Emergency crews and volunteers continued to work yesterday in a frantic search for survivors of a huge tornado that tore through parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs, killing dozens of people, many of them children, and flattening whatever lay in its path, including at least two schools.
The storm cut a 32-kilometre swathe of devastation that ran through Moore, a suburb of about 55,000, destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School and scattering cars like toys.
The state medical examiner's office revised the death toll to 24, including seven children after initially saying 91 had died, including 20 children. Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm. Hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.
Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital. "They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out," said policeman Jeremy Lewis. "They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them."
US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement local efforts.
"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 at the White House.
The tornado touched down at 2:56pm, 16 minutes after the first warning was raised, and travelled for 32 kilometres, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. It was on the ground for 40 minutes, she said. Halfway to Moore it struck the town of Newcastle.
"The whole city looks like a debris field," Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, said. "It looks like we have lost our hospital."
Kelcy Trowbridge, her husband and their three young children huddled in their neighbour's cellar just outside Moore for about five minutes, wrapped under a blanket as the tornado screamed above them.
They emerged to find their home flattened and the family car resting upside down a few houses away. Trowbridge's husband rushed toward what was left of their home and began sifting through the debris, then stopped. He had found the body of a little girl, about 2 or 3 years old, she said.
"When the police officer got there, he just bawled," Trowbridge said.
Outside a church in suburban Oklahoma City, parents stood in the muddy grass listening intently as someone with a bullhorn read out names of children who had survived. For many families, the ordeal ended in tears of joy. Others were left to wait in the darkness, hoping for good news but fearing the worst.
Tonya Sharp and Deanna Wallace sat at a table in the church's gymnasium waiting for their teenage daughters. As Sharp and Wallace spoke, a line of students walked in. Wallace spotted her 16-year-old daughter, who came quickly her way and jumped into her mother's arms.
But Sharp didn't see her daughter, a 17-year-old who has epilepsy. She worried her daughter hadn't taken her medicine.
"I don't know where she is," Sharp said. Officials registered her so she could be notified as soon as her daughter was found.
US Representative Tom Cole, who lives in Moore, said the Plaza Tower school was the strongest building in the area.
"So people did the right thing, but if you're in front of an F4 or an F5 [the two strongest grades of tornadoes] there is no good thing to do if you're above ground. It's just tragic," Cole told broadcaster MSNBC TV.
Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was also damaged by the tornado, but not as extensively as Plaza Towers.
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.
The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, Bloomberg