Oklahoma tornado: Plaza Towers Elementary School mother saves child before tornado hit school

Several children have been pulled out of the rubble alive at a school in an Oklahoma City suburb. Rescue workers lifted children from the rubble before they were taken to a triage center set up at Plaza Towers Elementary School. (May 20)

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As the mile-wide tornado carved a path of destruction toward Moore, Oklahoma, Henry De La Cruz said his wife drove to Plaza Towers Elementary School to pick up their 5-year-old daughter, Isabelle.

Shortly after she retrieved the girl, the tornado slammed into the school, reducing it to a pile of rubble. Rescue workers were searching for about two dozen children who might still be underneath it.

"I'm sad for the other ones," De La Cruz said. "I'm glad we made it on time."

Plaza Towers Elementary was at the center of the worst devastation in a storm that killed at least 91 people, including 20 or more children, according to the state medical examiner's office. The storm left a swath of devastation 20 miles long, reducing whole neighborhoods to piles of debris.

More than 75 students were in the Plaza Towers school when the tornado struck, and as many as 30 may have been rescued, KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City reported. Just before 7 p.m. local time yesterday, authorities at the scene told reporters that there didn't appear to be any more survivors.

After the tornado passed, Clayton Alexander and Amy Hatchcox left Hatchcox's mobile home on foot to check on Alexander's house near the school. They saw bodies wrapped in plastic and blankets lying on the ground.

"I saw people running up and down the street saying, 'I can't find my kids,'" Hatchcox said.

NO SURVIVORS

Brian Maughan, a commissioner in neighboring Oklahoma County, said Gov. Mary Fallin told him the school was now a recovery scene, not a rescue scene, meaning no more survivors were expected.

"This is ground zero," said Mike Brake, an aide to Maughan. "It hit straight on." Crews worked into the night to pick through the debris in a ghostly scene lit by about six searchlights. At about 12:15 a.m., a fresh search-and-rescue team arrived with a dog.

"We're going to keep searching until everyone is accounted for," said First Lieutenant Jeff Archer of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry. "We know there are still personnel unaccounted for." De La Cruz, his wife and children live about a mile from the school, on Southwest 11th Street. They've been in the neighborhood about 10 years, he said.

De La Cruz's house was still standing, though some of the windows were broken. De La Cruz was boarding them up as his brother and two relatives helped retrieve items from the house.

LARGE MOUND

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What was once the school is a large mound of debris topped by what appears to be a piece of metal roof. It is the largest pile in a wide swath of mud-splattered rubble. The only things left standing nearby were a few snapped-off tree trunks.

Not far from the school, Katie Fogg, 23, cradled a small gray dog.

"We found him in a cul-de-sac," she said. "I think his leg is broken. We'll find a place for him." Plaza Towers students hugged and clung to the school's walls as the tornado roared over, KFOR reported. Parents dodged downed power lines in their rush to the scene to find missing children.

Plaza Towers has 440 pupils in pre-kindergarten through sixth grades, according to GreatSchools.org, a San Francisco-based non-profit foundation.

Near storm-damaged Briarwood Elementary, with 650 children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, a home became an impromptu shelter for at least 15 students as parents rushed to collect youngsters, according to KFOR.

The tornado was at least 1.25 miles wide and raked the adjacent cities for 40 minutes, said Jerry Lojka, a spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management.

SAFETY UNDERGROUND

The storm was so intense "you've got to be underground to be safe," said U.S. Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican whose district includes parts of the area.

Rescuers from across Oklahoma were headed to help in the search, Lojka said.

"Our resources are going to be stretched pretty thin and our responders are going to be challenged," Lojka said.

Moore's Warren Theater was set up as a triage center, and the American Red Cross opened three shelters for evacuees.

Oakcrest Church of Christ in Oklahoma City was still housing evacuees from a storm earlier this month and threw its doors open again Monday. A group of quilters who usually donate their work to local boys' and girls' homes brought their wares to the church so displaced residents would have blankets, said Christyann Anderson, the assistant to Pastor Ben Glover.

GATORADE, CLOTHES

Church members brought in water, Gatorade and clothes, and were working to organize donated dinners, Anderson said in a telephone interview while the pastor spoke with another reporter nearby.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. is "looking at opportunities to bring equipment, people and other expertise to help" with tornado recovery efforts, said Michael Kehs, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City-based company. The company said it would make a $1 million cash donation to the Red Cross for the rescue and recovery efforts.

Chesapeake, the second-largest U.S. natural gas producer, has about 4,000 employees in the metropolitan area, Kehs said.

The University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman opened its dorms to families displaced by the tornado.

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