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Survivors of Monster Oklahoma Tornado Share Harrowing Stories

May 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The people of Moore, Okla., began the long climb back today from catastrophe. Authorities labored to clear wreckage in the shattered suburb outside Oklahoma City, and the death toll stood at 24, including nine children.

Officials said the numbers could rise higher yet in the wake of a tornado that was one of the most powerful ever.

The scene that met Jason Leger as he emerged from his cellar on Monday evening unscathed was one of total destruction.

JASON LEGER: The lord giveth and the lord taketh away.

GWEN IFILL: Today, similar scenes greeted those who had fled and returned to survey what, if anything, was left of their homes.

CHRIS PALMER, Moore, Okla.: It’s going to take time to rebuild, yes. It’s just the families — you look at it, you see the movies and everything, but when you are actually standing there, it’s — yes, and — yes.

GLORIA MARTINEZ, Moore, Okla.: It’s hard. It’s hard, but, you know, I know that the lord is going to provide. He’s provided before. He has shown his power to us before.

GWEN IFILL: In the immediate aftermath, dozens of people were rescued from the rubble of homes that collapsed around them. The grueling search for more survivors went on through the night.

National Guard troops joined in, going house-to-house, shining flashlights into the wreckage.

2ND. LT. GABRIEL BIRD, 146th Air Support Operation Squadron: Each of our guys will have multiband communication radios. We can talk to aircraft. We can talk to personnel on the ground. Thermal images allow us to see cold, warm bodies, people in the dark. Night-vision equipment, we can see in the dark, low-light instances.

GWEN IFILL: Fire and police crews from around the region jackhammered their way through the debris. Bucket by bucket, they pried it away, looking for any sign of life underneath.

The twister, estimated at up to two miles wide, laid waste to a 20-mile stretch in 40 minutes. In that time, it reached EF-5 status, the most powerful, with winds of at least 200 miles an hour. Many told harrowing stories of survival.

RODNEY PENNY, Tornado Survivor: We see it coming straight towards us because it’s heading east right up the middle of the road. So, at that point, it’s time for us to just start making moves.

So, we go a little bit farther down the road, I would say about — about 100 meters, and as it’s coming up from behind us, I say, Katie, get in the storm ditch. We go in the very middle of the tunnel itself as the tornado passes over the highway.

GWEN IFILL: Among the survivors, schoolchildren who were just about to be dismissed for the day when the tornado hit a little before 3:00 p.m.

STUDENT: I was on the ground, and I just — my ears just — like “beeee.” And I couldn’t hear anything except cracking and kids screaming.

ISABELA ROJAS, Tornado Survivor: The tornado went in, and I was so afraid, that I was hanging onto one of the desks. And then I fell back, and then all the dirt start getting in my eyes and on my clothes.

GWEN IFILL: Briarwood Elementary was all but destroyed. Miraculously, everyone survived.

But at nearby Plaza Towers Elementary, seven children lost their lives. The superintendent of Moore Public Schools, Susan Pierce, said today they followed disaster drills to the letter.

SUPERINTENDENT SUSAN PIERCE, Moore Public Schools: Yesterday, our administrators, staff, teachers and students put our crisis plan into action immediately. We monitored the weather throughout the day, and when it was time to shelter, we did just that. A tornado’s path is highly unpredictable, but, with very little notice, we implemented our tornado shelter procedures at every school site.

GWEN IFILL: In addition to the schools, a local hospital was ravaged and countless homes were flattened.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin viewed the destruction from the air today.

GOV. MARY FALLIN, R-Okla.: It is very wide. It is hard to look at because there is so much debris on the ground itself. In many places, homes were absolutely destroyed, taken away. There’s just sticks and bricks, basically. It’s hard to tell if there was a structure there or not. If you get into some of the major neighborhoods, you can’t tell where the streets were. The street signs are gone.

GWEN IFILL: And in Washington, President Obama promised the federal government would do everything it could to get the town back on its feet.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, a caravan of semi-trucks loaded with bulldozers and diggers arrived in Moore today to do the heavy lifting. Search dogs were also on hand as teams planned to keep looking for anyone who might yet be found in the ruins.