Monster Twister Classified As EF-5; 24 Killed

By: CBS News; Associated Press Email
By: CBS News; Associated Press Email
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Updated 7:33 pm ET

MOORE, Okla. The National Weather Service's damage survey found that the monster tornado that wreaked havoc on an Oklahoma City suburb is the most powerful type of tornado there is: an EF5.

According to the Enhanced Fujita scale and the NWS, EF5 tornadoes and have winds over 200 mph -- enough to reduce well-constructed houses into splintered rubble and generate automobile-sized missiles. In this case, it reached a maximum 210 mph and covered a path 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide for 50 minutes. The Oklahoma insurance commissioner said the damage is estimated to cost a total of $3 billion.

The news came as the search for survivors in Moore, Okla., began to wrap up. Fire Chief Gary Bird said Tuesday that he's "98 percent sure" there are no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in the city.

Bird says every damaged home has been searched at least once, and that his goal is to conduct three searches of each location just to be sure. He's hopeful the work could be completed by nightfall, though heavy rains have slowed efforts and soaked debris piles.

At least 24 people were killed in the twister, including at least eight children. One of the most hard-hit buildings was an Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, where police spokesman Jeremy Lewis said seven children died under a collapsed wall. Another child was killed at Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City.

Nineteen of the total fatalities were in Moore; five were in Oklahoma City. About 200 people have been pulled from the rubble, and 25 percent of the homes in more were destroyed, Lewis said. Over 300 people are injured.

"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 an incorrect number of fatalities were originally reported because 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.

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.

In Washington, President Barack Obama signed a major disaster declaration and 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."

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 56,000 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 the two elementary schools, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.

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

At Plaza Towers Elementary, 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.

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.

Isabela Rojas, 7, told CBS News what she heard and saw. "I was hanging on," she said. "All the dirt that got in my eyes and on my clothes ... all of it was on top of us. The teacher got stuck, so somebody had to help her because the desks were on her leg."

Teachers used their bodies to cover their students. Jennifer Doan tearfully recalled from her hospital bed how scared one of the students were. She is recovering from a fractured sternum and spine.

"I said to keep calm, that [rescuers] would come," Doan told CBS News' Vinita Nair. "He just kept telling me that he couldn't breathe and he didn't want to die.

Nine-year-old Jenae Hornsby was one of the Peak Tower students who didn't make it. Her father Joshua, raced to the school in his car, but the building was already destroyed by the time he got there.

"When I hit the corner, where I could see the school, the school was gone," he told correspondent Mark Strassman. "And my heart just sank."

He got a much-dreaded call from the medical examiner 8:30 this morning.

"To come to terms with that, that I won't be able to spend no more Sunday dinners with her, I'll have no more time in the Church with her, all that stuff we used to do," said her grandmother, Yolanda, through tears. "And that smile. That smile."

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.

Country music star Toby Keith, who grew up in Moore, said his hometown would persevere. The state's most famous athlete, NBA All-Star and Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant will join the American Red Cross on Wednesday to tour the devastation. Durant also pledged $1 million in support from The Durant Family Foundation.

"Hometown got hit for the gazillionth time. Rise again Moore Oklahoma," Keith tweeted Monday evening.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The area at risk does not include Moore.

Monday's tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998.

The 1999 storm damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses. Two or three schools were also hit, but "the kids were out of school, so there were no concerns," recalled City Manager Steve Eddy.

At the time of Monday's storm, the City Council was meeting. Local leaders watched the twister approaching on television before taking shelter in the bathroom.

"We blew our sirens probably five or six times," Eddy said. "We knew it was going to be significant, and there were are a lot of curse words flying."

Monday's twister also came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister, also an EF5, ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

On Monday, Joplin organized a team of about a dozen police and firefighters to assist in Moore.

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said his community remembers the assistance it received in 2011 and feels an obligation to lend a hand in Moore.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.


Associated Press Release

MOORE, Okla. (AP) -- The state medical examiner's office has revised the death toll from a tornado in an Oklahoma City suburb to 24 people, including seven children.

Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said Tuesday morning that she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm. Authorities said initially that as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

Teams are continuing to search the rubble in Moore, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, after the Monday afternoon tornado.


Associated Press Release

MOORE, Okla. (AP) -- The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office says the official death toll in the aftermath of a massive tornado that slammed the Oklahoma City area remains at 51 but is expected to rise.

Spokeswoman Amy Elliott told The Associated Press early Tuesday that officials could see as many as 40 more deaths from the Monday's twister.

The tornado tore through parts of suburban Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon, flattening entire neighborhoods with winds up to 200 mph and landing a direct blow on an elementary school in Moore. At least 20 of the confirmed dead are children.


Associated Press Release

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Officials at two hospitals say they've been treating more than 140 patients, including about 70 children, since a massive tornado hit suburban Oklahoma City.

Spokeswoman Brooke Cayot says nine of 57 patients who are being treated at the Integris Southwest Medical Center were listed in critical condition after Monday afternoon's tornado. Nineteen were in serious condition and 29 were listed in fair or good condition.

She said five of the patients were children who have since been treated and released.

OU Medical Center spokesman Scott Coppenbarger says his hospital and a nearby children's hospital are treating approximately 85 patients, including 65 children.

He said those patients ranged from minor injuries to critical condition.


Associated Press Release

MOORE, Okla. (AP) -- The National Weather Service says the tornado that hit Moore, Okla., had wind speeds up to 200 mph.

The weather service's preliminary classification of Monday afternoon's tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale.

Authorities say emergency crews are working to rescue people trapped in Moore, which is southwest of Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said emergency crews are trying to reach the affected areas. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

The suburb of Moore was hit hard by a tornado in 1999. The storm had the highest winds ever recorded near the earth's surface.


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