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Oklahoma tornadoes: Mother, her children survive inside Plaza Towers school

Diana Palmore and her two children survived in Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday afternoon when it was destroyed by a powerful tornado.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Modified: May 22, 2013 at 12:45 am •  Published: May 21, 2013

— Diana Palmore was the in-between.

Below her, four children. Above her, cars, mud and chunks of houses swirling at 200 mph.

She clung to a restroom stall and a trash can at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“The wind started blowing and whooom,” she said.

Palmore, 33, had driven to the school Monday afternoon to pick up her children before the storm. Seven children were killed at the school, according to the state medical examiner.

When she arrived, her daughter, Monica, was in the hallway with her classmates. They were crouched down with books over their heads.

Then teachers hurried children out of the hallways and into the restrooms. Palmore threw herself on top of her two children — Monica, 10, and Lavontey, 12 — and two others. Monica said she held on to her mother.

“It was scary,” Monica said. “It was shaking the school. The roof came off. I saw the tornado swirling. I saw cars flying up.”

When the storm passed, the debris came crashing down.

Metal and parts of the roof fell on Palmore's back.

“Everything fell on our bodies,” said Palmore, a restaurant manager.

Some people were able to escape the wreckage on their own. Some — like the Palmores — were pulled out by others.

Plaza Towers was home to about 500 students in a working-class area of Moore. It was a place like all neighborhood schools with colorful playgrounds and Thanksgiving parties. A preschool addition was going to be built soon.

It was mostly unknown until Monday, when the world learned of its existence only when it disappeared.

Palmore and her children ran home on the wet, littered streets. They saw dead animals. Maybe dead people. With no street signs or landmarks, they got lost in their own neighborhood among the scatterings.

“We didn't even know where we lived,” she said.

They found their home — a pile of rubble. Palmore's husband, Pete, a letter carrier, was under it.

They screamed for help.

Rescue workers rushed to other places. Gawkers took photos with their cellphones.

“You don't know how frightening it is to yell for help and nobody helps you,” Palmore said.

They started pulling up bits of junk with their hands. Monica was the one who heard his voice first.

“If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have found him,” Palmore said.

The family spent some time in the hospital — the father for a nail through his hand and the son for an asthma attack.

Monday night, the family stayed with friends, who didn't have electricity.

The next morning, Palmore and her daughter walked to a nearby church in search of help, and a police officer gave them a ride to a Red Cross shelter in south Oklahoma City. Palmore moved slowly, her back arched.

The family still didn't know where they would stay that night or any nights after. But at least they survived.

“We're OK,” she said. “ ... We have nothing. Literally, nothing.”

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