A huge tornado that tore through Oklahoma City suburbs has killed at least 51 people, including 20 children, officials in the United States say.
As dusk began to fall, the state medical examiner put the death toll at 51 people with children among those killed. Of those seven were children from a single elementary school that had been ripped apart by the twister, which was said to have sustained circulating winds of 200mph or more. Debris from the twister dropped like rain in Tulsa, a hundred miles away.
But with rescue operations barely underway officials made clear that the numbers wounded and killed was likely to rise quickly. At least 120 patients had been rushed to area hospitals of whom 10 had critical injuries, officials said. Also among those admitted for treatment were more than 70 children, they added.
The tornado, which for now is measured as an EF4 but might yet be upgraded to a top-level EF5, ploughed through the community of Moore just to the south of Oklahoma City in the early hours of the afternoon. That in itself was unusual. It is more usual for twisters to strike in the evening hours, when schools, at least, have emptied out. The first warnings were issued at about 3.40 pm local time. The twister began its deadly march about eight minutes later.
News network choppers watched as the giant funnel cloud marched with unbearable slowness as commentators speculated where it was landing, block by block. Suddenly, as the nation watched, the funnel ‘roped out’, the moment when the twister dies. It was then only a few minutes before same helicopters turned into the area to see what kind of damage had been done. Very quickly, the terrifying of the carnage became clear.
As ever with tornadoes, the distance between destroyed and untouched could have been measured in feet. But structures that fell on the wrong side of the dividing line were often shredded. As emergency crews rushed in a first, desperate focus of activity was the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where 75 young students and staff were taking shelter when the twister hit. Almost nothing of the school building was left standing when it had passed.
Last night, rescue crews were swarming across the heaps of rubbish that the school had been reduced to, moving gingerly, listening for signs of life below and trying not to dislodge debris that might hurt anyone buried beneath. There was concern that as many as 25 pupils were still not accounted for as darkness fell. But in those few hours of daylight that rescuers had left several of the children were successfully pulled from the rubble alive.
“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” said James Rushing, who had rushed to the school moments before the tornado hit. His 5-year-old foster son was enrolled in class there. Children who survived spoke of how teachers had lied down on top of them to offer some modicum of protection.
In May of 1999, the same Oklahoma City suburb was hit by a tornado so powerful it produced the fastest winds ever recorded on the surface of the Earth – just over 300 MPH. It is meanwhile exactly two years since a single tornado killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, just the other side of the Oklahoma state line.
“The storm developed very, very rapidly, and we believe there were children in the (Plaza Towers) school. We don't know if any of them were