The search for survivors and the dead in the Oklahoma City suburb raked by a massive tornado was almost complete last night.
Fire chief Gary Bird was “98% sure” there were no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in Moore.
Every damaged home had been searched at least once, and rescuers hoped to conduct three searches by nightfall, though heavy rains had slowed efforts and soaked debris piles.
The tornado flattened homes and demolished a primary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children.
Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital in the Oklahoma town. The original death toll was thought to be much higher.
Seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit, but many more were 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.
Firefighters from more than a dozen fire departments and rescuers from other states worked all night under bright spotlights trying to find survivors.
US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore after the deadliest US 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.
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.
The National Weather Service last night upgraded the twister to a ranking of EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the most powerful category of tornado with winds of 200 mph and over.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Centre warned the town 16 minutes before the tornado touched down at 3.01pm (8pm Irish time), which is more than the average eight to 10 minutes of warning, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the centre in Norman, Oklahoma.
US representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, said the Plaza Towers school was the most 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.
At least 60 of the 240 people injured were children, hospital officials said.
Witnesses said the 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 US history, having caused more than $1bn (€775m) in damage at the time, or more than $1.3bn 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 US.
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.
“They didn’t even have time to grab their shoes,” said Alger. 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.
Moore was devastated with debris everywhere, street signs gone, lights out, houses destroyed and vehicles tossed about as if they were toys. The dangerous storm system threatened several southern Plains states with more twisters.
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 until her husband Kevin, 50, and rescuers dug her out.
“I thank God for my cell phone, I called me husband for help.”
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, which also stood in the storm’s path, 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.
Obama made special mention of the young victims as he mourned those lost and promised to provide survivors with the help they need to find their footing.
Stunned weather forecasters described an epic two-mile (3km) wide mid-afternoon storm, as news helicopter footage showed a dark twister ploughing through densely packed suburbs.
“To me, this is this is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely huge. It’s horrific,” Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin told NBC’s Today Show.
“It looked like somebody just set off something that just destroyed structures, not blocks, but miles of areas, and major buildings from hospitals to schools to banks to shopping centres, movie theaters.”
Local television footage on Monday showed children as young as nine being pulled out of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, a residential community of 55,000 just south of Oklahoma’s state capital.
“I had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe,” one little girl said.
The Moore Medical Center was evacuated after it sustained damage, and state authorities called out the National Guard to help rescue efforts as Obama ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.
The community braced for another long, harrowing day.
“As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find more survivors,” said trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
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.
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