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Children recount surviving Okla. twister

MOORE, Okla. -- The principal's voice came on over the intercom at Plaza Towers Elementary School: A severe storm was approaching. Students were to go to the cafeteria and wait for their parents to pick them up.

But before all of the youngsters could get there, the tornado alarm sounded.

"All the teachers started screaming into the room and saying, 'Get into the hallway! We don't want you to die!' and stuff like that," said sixth-grader Phaedra Dunn. "We just took off running."

In the horror that followed, seven of the children at Plaza Towers Elementary were killed. Others would crawl out of the rubble, bloodied and bruised, utterly terrified.

The tornado that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people destroyed Plaza Towers and also slammed Briarwood Elementary, where all the children appear to have survived. Students and parents recounted stories of brave teachers who sheltered their pupils, in some cases by herding them into a closet and a restroom amid the fear and panic.

At the Plaza Towers school, it became apparent to some adults that the hallways weren't safe enough. Some were in sight of windows.

Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys' bathroom. Perhaps 70 or 80 children jammed in, said Alexander Ghassimi, 11.

Some stood. Some sat on the floor. His twin sister, Alexia, huddled under a sink. Some teachers were standing. When the tornado hit, they threw themselves on top of the children, Alexander said.

"We were all piled in on each other," said Antonio, who is 12. Another teacher wrapped her arms around two students and held Antonio's hand.

Twenty seconds later, he heard a roar that sounded like a stampede of elephants. Then it all stopped. Crouched down, his backpack over his head, Antonio looked up. The skylight and the ceiling were gone.

"It almost looked like 'The Wizard of Oz,' just a bunch of papers and books above us," Alexander said.

Antonio and a friend climbed over wreckage where their classroom had been. Students and teachers were struggling to free themselves from under the bricks, wooden beams and insulation. Some people had bleeding head wounds.

"Everybody was crying," Antonio said. "I was crying because I didn't know if my family was OK."

Then Antonio saw his father ride up on a mountain bike, yelling his son's name.

Phaedra survived, too. Her mother rushed to the school just moments before the tornado hit, covered Phaedra's head with a blanket to protect her from hail, and ushered her out the door. Phaedra's 10-year-old sister, Jenna, didn't want to budge from the school.

The principal "grabbed her backpack, put it over her head and literally said, 'Your mom's going to open the door. Get out. You're safer with your mom,' and pushed her out the door," said Amy Sharp, the girls' mother.

At Briarwood Elementary, the students also went into the halls. But a third-grade teacher didn't think it looked safe, so she herded some of the children into a closet, said David Wheeler, one of the fathers.

The teacher shielded Wheeler's 8-year-old son, Gabriel, with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and started lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it literally sucked glasses off kids' faces, Wheeler said.

"She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down," Wheeler said.

Gabriel and the teacher -- whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon -- dug their way out of the rubble. The boy's back was cut and bruised, and gravel was embedded in his head, Wheeler said.

It took nearly three hours for father and son to be reunited.

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