Teachers credited with saving lives in Moore, Okla., tornado

MOORE, Okla.

At the end of the day on Monday, on the last week of the school year, students at Plaza Towers Elementary in this blue-collar suburb were zipping their backpacks. A fifth-grade class had just finished watching Hatchet, about a boy who survives the crash-landing of a plane in the Canadian wilderness.

Then the sirens started to wail.

Claire Gossett's teacher hurried her fifth-grade class into the hallway, then into a bathroom as a tornado that was more than a mile wide drew closer. Claire, 11, crammed into a stall with six other girls. They held onto each other. The sirens wailed two, three, four times.

Echo Mackey, crouched in a hallway, hugging her son, Logan, a first-grader, said, "I heard someone say, 'It's about to hit us,' and then the power went out."

The mountain of rubble that was once Plaza Towers Elementary School has become the emotional and physical focal point of one of the most destructive tornadoes to strike Oklahoma. Although the casualty toll fluctuated wildly early on, officials said Tuesday that at least 24 people had died, including nine children, seven of them at Plaza Towers.

Throughout the 500-student school, teachers and parents had shielded students and crammed into closets and anywhere else they could squeeze as the tornado bore down of them.

It swirled out of a fast-developing storm that began cutting a devastating path through Moore and other sections of the southern Oklahoma City suburbs. Winds reached speeds of up to 210 mph, and many structures were wiped clean to their foundations.

The 1.3-mile-wide tornado that struck Plaza Towers on Monday stunned Oklahomans, in both its size and the number of victims, dozens of whom were students who were killed or injured.

School windows were smashed and the ceiling ripped away, showering the students with glass, wood and pieces of insulation. "I couldn't hear anything but people screaming and crying," Claire said. "It felt like the school was just flying."

At a news conference Tuesday in the lobby of Moore City Hall, which was running on generators because of a widespread power failure, Gov. Mary Fallin said she had taken an aerial tour of the tornado's path and toured the damaged areas by ground. In describing the bird's-eye view of the damage, the governor said many houses were "taken away," leaving "just sticks and bricks, basically. It's hard to tell if there was a structure there or not."

Officials said it was still too early to say precisely how many people had been killed, but the toll appeared to be significantly less than initially feared. State officials lowered the death toll to at least 24, down from their estimate late Monday night of nearly 100 fatalities. One reason for the uncertainty was that officials believed some bodies might have been taken to funeral homes instead of the state medical examiner's office. But it appeared that 48 people who were believed to be missing Monday night — and were feared dead — had been found. More than 200 were injured, including 70 children.

As officials spoke at City Hall, heavy rain and booms of thunder could be heard, severe weather that had periodically delayed rescuers and those assessing the damage throughout the day.

President Barack Obama, who declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, said Tuesday at the White House that the tornado had been "one of the most destructive in history," and that he had informed aides that "Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away."

After surveying the wreckage in Moore, officials at the National Weather Service upgraded its assessment of the twister's power to Category 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of zero to 5, with 5 being the most destructive.

Susan Pierce, the superintendent of the Moore school district, told reporters at a news conference that safety was the district's top priority. School administrators and staff put a crisis plan into action Monday and monitored the weather throughout the day, she said. "With very little notice we implemented our tornado shelter procedures at every school site," she said.

Mackey said she had gone to Plaza Towers as the sky turned dark, saying she had wanted to be with her son when the storm hit. But after it did, she said, she concluded that the school was not equipped to shelter dozens of children from the raw power of an Oklahoma twister.

Late Monday afternoon, as the skies darkened, numerous parents rushed to the school. Some, like Mackey, arrived as the tornado approached and decided to seek shelter inside with their children. Others had arrived earlier and had enough time to flee.

Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys' restroom.

"We were all piled in on each other," the 12-year-old said. Twenty seconds later he heard a roar that sounded like a stampede of elephants.

Then it all stopped almost as suddenly as it started. Crouched down, his backpack over his head, Antonio looked up. The skylight and the ceiling were gone, and he was staring up into a cloud filled with debris.

Jennifer Doan, a Plaza Towers teacher who is eight weeks' pregnant, waited anxiously in a hallway with 11 of her third-grade students who had not yet been picked up by their parents. An announcement blared over the intercom that the tornado was upon them, and Doan, 30, quickly wrapped several of her students in her arms. The walls suddenly caved in, she told her boyfriend, Nyle Rogers.

Doan was conscious, buried under piles of rubble, but she was not sure her students were safe. She thought she could make out their body movements beneath the debris. In the distance she could hear their voices: "I can't hold the rock anymore," one said. Eventually the voices stopped.

Rogers had gone speeding toward the school when he had gotten word of the tornado. "As I got closer, I saw debris and backpacks," he said. "And when I turned the corner, I just saw a wasteland. I didn't know how anyone could have survived."

But Doan did. She was lifted out of the rubble, put into the back of a pickup truck and shuttled to a nearby church and then to the hospital, where she was in stable condition Tuesday with a fractured sternum and spine. A piece of rebar speared her left hand. Their unborn baby, Rogers said, appeared to be fine.

On Tuesday afternoon, Rogers said he was informed by the principal that seven of the students who were with her in the hallway had died. He had not yet told Doan.

"She's just worried about her kids," he said. "That's all she's thinking about right now."

The principal told him something else, however. Two of the students she had wrapped in her arms had survived.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Teachers credited with saving lives in Moore, Okla., tornado 05/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 7:58am]

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