Unimaginable horror visited Oklahoma City and its suburb of Moore yesterday afternoon as a giant tornado, measuring at least a mile wide, destroyed the area and killed at least 91 people, 20 of them children.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which is now just a pile of twisted metal and toppled walls, rescue workers were able to pull several children from the rubble and were still hard at work trying to cut through the debris amid reports that dozens of students were trapped. At Oklahoma City’s Briarwood Elementary School, which sits on the border with Moore, cars were thrown through the facade and the roof was torn off.
“Numerous neighborhoods were completely leveled,” Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department told the New York Times by telephone. “Neighborhoods just wiped clean.”
Knight said emergency responders were having difficulty reaching the affected area because of debris and damage to roadways, in addition to heavy traffic.
“Please send us your prayers,” said a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in Moore as emergency workers struggled to assess the damage.
The massive tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m., 16 minutes after the first warning went out, and traveled for 20 miles, staying on the ground for 40 minutes, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. In addition to Moore, the tornado struck the town of Newcastle.
On the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5, this one appeared to be a Category 4, according to Pirtle.
This was the second time Moore was hit by a massive tornado in recent years. In May 1999, a tornado with winds that reached record speeds of 302 m.p.h. killed dozens of people.
Kelcy Trowbridge, her husband and their three young children told reporters they piled into their neighbor’s cellar just outside of Moore and huddled together for about five minutes, wrapped under a blanket as the tornado screamed above them. They were terrified as they heard debris smashing against the cellar door.
When they emerged, they found their home flattened and the family car resting upside down a few houses away. As he sifted through debris, Trowbridge’s husband made a shocking discovery.
He found the body of a little girl, about 2 or 3 years old, she said.
“He knew she was already gone,” Trowbridge said. “When the police got there, he just bawled.”
“My neighborhood is gone. It’s flattened. Demolished. The street is gone. The next block over, it’s in pieces.”
At Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which took a direct hit from the tornado, rescue workers passed surviving children down a human chain to a triage center in the parking lot.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, said when he heard reports of the approaching tornado, he ran to the school to get his five-year-old foster son, Aiden.
“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” he told the Associated Press.
At the school, a man with a megaphone stood near a Catholic church on Monday evening, calling out the names of surviving children. Tense parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons’ and daughters’ names.
According to local reports, about 75 children and staff were in the school at the time. Authorities feared some of them were still trapped in the rubble. KFOR reporter Lance West said he saw 30 children being pulled out alive.
But while there was devastation, some parts of Moore were untouched, such as the home of Bea Carruth, who lives about 20 blocks from where the storm struck.
She rode it out at her son’s house nearby, with hail pounding away on the cellar. She said tornadoes have long been a part of life in Moore. A few times a year, she says she has to go into her son’s cellar when the sirens go off.
As devastating as the tornado was, the quick thinking of some prevented the death toll from going higher.
Upon hearing the sirens, the staff of the AgapeLand Learning Center, a day care center, brought 15 children into two bathrooms, draped them with a protective covering and sang songs with them to keep them calm.
Assistant Director Cathy Wilson said that as the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathrooms and debris rained down on the children, they kept singing, “You Are My Sunshine.”
The day care center was almost entirely destroyed, but the children emerged unscathed.
“Not a child had a scratch,” she said.