As the mile-wide tornado carved a path of destruction toward Moore, Oklahoma, Henry De La Cruz’s wife drove to Plaza Towers Elementary School to pick up their 5-year-old daughter, Isabelle.
Shortly after she fetched the girl, the twister chewed the school into rubble. Seven children died, Moore Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis said, while dozens of others survived after being spirited away like Isabelle or, in at least one case, sheltered under a heroic teacher who was injured by storm debris.
“I’m sad for the other ones,” De La Cruz said. “I’m glad we made it on time.”
Plaza Towers Elementary was at the center of the worst devastation from the storm, which left a swath of destruction 20 miles long and transformed neighborhoods into fields of ruins. The state medical examiner’s office has received 24 bodies, and the agency has gotten reports of 27 more deaths, officials said. Hundreds were injured.
“We had to pull a car off a teacher in the hallway,” a man who helped with early rescue efforts at Plaza Towers told CNN. “I don’t know what that lady’s name was, but she had three little kids underneath her.”
The children were alive, and the teacher was seriously hurt, he said. More than 75 students were believed to have been huddled inside when the tornado struck, hugging and clinging to the walls as the twister took the building apart, KFOR-TV reported.
At Briarwood Elementary, which is about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away and where one person died, some teachers carried crying youngsters outside after the twister roared through, and comforted them in the street until parents arrived.
President Barack Obama praised teachers at the two schools “who gave their all to shield their children” in comments on the tornado today.
Police officers and other rescuers dug through the rubble of Plaza Towers with their hands yesterday in the search for survivors, “moving cinder block walls and children were coming out unscathed,” said Lewis, the police sergeant.
“We’re confident everyone is out of the school,” he said.
After the tornado passed, Clayton Alexander and Amy Hatchcox left Hatchcox’s mobile home on foot to check on Alexander’s house near Plaza Towers. They saw bodies wrapped in plastic and blankets lying on the ground.
“I saw people running up and down the street saying, ‘I can’t find my kids,’” Hatchcox said.
Searchers continued working their way through other destroyed buildings today after toiling through the night at Plaza Towers, where the recovery efforts included a rescue dog trained to help ferret out survivors. Crews from across Oklahoma and neighboring states “flooded into” the area, Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, told CNN.
“It’s been an amazing recovery effort,” she said. “Our hope is we’re still going to find more people alive and buried in the rubble.”
At Plaza Towers, a few snapped-off tree trunks were the only things standing near the ruins of a building that once housed about 440 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
The tornado turned the school into merely the largest pile of debris in a wide swath of mud-splattered ruins. Resting atop the heap was what appeared to be a piece of metal roof.
The storm was so intense “you’ve got to be underground to be safe,” said U.S. Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican whose district includes parts of the area.
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