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Tornado devastates Okla. elementary school


A monstrous tornado as much as a mile wide with winds up to 200 mph roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs May 20, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire, and landing a direct blow on an elementary school.

At least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children, and those numbers were expected to climb, officials said May 21. The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, south of the city. Local news outlets reported several deaths in the community. Block after block of the community lay in ruins, with heaps of debris piled up where homes used to be. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.

Authorities expected the death toll to rise as emergency crews moved deeper into the hardest-hit areas. More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, said May 21 that there could be as many as 40 more fatalities from the tornado.

An Associated Press photographer saw several children being pulled out of what was left of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., on May 20 after a massive tornado hit the region. Officials reported that school leaders and parents still waited for news of all the students.

Rescue workers lifted children from the rubble before they were passed down a human chain and taken to a triage center set up in the school’s parking lot.

The school is southwest of Oklahoma City. Its roof appears mangled and the walls had fallen in or had collapsed.

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

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.

The students were placed in the restroom.

“There’s no safe room in the school. There will be,” said Rushing, who said his home was virtually destroyed.

Douglas Sherman drove two blocks from his home to help rescue survivors.

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

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

On the evening of May 20, families anxiously waited at churches to hear if their loved ones were OK. A man with a megaphone stood near St. Andrews United Methodist Church and called out the names of surviving children. Children and parents hugged as they reunited. Other parents waited, hoping to hear their sons’ and daughters’ names as the night dragged on.

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.

Volunteers and first responders were searching through debris looking for survivors. Television footage showed first-responders picking through rubble and twisted metal.

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

The storm seemed to blow neighborhoods apart instantly, scattering shards of wood and pieces of insulation across the scarred landscape.

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, pieces of insulation, awnings, shingles and glass all over the streets.

The same suburb was hit hard by a tornado in 1999. That storm had the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface.

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