Fire chief says search almost complete in Oklahoma; at least 24 killed (+videos)
Many parents of missing schoolchildren initially came to St. Andrews United Methodist Church, which had been set up as a meeting site. But only high school students were brought to the church, causing confusion and frustration among parents of students enrolled at Plaza Towers. They were redirected to a Baptist church several miles away.
"It was very emotional — some people just holding on to each other, crying because they couldn't find a child; some people being angry and expressing it verbally" by shouting at one another, said D.A. Bennett, senior pastor at St. Andrews.
After hearing that the tornado was headed toward another school called Briarwood Elementary, David Wheeler left work and drove 100 mph through blinding rain and gusting wind to find his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. When he got to the school site, "it was like the earth was wiped clean, like the grass was just sheared off," Wheeler said.
Eventually, he found Gabriel, sitting with the teacher who had protected him. His back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head — but he was alive. As the tornado approached, students at Briarwood were initially sent to the halls, but a third-grade teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — thought it didn't look safe and so ushered the children into a closet, he said.
The teacher shielded Gabriel with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked the glasses off their faces, Wheeler said.
"She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down," Wheeler said.
The tornado also grazed a theater and leveled countless homes. Authorities were still trying to determine the full scope of the damage.
Roofs were torn off houses, exposing metal rods left twisted like pretzels. Cars sat in heaps, crumpled and sprayed with caked-on mud. Insulation and siding was smashed up against the sides of any walls that remained standing. Yards were littered with pieces of wood, nails and pieces of electric poles.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
"Among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew — their school," he said Tuesday.
The town of Moore "needs to get everything it needs right away," he added.
Obama spoke following a meeting with his disaster-response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and top White House officials.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, including the Moore area.
Monday's tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998.
The 1999 storm damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses. Two or three schools were also hit, but "the kids were out of school, so there were no concerns," recalled City Manager Steve Eddy.
At the time of Monday's storm, the City Council was meeting. Local leaders watched the twister approaching on television before taking shelter in the bathroom.
"We blew our sirens probably five or six times," Eddy said. "We knew it was going to be significant, and there were a lot of curse words flying."
Monday's twister came almost exactly two years after an enormous tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.
That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.
Associated Press writers Tim Talley and Ramit Plushnik Masti; and Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki contributed to this report.
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