Crews In Oklahoma Search For Survivors After Deadly Tornado

A massive tornado ripped through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City Monday. In the city of Moore, two elementary schools were destroyed in the twister. The mayor there owns a jewelry store. He and his employees took shelter in a vault.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Let's listen to some of the voices of residents of Moore, Oklahoma. They live in a suburb of Oklahoma City.

INSKEEP: And this morning they are survivors of a tornado with winds around 200 miles an hour. These two numbers from Mayor Glenn Lewis emphasize how thoroughly his town has been wrecked.

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS: The devastation on the ground was about 30 square miles. So our city is 28 square miles. Oklahoma City is on both sides of us. So it went from Oklahoma City, across Moore, back into Oklahoma City again.

INSKEEP: Now, when our colleagues spoke with the mayor early this morning, crews were still looking for survivors.

LEWIS: Our team has been excellent. The look on their faces, though, you can just see it. They're bone tired. We're still looking for, you know, hopefully that one extra person that we missed that we're going to find. We're very optimistic about that. We did have quite a bit of loss of life, mostly children, unfortunately, in the Plaza Tower School.

GREENE: The Plaza Tower School. It was one of two elementary schools destroyed by this tornado.

LEWIS: Plaza Tower School is a fairly large elementary school. It's the second oldest, I believe, in the city. It holds about 500 kids. So from what I understand, this was one classroom that got trapped in there.

GREENE: Now, another school, the Briarwood Elementary School, was also flattened. Stephanie Culver is a third grade teacher there. She brought her 10 students into a corridor right in the center of the building.

STEPHANIE CULVER: And at that time, these two adults come back and say we need to get down now. So we all get down, put pillows over our heads and, you know, you hear the wind whipping around and things are starting to crash and it's getting louder and louder.

INSKEEP: And she started to feel wind inside.

CULVER: There's whipping and popping of metal and our ears are popping. And the wind is just whirling around us. And now instead of being in pitch black, it's gray. It's light. There's no more roof. And as I'm looking up, some of the kids are sitting up and all I'm seeing are, like, tears streaming, dirty faces. We're looking at each other and trying to figure out what are we going to do.

GREENE: Amid all this, she feared that there could be another tornado so she brought her students to a tiny bathroom that still had a ceiling, but then started to smell gas. She led the kids out of the building where they saw a neighborhood totally devastated.

CULVER: There was just chaos, parents screaming for children, children screaming for parents. At one point, one of my students is bawling and she's not knowing if her mother is going to be OK. And this is the neighborhood school so all the kids are from that neighborhood. Like, there's no buses. I say, well, does she live over there? And I point to the area where there's still houses standing.

And she goes, no, she lives over there. And she points to the place in front of our school where there used to be houses.

INSKEEP: We can tell you that everyone is accounted for at Briarwood Elementary.

GREENE: Now, Moore's mayor, Glenn Lewis, has seen four tornadoes since 1994 when he was first elected mayor. This includes a massive tornado in 1999 when winds reached record speeds - more than 300 miles per hour.

INSKEEP: Yesterday at his jewelry store, the mayor and his employees took shelter in a vault. Lewis says it's sad that he already knows the next steps in recovery.

LEWIS: They're making street signs. So we can put street signs up so people can tell which street they lived on. That's how bad it is.

GREENE: Another part of the recovery process is getting the town's utilities back online and Lewis says they have more than enough help to do that. Now we'll continue to bring you the latest throughout the morning, on air and also online at our website npr.org.

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