A monstrous tornado killed at least 51 people Monday as it roared through Moore and south Oklahoma City — leaving rescue workers frantically searching into the night for missing children at the devastated Plaza Towers Elementary School in the Moore School District.
At least 20 children were included among those killed, and the death toll is expected to rise, the state medical examiner reported.
More than 100 were injured.
President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration late Monday. The president's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma and Pottawatomie counties.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Betsy Randolph described the devastation as “the worst thing I have ever seen.”
“When I got to Moore, I saw a lot of walking wounded — people with blood all over. It was a matter of putting work gloves on and getting to work,” she said. “We hope that we don't have any more fatalities, but we know there are a lot more people trapped tonight.”
Randolph urged people to stay away from the area.
The number of fatalities already has surpassed the 44 killed in the horrific May 3, 1999, tornado that previously devastated the Moore-south Oklahoma City area.
As night fell, relatives were crying out for their children at Plaza Towers, where they said more than 20 children were missing and feared dead. Emergency responders continued working late into the night in hopes of finding survivors.
Plaza Towers was one of two Moore elementary schools ravaged by the massive tornado as it ground up neighborhoods, cars and everything else in its path.
Briarwood Elementary School was the other elementary school slammed.
The gymnasium at Moore's Highland East Junior High School also was struck, leaving football equipment strewn across the ground.
Chaos reigned at Briarwood shortly after the tornado hit as crying, mud-caked children could be seen streaming from the collapsed building.
Frantic parents rushed toward the school, dodging downed power lines and scattered debris.
What appeared to be the lifeless body of a child was pulled from the rubble of a home about four houses down from the school.
The tornado — with wind speeds preliminarily estimated at up to 200 mph — ripped the roof off the school and collapsed school walls, leaving several children trapped in the debris. Emergency workers arrived quickly on the scene and began laboring to free the children. A witness said none of the Briarwood school children he saw appeared to have major injuries.
The smell of natural gas filled the air from broken gas lines.
Emergency Medical Services Authority rushed ambulances to schools, several homes, businesses and intersections in response to reports of multiple injuries.
Later Monday, Briarwood students were taken to a location at Vicki Drive and 156 Court, where officials sought to reunite them with parents.
Southmoore High School used a bus and police squad cars to shuttle students from the school to a location where they could be reunited with their parents following the storm.
Garrett Bennett, a 15-year-old freshman, said he was in the field house with coaches and other players when the storm hit.
Coaches had about 15 students and student managers go to a locker room in the building's interior, and at one point had them all put on football helmets, Bennett said.
“They came in and told us to get on the floor and put your head down,” he said.
Kelly Wells, Norman Regional Medical Center spokeswoman, said Moore Medical Center was significantly damaged, with the second floor largely gone.
“All of our staff has been accounted for,” she said. “None of our patients there have been critically injured. We're in the process of evacuating the hospital.”
The hospital had 30 patients at the time. They were being taken to two Norman hospitals.
Wells said staff members told her the hospital's second floor is “pretty much gone, and the front side is gone.” The north end of the hospital was also heavily damaged, she said.
OU Medical Center and Children's Hospital reported treating 85 storm patients, including 65 children. Medical conditions ranged from minor to critical.
St. Anthony Hospital treated six injured patients and Integris Health Southwest Medical Center treated 55, including a 7-year-old boy whose parents could not be located. Hospital officials said they would keep him until his parents are found.
Obama spoke with Gov. Mary Fallin on Monday evening and told the governor Oklahomans were in the prayers of the president and first lady.
The president said his administration, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stands ready to provide all available assistance as the governor's team responds to the storm.
At a news conference in Moore, Fallin said she had activated the National Guard and rescuers were trying to find all those who were missing.
“Our hearts are just broken for the parents that are wondering (about) the state of their children that have been in the schools that have been hit today,” Fallin said.
Five schools were damaged by Monday's storm, she said.
“We have brought in rescue dogs to go through the debris itself. It will be dark pretty soon and we want to do everything we can to continue to look for those who might be lost in this tragedy,” Fallin said.
“We've had a massive tornado, a huge one that has passed through this community. We do know there are fatalities. ... We know there are a lot of injuries.”
Fallin said a reunification center has been set up at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church at SW 119 and S May Avenue in Oklahoma City.
Police said later that some children were being reunited with families at First Baptist Church of Moore, at NE 27 and Interstate 35.
A woman in OU Medical Center's waiting room, who would only identify herself as Dina, said a friend who owns A Step Above day care in the tornado-damaged area had told her she was heading to the hospital with the children. She said the owner had texted her earlier to say “we're alive but buried under.”
“There's damage at a wide scope at this point,” EMSA spokeswoman Lara O'Leary said Monday afternoon.
Among the many damaged businesses were the Moore Branch of Tinker Federal Credit Union and Warren Theatres.
Officials reported the credit union branch at 400 SW 6 sustained “considerable damage” and would be closed indefinitely. Credit union employees hunkered down in the vault to weather the storm and were released unharmed from the vault later with the help of first responders. All personal safe deposit boxes were reported secure.
Jill Gottschalk, an assistant in Warren Theatres' corporate office in Wichita, Kan., said there were no reports of injuries to theater employees or patrons.
“Obviously, we are just in a loss of words right now,” she said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone ... Anything any of us can do here we're definitely in gear to go do it.”
All EMSA emergency crews were dispatched to the damaged area. Edmond police also were being sent to the area.
Gas leaks were reported in Moore, where a destroyed home could be seen burning in one of the damaged neighborhoods Monday afternoon.
Law enforcement officers closed Interstate 35 in both directions between Interstate 240 and Indian Hills Road.
Officers also closed the H.E. Bailey Turnpike at State Highway 4 due to the tornado.
Monday afternoon's tornado was strikingly similar to the gigantic May 3, 1999, tornado that ravaged Moore and south Oklahoma City, killing 44, injuring hundreds and destroying thousands of homes.
Monday's huge wedge-shaped funnel initially dropped from the skies at 2:56 p.m. near Newcastle and began churning northeastward through southwest Oklahoma City and Moore, spewing power flashes and mercilessly grinding up everything in its path.
In Newcastle, 35 to 40 homes were either severely damaged or destroyed and one person was critically injured, said Kevin Self, Newcastle emergency manager.
A section of Interstate 44 was closed for a time due to a ruptured gas line, but the leak was capped and the highway reopened about sundown, Self said.
The tornado crossed Interstate 35 near the Warren Theatres before continuing east-northeastward and eventually lifting west of Lake Stanley Draper at 3:36 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The debris path was several blocks wide and stretched for 20 miles. The National Weather Service said preliminary indications are the tornado was at least an EF4, which indicates wind speeds of up to 200 mph.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission reported more than 61,500 power outages related to the storm.
Another tornado reportedly touched down near Sparks in southern Lincoln County, but no immediate damage estimate was available, according to a Lincoln County Emergency Management spokeswoman.
The tornadoes struck while Oklahomans still were staggering from Sunday night's tornadoes, which destroyed homes in several other communities and left two dead.
Contributing: Staff Writers Nolan Clay, Matt Dinger, Silas Allen, William Crum, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Diana Baldwin, Andrew Knittle, Zeke Campfield, LEIGHANNE MANWARREN, Michael McNutt, Chris Casteel, Ben Luschen, Carrie Coppernoll, Matt Patterson, Brandy McDonnell and Carla Hinton, and The Associated Press.