Fire chief says search almost complete in Oklahoma; at least 24 killed (+videos)

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 21 2013 2:57 p.m. MDT

MOORE, Okla. — The search for survivors and the dead is nearly complete in the Oklahoma City suburb that was smashed by a mammoth tornado, the fire chief said Tuesday.

Gary Bird said he's "98 percent sure" there are no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in Moore, a community of 56,000 people.

His comments came after emergency crews spent much of the day searching the town's broken remnants for survivors of the twister that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. The storm killed at least 24 people, including at least nine children.

Every damaged home has been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal is to conduct three searches of each location just to be sure. He was hopeful the work could be completed by nightfall, but the efforts were being hampered by heavy rain.

No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.

Earlier in the day, the state medical examiner's office cut the estimated death toll by more than half. Gov. Mary Fallin vowed to account for every resident.

"We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength," said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as "hard to look at."

Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

"It was a very eventful night," Elliott said. "I truly expect that they'll find more today."

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

New search-and-rescue teams moved in at dawn Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who had worked all night. A helicopter shined a spotlight from above to aid in the search.

Many houses have "just been taken away. They're just sticks and bricks," the governor said, describing the 17-mile path of destruction.

More than 200 people have been treated at hospitals.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was an EF5 twister, the most powerful type, with winds of at least 200 mph.

The agency upgraded the tornado from an EF4 on the enhanced Fujita scale to an EF5 based on what a damage-assessment team saw on the ground, spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said Tuesday.

The weather service says the tornado's path was 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.

Emergency crews were having trouble navigating neighborhoods because the devastation was so complete, and there are no street signs left standing, Fallin added.

Other search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the 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.

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled 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.

Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said Tuesday.

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