Death toll lowered in Oklahoma twister; 24 dead

MOORE, Oklahoma — The state medical examiner’s office has revised the death toll from a tornado in an Oklahoma City suburb to 24 people, including seven children, the Associated Press is reporting.

As the sun rose over the shattered community of Moore, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half. Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm.

Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

The school was in the direct path of the storm’s fury. About 75 students and staff members hunkered down in Plaza Towers when the tornado hit, CNN affiliate KFOR reported.

MORE COVERAGE: KFOR

At one point, an estimated 24 children were missing from the school, but some later turned up at nearby churches. It’s unclear how many may still be trapped in the wreckage, and how many are dead or alive.

A father of a third-grader still missing sat quietly on a stool outside. Tears cascaded from his face as he waited for any news.

Even parents of survivors couldn’t wrap their minds around the tragedy.

“I’m speechless. How did this happen? Why did this happen?” Norma Bautista asked. “How do we explain this to the kids? … In an instant, everything’s gone.”

Across town, Moore Medical Center also fell victim to the tornado.

“Our hospital has been devastated,” Mayor Glenn Lewis said. “We had a two-story hospital, now we have a one. And it’s not occupiable.”

So 145 people were rushed to three other area hospitals.

That number includes 45 children taken to the children’s hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, Dr. Roxie Albrecht said. Injuries ranged from minor to severe, including impalement and crushing injuries.

Not the first time

Even for a city toughened by massive tornadoes, Moore has never seen this kind of devastation.

The suburb recovered from a fierce twister in 1999 that killed six people there and dozens in the area. When that tornado struck, it had the strongest wind speed in history, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Tom Lamb said.

Another tornado ripped through Moore in 2003, Lamb said.

This time, the 2-mile-wide twister stayed on the ground for a full 40 minutes, carving a 22-mile path where thousands of residents live.

The twister first touched down in Newcastle, Oklahoma, before ripping into neighboring Moore.

An early estimate rated the tornado as an EF4, meaning it had winds between 166 and 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The death toll has far surpassed anything the city has seen from a tornado — and is expected to climb.

After the ear-shattering howl subsided, survivors along the miles of destruction emerged from shelters to see an apocalyptic vision. Buildings were and homes were shredded to pieces. Remnants of cars twisted and piled on each other. What used to be a parking lot now looked like a junk yard.

“People are wandering around like zombies,” KFOR reporter Scott Hines said. “It’s like they’re not realizing how to process what had just happened.”

Hiding in freezers

Hines said rescuers found a 7-month-old baby and its mother hiding in a walk-in freezer. But they didn’t survive.

At the devastated hospital in Moore, some doctors had to jump in a freezer to survive, Lamb said.

Lando Hite, shirtless and spattered in mud, described how the storm pummeled the Orr Family Farm in Moore, which had about 80 horses.

“It was just like the movie ‘Twister,'” he told KFOR. “There were horses and stuff flying around everywhere.”

More trouble brewing

But the storm system that spawned Monday’s tornado and several other twisters Sunday isn’t over yet.

Northeast Texas, including Dallas, and southwest Arkansas are under the gun for severe weather Tuesday. Those areas could see large hail, damaging winds and possibly tornadoes.

A broader swath of the United States, from Texas to Indiana and up to Michigan, could see severe thunderstorms.

“We could have a round 3,” Cabrera aid. “Hopefully, it won’t be as bad.”

Still digging

Plaza Towers Elementary School was one of countless buildings crushed by the tornado. The twister sucked up debris and swirled it several miles into the sky.

“The structures that were just demolished were picked up by the twister here and just jetted up into the atmosphere 20,000 feet,” Cabrera said.

James Dickens is not a firefighter or medic. He’s actually a gas-and-oil pipeline worker. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing a hard hat and joining other rescuers at the school.

“I felt it was my duty to come help,” Dickens said Tuesday after a long night of searching.

“As a father, it’s humbling. It’s heartbreaking to know that we’ve still got kids over there that’s possibly alive, but we don’t know.”

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