MOORE, Oklahoma (AP) — A massive tornado spanning a half-mile (800 meters) and clocking winds up to 200 mph (320 kph) devastated a town outsideOklahoma City, killing at least 24 people, including at least seven children, the state medical examiner's office said Monday. Rescuers continued to search the rubble for survivors.
Authorities said initially that as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children. Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said Tuesday morning that some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm.
The ferocious storm — less than 1 percent of all tornadoes reach such wind speed — ripped through the town of Moore in a central region of the U.S. known as Tornado Alley.
Spotlights bore down on massive piles of shredded cinder block, insulation and metal as crews worked through the night early Tuesday lifting bricks and parts of collapsed walls. Rescuers walked through neighborhoods where Monday's powerful twister flattened home after home and stripped leaves off of trees to see if they could hear any voices calling out from the rubble.
The storm left scores of blocks barren and dark in Moore, a community of 41,000 people 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City. Rescuers walked through neighborhoods where Monday's powerful twister flattened home after home, to listen for any voices calling out from the rubble. A helicopter buzzed above, shining lights on crews below.
As Monday turned into Tuesday, Moore braced for another long, harrowing day.
"As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors," said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children.
Families anxiously waited at nearby churches to hear if their loved ones were OK. A man with a megaphone stood Monday evening near St. Andrews United Methodist Church and called out the names of surviving children. Parents waited nearby, hoping to hear their sons' and daughters' names.
While some parents and children hugged each other as they reunited, others were left to wait, fearing the worst as the night dragged on.
Crews continued their desperate search-and-rescue effort throughout the night at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm had ripped off the school's 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.
Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled out 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.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.
"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he said.
As dusk fell, heavy equipment rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.
Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was also damaged by the tornado, but not as extensively as Plaza Towers.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers. Fallin also spoke Monday with President Barack Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.