MOORE, Okla. - A monstrous tornado at least a half-mile wide roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods and destroying an elementary school with a direct blow as children and teachers huddled against winds up to 200 m.p.h. At least 51 people were killed, and officials said the death toll was expected to rise.
The storm laid waste to scores of buildings in Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of the city. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside.
The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second-most-powerful type of twister.
More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. And search-and-rescue efforts were to continue throughout the night.
Tiffany Thronesberry said she heard from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, shortly after the tornado struck.
"I got a phone call from her screaming, 'Help! Help! I can't breathe. My house is on top of me!' " Thronesberry said.
Thronesberry hurried to her mother's house, where first responders had already pulled her out. Her mother was hospitalized for treatment of cuts and bruises.
Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at the school, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.
Fallin also spoke with President Obama, who offered the nation's help and gave Fallin a direct line to his office.
Many landlines to stricken areas were down, and cellphone networks were congested. The storm was so massive that it will take time to establish communications between rescuers and state officials, the governor said.
In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings, and glass over the streets.
Chris Calvert saw the menacing tornado from about a mile away.
"I was close enough to hear it," he said. "It was just a low roar, and you could see the debris, like pieces of shingles and insulation and stuff like that, rotating around it."
Even though his subdivision is a mile from the tornado's path, it was still covered with debris. He found a picture of a small girl on Santa's lap in his yard.
Volunteers and first responders raced to search the debris for survivors.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls, and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.
Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled alive from the rubble. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching twister and ran to the school, where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.
"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he said.
The students were sent into the restroom.
As dusk began to fall, heavy equipment was rolled up to the school, and emergency workers wearing yellow crawled among the ruins, searching for survivors.
Because the ground was muddy, bulldozers and front-end loaders were getting stuck. Crews used jackhammers and sledgehammers to tear away concrete, and chunks were being thrown to the side as the workers dug.
Douglas Sherman drove two blocks from his home to help.
"Just having those kids trapped in that school, that really turns the table on a lot of things," he said.
A map provided by the National Weather Service showed that the storm began west of Newcastle and crossed the Canadian River into Oklahoma City's rural far southwestern side about 3 p.m. When it reached Moore, the twister cut a path through the center of town before lifting back into the sky at Lake Stanley Draper.
Oklahoma City Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system.
Monday's powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region in May 1999.