Tuesday, but 101 people had been pulled from the debris alive, Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman Betsy Randolph said. "We are absolutely positive that there are still people that could be trapped under the rubble and in shelters," Randolph said.
The National Guard and firefighters from more than a dozen fire departments as well as rescuers from other states worked all night under bright spotlights trying to find survivors.
AS LONG AS IT TAKES
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore after the deadliest U.S. tornado since 161 people were killed in Joplin, Missouri, two years ago.
"The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes," Obama said at the White House.
Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, said the whole town looked like a debris field and there was a danger of electrocution and fire from downed power lines and broken natural gas lines.
"It looks like we have lost our hospital. I drove by there a while ago and it's pretty much destroyed," Lewis told NBC.
On Tuesday morning, a helicopter was circling overhead and thunder rumbled from a new storm as 35-year-old Moore resident Juan Dills and his family rummaged through the remains of what was once his mother's home. The foundation was laid bare, the roof ripped away and only one wall was still standing. They found a few family photo albums, but little else.
"We are still in shock," he said. "But we will come through. We're from Oklahoma."
The National Weather Service assigned the twister a preliminary ranking of EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the second most powerful category of tornado with winds up to 200 mph.
Authorities warned the town 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3:01 p.m. Central time (2001 GMT), which is more than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.
U.S. Representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, said the Plaza Towers school was the most secure and structurally strong building in the area.
"And so people did the right thing, but if you're in front of an F4 or an F5 there is no good thing to do if you're above ground. It's just tragic," he said on MSNBC-TV.
Five schools were hit by the tornado and hospital officials said at least 60 of the 240 people injured were children.
Miguel Macias and his wife, Veronica, had two children at the Plaza Towers school and found 8-year-old Ruby first after rescue workers carried the girl from the destruction. But their son, 6-year-old Angel, was nowhere to be found, said Brenda Ramon, pastor of the Faith Latino Church in Moore where the Macias family are members.
Ramon and several congregation members spent hours helping the family search for Angel and calling area hospitals. The boy was finally located at a medical center in Oklahoma City about five hours after the tornado hit.
"It was heart-breaking," Ramon said. "We couldn't find him for hours." The boy had wounds to his face and head, but was not badly hurt, Ramon said. "Their little bodies are so resilient."
Witnesses said Monday's tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the area on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5 tornado with wind speeds of more than 200 mph.
The 1999 tornado ranks as the third-costliest tornado in U.S. history, having caused more than $1 billion in damage at the time, or more than $1.3 billion in today's dollars. Only the devastating Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.
Monday's tornado in Moore ranks among the most severe in the United States link.reuters.com/gec38t
Diana Tinnin, 60, was at home with her brother when the storm hit. Her three-bedroom ranch-style home had no basement, so they huddled in a bathtub. "I lost my house. Everything fell on top of us," said Tinnin.
Jeff Alger, 34, who works in the Kansas oil fields on a fracking crew, said his wife, Sophia, took their children out of school when she heard a tornado was coming and then fled Moore and watched it flatten the town from a few miles away.
"They didn't even have time to grab their shoes," said Alger, who has five children ages 4 to 11. The storm tore part of the roof off of his home. He was with his wife at Norman Regional Hospital to have glass and other debris removed from his wife's bare feet.
The dangerous storm system threatened more twisters on Tuesday in several southern Plains states, especially northern and central Texas.
SAVED BY CELLPHONE
Speaking outside Norman Regional Hospital Ninia Lay, 48, said she huddled in a closet through two storm alerts and the tornado hit on the third.
"I was hiding in the closet and I heard something like a train coming," she said under skies still flashing with lightning. The house was flattened and Lay was buried in the rubble for two hours. She was able to call her husband Kevin on her cellphone and rescuers came to dig her out.
Her 7-year-old daughter Catherine, a first-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School, took shelter with classmates and teachers in a bathroom when the tornado hit and destroyed the school. She escaped with scrapes and cuts.
Briarwood Elementary School was all but destroyed. On the first floor, sections of walls had been peeled away, giving clear views into the building; while in other areas, cars hurled by the storm winds were lodged in the walls.
At Southmoore High School in Moore, about 15 students were in a field house when the tornado hit. Coaches sent them to an interior locker room and made them put on football helmets, and all survived, the Oklahoman newspaper said.
Additional reporting by Alice Mannette, Lindsay Morris, Nick Carey, Brendan O'Brien and Greg McCune; Writing by Nick Carey, Jane Sutton and Claudia Parsons; Editing by W Simon, Grant McCool and Leslie Gevirtz.