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Search for Oklahoma tornado survivors nearly complete
First Published May 21 2013 06:15 am • Last Updated May 21 2013 08:34 pm

Moore, Okla. • Helmeted rescue workers raced Tuesday to complete the search for survivors and the dead in the Oklahoma City suburb where a mammoth tornado destroyed countless homes, cleared lots down to bare red earth and claimed 24 lives, including those of nine children.

Scientists concluded the storm was a rare and extraordinarily powerful type of twister known as an EF5, ranking it at the top of the scale used to measure tornado strength. Those twisters are capable of lifting reinforced buildings off the ground, hurling cars like missiles and stripping trees completely free of bark.

At a glance

Miles and minutes: Oklahoma tornado by the numbers

An exceptionally devastating tornado hit the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday afternoon, twisting through subdivisions and across a highway, leaving debris and confusion in its wake. Some of the storm’s effects can be measured in numbers:

24 » The number of dead, including at least 9 children

More than 200 » Injured, including dozens of children

200-plus » Responders searched overnight for survivors

2 » Number of schools damaged, Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore and Briarwood in Oklahoma City

16 » Minutes between when National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 2:40 p.m. and when the tornado touched down in Newcastle, Okla., about 12 miles southwest of Moore

40 » Minutes the tornado was on the ground, from 2:56 p.m. CDT to 3:36 p.m. CDT

17 » Miles tornado traveled

1.3 miles » Width of tornado at points

200-210 mph » Estimated maximum wind speed

5,131 » Days since the May 3, 1999, tornado in Moore, which followed the same route as Monday’s tornado. More than 4 dozen people died in that storm, and 600 homes were damaged.

Sources: Emergency officials in Moore, Okla., and the National Severe Storm Lab in Norman, Okla.

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Residents of Moore began returning to their homes a day after the tornado smashed some neighborhoods into jagged wood scraps and gnarled pieces of metal. In place of their houses, many families found only empty lots.

After nearly 24 hours of searching, the fire chief said he was confident there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.

"I’m 98 percent sure we’re good," Gary Bird said at a news conference with the governor, who had just completed an aerial tour of the disaster zone.

Authorities were so focused on the search effort that they had yet to establish the full scope of damage along the storm’s long, ruinous path.

They did not know how many homes were gone or how many families had been displaced. Emergency crews had trouble navigating devastated neighborhoods because there were no street signs left. Some rescuers used smartphones or GPS devices to guide them through areas with no recognizable landmarks.

The death toll was revised downward from 51 after the state medical examiner said some victims may have been counted twice in the confusion. More than 200 people were treated at area hospitals.

By Tuesday afternoon, every damaged home had been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors.

The fire chief was hopeful that could be completed before nightfall, but the work was being hampered by heavy rain. Crews also continued a brick-by-brick search of the rubble of a school that was blown apart with many children inside.


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

Survivors emerged with harrowing accounts of the storm’s wrath, which many endured as they shielded loved ones.

Chelsie McCumber grabbed her 2-year-old son, Ethan, wrapped him in jackets and covered him with a mattress before they squeezed into a coat closet of their house. McCumber sang to her child when he complained it was getting hot inside the small space.

"I told him we’re going to play tent in the closet," she said, beginning to cry.

"I just felt air so I knew the roof was gone," she said Tuesday, standing under the sky where her roof should have been. The home was littered with wet gray insulation and all of their belongings.

"Time just kind of stood still" in the closet, she recalled. "I was kind of holding my breath thinking this isn’t the worst of it. I didn’t think that was it. I kept waiting for it to get worse."

"When I got out, it was worse than I thought," she said.

Gov. Mary Fallin lamented the loss of life, especially the children who were killed, but she celebrated the town’s resilience.

"We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength," Fallin said.

In describing the bird’s-eye view of the damage, the governor said many houses were "taken away," leaving "just sticks and bricks, basically. It’s hard to tell if there was a structure there or not."

From the air, large stretches of town could be seen where every home had been cut to pieces. Some homes were sucked off their concrete slabs. A pond was filled with piles of wood and an overturned trailer.

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