51 killed in mammoth Oklahoma tornado; 40 more bodies expected

 

A massive, howling tornado pulverized a vast swath of the Oklahoma City suburb Monday, chewing up homes and businesses, and severely damaging a hospital and two elementary schools.

 

The official death toll stood at 51 Tuesday morning, but it was sure to rise. A coroner’s office official said some 40 bodies have yet to be processed by medical examiners — roughly half of them children. More bodies could be hidden under the vast debris field, authorities warned.

 

Hundreds of people were injured.

 

Firefighters, police, National Guard members and volunteers worked by flashlight overnight and into Tuesday morning, crawling across piles of debris in a determined search for survivors and victims. Air National Guard members brought in thermal imaging equipment to aid in the search.

 

More than 100 people had been pulled from the rubble alive since Monday afternoon, the state Highway Patrol said.

 

Early Tuesday, authorities asked news crews to move satellite trucks from the scene because the idling engines were making it difficult for rescuers to listen for the faint sounds of survivors beneath the rubble.

 

“We’re a tough state. This is a tough community,” Lt. Gov. Brian Lamb told CNN on Tuesday. “There is hope. We always have hope. We always have faith.”

 

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At least 20 of those killed were children, including seven from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, the site of a frantic search since Monday afternoon.

 

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The school was in the direct path of the storm. About 75 students and staff members were hunkered down in Plaza Towers when the tornado struck, CNN affiliate KFOR reported.

 

At one point, an estimated 24 children were missing from the school, but some later turned up at nearby churches. It’s unclear how many may still be trapped in the wreckage, and how many are dead or alive.

 

On Monday, a father of a third-grader still missing sat quietly on a stool outside. Tears cascaded from his face as he waited for any news.

 

Even parents of survivors couldn’t wrap their minds around the tragedy.

 

“I’m speechless. How did this happen? Why did this happen?” Norma Bautista asked. “How do we explain this to the kids? … In an instant, everything’s gone.”

 

Briarwood Elementary School also suffered a hit, KFOR reported.

 

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Across town, Moore Medical Center also took a direct hit.

 

“Our hospital has been devastated,” Mayor Glenn Lewis said. “We had a two-story hospital, now we have a one. And it’s not occupiable.”

 

So 145 of the injured were rushed to three other area hospitals.

 

That number includes 45 children taken to the children’s hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, Dr. Roxie Albrecht said. Injuries ranged from minor to severe, including impalement and crushing injuries.

 

Not the first time

 

Moore, and the Oklahoma City region, are far too familiar with disaster. In 1995, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

 

In 1999 and then again in 2003, Moore took direct hits from tornadoes that took eerily similar paths to Monday’s storm. The 1999 storm packed the strongest wind speeds in history, Lamb said.

 

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This time, the two-mile-wide twister stayed on the ground for a full 40 minutes, carving a 22-mile path where thousands of residents live.

 

The tornado first touched down in Newcastle, Oklahoma, before ripping into neighboring Moore. An early estimate rated the tornado as an EF4, meaning it had winds between 166 and 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Lamb likened the destruction to a “two-mile-wide lawnmower blade going over a community.”

 

Storm chaser Lauren Hill was part of a team that recorded video of the massive tornado as it ripped through town.

 

“You could actually feel the vibration from the tornado itself as it was approaching,” she said.

 

“We still have a bit of PTSD,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

 

After the ear-shattering howl subsided, survivors along the miles of destruction emerged from shelters to see an apocalyptic vision. Homes and other buildings were shredded to pieces. Remnants of mangled cars were piled on top of each other. What used to be a parking lot now looked like a junkyard.

 

“People are wandering around like zombies,” KFOR reporter Scott Hines said. “It’s like they’re not realizing how to process what had just happened.”

 

The death toll has far surpassed anything the city has seen from a tornado — and is expected to climb.

 

Hiding in freezers

 

Hines said rescuers found a 7-month-old baby and its mother hiding in a giant freezer. But they didn’t survive.

 

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At the devastated hospital in Moore, some doctors had to jump into a freezer to survive, Lamb said.

 

Lando Hite, shirtless and spattered in mud, described how the storm pummeled the Orr Family Farm in Moore, which had about 80 horses before the storm hit.

 

“It was just like the movie ‘Twister,’ ” Hite told KFOR. “There were horses and stuff flying around everywhere.”

 

More trouble brewing

 

But the storm system that spawned Monday’s tornado and several other twisters Sunday isn’t over yet.

 

Southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas, including Dallas, are under the gun for severe weather Tuesday. Those areas could see large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes.

A broader swath of the United States, from Texas to Indiana and up to Michigan, could see severe thunderstorms.

 

“We could have a round 3,” CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera said. “Hopefully, it won’t be as bad.”

 

Still digging

 

The tornado sucked up debris along its path and swirled it several miles into the sky.

“The structures that were just demolished were picked up by the twister here and just jetted up into the atmosphere, 20,000 feet,” Cabrera said.

 

James Dickens is not a firefighter or medic. He’s actually a gas-and-oil pipeline worker. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing a hard hat and joining other rescuers at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

 

“I felt it was my duty to come help,” he said Tuesday after a long night of searching.

 

“As a father, it’s humbling. It’s heartbreaking to know that we’ve still got kids over there that’s possibly alive, but we don’t know.”

 

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