Oklahoma tornado leaves dozens dead, including many children

A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013. AP Photo

Updated 3:04 p.m. ET

MOORE, Okla. 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. Gov. Mary Fallin said an untold number of people were still missing.

"We will rebuild and we will regain our strength," said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as "hard to look at."

Many houses, she said, have "just been taken away, they're just sticks and bricks."

Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, 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.

Hospital officials say they've treated more than 200 patients, including dozens of children. About 20 patients remained at one hospital Tuesday, but it wasn't clear how many patients remained hospitalized at another facility. Spokeswoman Brooke Cayot says Integris Southwest Medical Center has seen 90 patients, including five children who have been released. About 20 people remain hospitalized there.

OU Medical Center spokesman Scott Coppenbarger says 85 people, including 50 children, came to his hospital and an affiliated children's hospital for treatment. He does not know how many have been released. Some 236 people were hurt, and that number was also expected to rise. It included some 50 children.

In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged urgent government help for Oklahoma Tuesday in the wake of "one of the most destructive" storms in the nation's history.

"In an instant neighborhoods were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, many more were injured," Obama said from the White House State Dining Room. "Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew - their school."

The president added that the town of Moore "needs to get everything it needs right away."

Map of Oklahoma tornado with pictures
The path of Monday's tornado in Moore County, Oklahoma
CBS News

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, said: "I spoke with Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano last night about FEMA's response. We still don't know the scope of devastation and won't for some time. As the ranking member of Senate committee that oversees FEMA, I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay."

The ferocious storm -- less than 1 percent of all tornadoes reach such wind speeds -- ripped through the suburb of Moore in the Midwest region known as Tornado Alley. Severe weather warnings were posted in much of the region Tuesday morning.

The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside. Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at two elementary schools, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.

Many houses have "just been taken away. They're just sticks and bricks," the governor said, describing the 17-mile path of destruction.

The National Weather Service said the twister was on the ground for 40 minutes, with winds estimated at 190 mph.

Emergency crews were having trouble navigating neighborhoods because the devastation is so complete, and there are no street signs left standing, Fallin added.

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.

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