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Oklahoma tornadoes: Rescue teams continue search for victims

Rescue teams are continuing to search tornado-hit areas of Moore and south Oklahoma City on Tuesday as tales of heroism and survival emerge. Early Tuesday, the state medical examiner reported 24 dead in Monday's tornado.
FROM STAFF REPORTS Modified: May 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm •  Published: May 21, 2013

MOORE — The official death toll was reduced to 24 and the number seeking medical treatment was listed at 237 Tuesday in the aftermath of Monday's monstrous tornado that leveled neighborhoods and destroyed schools in Moore and south Oklahoma City.

Medical examiner's spokeswoman Amy Elliott said 51 deaths were reported to the medical examiner during the early phases of recovery efforts Monday, but the bodies of only 24 deceased victims had come to the office by Tuesday.

Four of the confirmed fatalities were from south Oklahoma City and 20 were from Moore, an Oklahoma City official said. Search efforts continue.

Gov. Mary Fallin said Tuesday afternoon there were unsubstantiated reports that some families may have taken bodies directly to local funeral homes.

Tales of terror and heroism continued to emerge Tuesday.

Lauryn Fugate, a fifth-grade student at Plaza Towers Elementary School, said she and other students were standing in a school hallway when the third tornado warning sounded and teacher Kimberly Martinez took control.

Martinez yelled, “Everybody get in the bathroom. It doesn't matter what gender you are. Lay down. If not, you are going to die,” said Lauryn, 11.

“Everybody was piled on top of me and I remember looking up and seeing stuff flying through the vent,” Lauryn said. “All of a sudden a big gush of air was flying toward me. I laid down as fast as I could and everything was falling on me.”

Lauryn said when she started to get up, the first thing she heard was “screaming and people yelling, ‘He's bleeding, he's bleeding.'”

“None of us knew who was bleeding,” she said.

Lauryn said Martinez helped her and her best friend climb out of the rubble.

A big piece of metal was over their heads and Martinez had to hold it up so they could climb out, Lauryn said.

Once they emerged from the rubble, they still were trapped behind partially collapsed walls, Lauryn said.

She said a student named Brock tried to jump the wall, but a firefighter grabbed the boy by his shirt and told him to stop.

The firefighter then turned and Lauryn said she could see a big gash in the his head.

“I will never forget that out of my brain — ever,” she said.

Lauryn said she and her best friend then walked to her friend's house, which is where they normally go after school, and as they neared the home she spotted her mother.

A wonderful reunion followed, with lots of hugs and tears, she said.

Lauren's mother, Karen Blevins, said she tried to get into the school to get her daughter out about 10 minutes before the tornado hit, but discovered the school was on lockdown and she couldn't enter.

Amber Harris, 31, rushed to Plaza Towers a few minutes earlier and was able to get her children out.

Harris said she gathered up 10 children and took them to a storm shelter. Five of the children were her own, three were her foster children and two were children of her best friend.

“I told the kids before we got out that we're a strong family and if we lose our home, we're going to make it,” Harris said.

Harris said her home was badly damaged.

“Right now, I'm devastated. It's just so much to take in — trying to be strong for my family,” she said. “Our kids will be pretty hurt by the time they realize what's going on. We have to deal with it one day at a time.”

Second-grade teacher Annette Brown was with schoolchildren in the restroom and hallways of Briarwood Elementary School for about 20 minutes Monday before the tornado struck and the ceiling collapsed, pinning them to the ground.

Metal beams and cinder blocks crushed her. She held the hand of her son — a student at the school — the whole time, despite losing feeling in her arms. She said her thoughts were on the children and keeping them calm.

“I thought we were going to die,” Brown said.

She said the children were “surprisingly calm.” First responders pulled them from the rubble.

“I'm just thankful that we made it,” she said. “We had guardian angels for sure. There's no way we could've made it without guardian angels.”

Search and rescue teams were combing through the massive tornado debris field for second and third times Tuesday as they continued to search for victims and survivors in Moore and south Oklahoma City.

“It is very wide. It is hard to look at,” Gov. Mary Fallin said of the debris zone that officials said was 17 miles long and nearly 2 miles wide in places.

The National Weather Service upgraded the tornado to an EF5 Tuesday, saying it packed winds of 200-215 mph during a portion of its route.

“There's just sticks and bricks, basically,” Fallin said of the splintered boards, broken bricks and twisted metal that once made up neighborhoods, businesses and cars.

Fallin said at least 237 people were injured and sought medical treatment at local hospitals.

The portion of south Oklahoma City that was struck was much smaller than the area in Moore.

By Tuesday morning, officials had completed primary and secondary search-and-rescue sweeps of south Oklahoma City and police began letting residents return to their homes so they could see what remained.

Moore rescue workers faced a much larger task and continued to keep residents out of the devastated area while they searched for victims.

Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said search and rescue teams were working to complete at least three sweeps of damaged homes and structures by the end of the day Tuesday.

Tornado victims in need of assistance were urged to call the Federal Emergency Management Agency at (800) 621-3362, or go to a new website set up by the governor at okstrong.ok.gov.

Emergency Medical Services Authority ambulances took numerous victims to hospitals Monday, spokeswoman Lara O'Leary said.

“They took them to the hospital and then came back to pick up some more,” O'Leary said. “It took many hours. Some of our paramedics walked to get closer. It was an amazing effort from a lot of people.”

Sadly, some children in Moore who could not be saved were brought to paramedics, she said.

O'Leary said 48 ambulances were used during the rescue efforts.

OU Medical Center and the Children's Hospital at OU Medical are reporting 85 patients admitted; 50 of them are children. Their conditions ranged from minor injuries to critical.

At the three metro St. Anthony hospitals, 32 patients were treated and released and three patients were transferred to OU Medical Center and Children's Hospital.

Integris Health Southwest Medical Center reported treating 90 patients and admitting 20. Ten of the victims were in critical condition and 10 were listed as serious. Five children were treated and released.

A 65-year-old man died Tuesday when he was running to a shelter and hit his head, said Brooke Cayot, Integris Health spokeswoman.


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