Two men stand in front of Plaza Towers Elementary after a tornado destroyed the school on Monday. (Bryan Terry/AP/The …[Updated at 10:47 a.m. CT]
MOORE, Okla. – The hell he saw was harrowing, but it’s the sounds at Plaza Towers Elementary that Stuart Earnest Jr. says will haunt him forever.
“All you could hear were screams,” Earnest said. “The people screaming for help. And the people trying to help were also screaming.”
Plaza Towers, a pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade school, took a direct hit when a titanic tornado chewed a deadly and destructive 20-mile path through Newcastle, Moore and parts of southern Oklahoma City for 40 minutes Monday afternoon.
State officials have adjusted the number of casualties a few times since the tragedy. Tuesday morning, Reuters quoted Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer at the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner's Office, as saying the death toll had been reduced to 24.
"There was a lot of chaos," Elliott said.
President Barack Obama said FEMA officials and staff were on the ground in the area. "The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them, as long as it takes for their homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, the parents to console, the first responders to comfort and of course frightened children who will need our continued love and attention," Obama said Tuesday morning at a press conference.
Officials said some of the dead are children. Classes were still in session at Plaza Towers when the twister, estimated to be packing winds of 200 mph or greater, crushed nearly every corner of the school. Teachers’ cars were thrown into the building, and the playground no longer exists.
“I can only hope those little kids killed didn't suffer,” said Earnest, one of many who rushed to the school to help survivors.
[In tornado's wake, worried parents seek out kids]
With several students still unaccounted for, rescuers worked overnight digging through the rubble.
“I just hope they find her,” Shannon Galarneau said of her 10-year-old niece, a Plaza Towers student who was missing as of early Tuesday morning. “You just feel helpless.”
The girl's younger sister, also a student at the school, suffered cuts to her head and bruises on her back. The 8-year-old was still wearing her hospital bracelet while asleep on her grandmother's shoulder in the front seat of a pickup truck just after midnight.
“She said it was probably the scariest day of her life,” Galarneau said.
The child was among more than 150 reportedly injured by the tornado, which some estimated to be greater than a mile wide at times.
Galarneau and her husband could see the twister a mile and a half from their front porch and scrambled to hide.
“It barreled down fast,” said Galarneau, who found refuge in a utility closet.
[How to Help: Oklahoma storms]
President Barack Obama declared several Oklahoma counties disaster areas and pledged to support the area's rescue and recovery. The funnel’s fury crumbled homes for several blocks around the school and in other parts of Moore. Missing street signs and other landmarks made some neighborhoods unrecognizable even to locals.
“It is a barren wasteland,” Galarneau said. “Everything is leveled.”
Allen and JoAnn Anderson huddled under quilts and pillows in their bathtub with their Yorkie, Magand, and cat, Meow, when the tornado came down their street.
“It was like standing in the middle of a train track and having the train go right over you,” said Allen, 63.
They emerged from the tub 15 minutes later to find their brick house gone and cars badly damaged.
“There’s no house. It’s just a pile of rubble,” Allen said.
The couple checked into a motel with their pets late Monday. Chunks of attic insulation were still stuck in JoAnn’s sandy-blond hair, and her legs were partially caked in dried mud.
“It could be worse,” JoAnn said. “We're alive.”