Students at Plaza Towers Elementary were horrified at the sight of debris and glass crashing down on top of them late Monday afternoon as a tornado that was more than a mile wide entered.
Plaza Towers Elementary School has become the emotional and physical focal point of one of the most destructive tornadoes to strike Oklahoma.
Officials said on Tuesday that at least 24 people had died, including 9 children, 7 of them at Plaza Towers.
School windows were smashed and the ceiling ripped away, showering the students with glass, wood and pieces of insulation.
It plowed through 17 miles of ground over 50 minutes, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals in Moore
and in Oklahoma City itself. Winds reached speeds of up to 210 miles per hour, and many structures were wiped clean to their foundations.
But the 1.3-mile-wide tornado that struck Plaza Towers on Monday stunned Oklahomans, in both its size and the number of victims, dozens of whom were students who were killed or injured.
Gov. Mary Fallin said she took an aerial tour of the tornado’s path and inspected the damage by car and on foot. She said she was left speechless.
“There’s just sticks and bricks, basically,” she said, adding, “It was very surreal coming upon the school because there was no school. There was just debris.”
Officials said it was still too early to say precisely how many people had been killed, but the toll appeared to be significantly less than initially feared.
State officials lowered the death toll to at least 24, down from their estimate late Monday night of nearly 100 fatalities.
President Obama, who declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, said Tuesday at the White House that the tornado had been
“one of the most destructive in history,” and that he had informed aides that “Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away.”
He said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had been dispatched to aid in the recovery.
“For all those who’ve been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed.
But you will not travel that path alone.”