Rescue teams combed through pulverized buildings and splintered homes early Tuesday after one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history blasted through the suburbs of Oklahoma City, killing at least 51 people — including 20 children.
Officials warned that the death toll from Monday’s mid-afternoon twister was almost certain to rise significantly as dawn broke in the devastated city of Moore, and as more bodies were taken to the medical examiner. At least 120 people were injured.
Children were among the many missing after the tornado delivered a direct hit to two elementary schools. Seven children drowned in a pool of water at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was all but leveled. The twister also laid waste to a hospital.
“It’s absolutely huge. It’s horrific,” Gov. Mary Fallin said on NBC’s TODAY. “It looked like somebody set off something that destroyed structures. Not blocks, but miles.”
Severe weather remained a threat, with early morning storms expected to lash areas where workers were cleaning up. Lightning flashed in the sky over Moore, and forecasters warned that more “large and devastating” tornadoes were possible, with large cities in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas also at risk.
Jim Beckel / The Oklahoman via AP
Cindy Wilson texts friends after her home was destroyed in the afternoon tornado. Cindy and her husband took cover in their home's bathtub when the tornado hit.
Rescuers walked through mile after mile of obliterated homes, listening for voices calling out from the wreckage. At one hospital, 85 patients, including 65 children, were being treated for minor to critical injuries.
“We thought we died because we were inside the cellar door. ... It ripped open the door and just glass and debris started slamming on us and we thought we were dead to be honest,” survivor Ricky Stover said while surveying the devastated remains of his home.
Children from Plaza Towers told of hearing sirens and running into a hall for cover, some still carrying their math books. Damian Britton, a fourth-grader, told TODAY that one of his teachers had draped herself over him and a friend for about five minutes while the twister hit.
“She saved our lives,” he said.
In addition to Plaza Towers, Briarwood Elementary School was heavily damaged, KFOR reported.
At the city’s St. Andrews United Methodist Church, parents listened as the names of surviving children were read out through a bullhorn Monday night, The Associated Press reported. While some families hugged each other as they were reunited, others were left to wait, fearing the worst as the night dragged on.
Sue Ogrocki / AP
A monster tornado hit Moore, Okla., Monday afternoon, leaving scores dead as the threat for more storms continues.
“As long as we are here ... we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors,” Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, told Reuters.
The twister cut a path similar to a tornado outbreak that ravaged Oklahoma and Kansas on May 3, 1999, killing 46 people and damaging or destroying more than 8,000 homes. Wind in that outbreak was clocked at 318 mph, the fastest ever recorded.
Monday’s tornado tore the roof off the elementary school about 3 p.m. local time. A teacher told NBC station KFOR that she draped herself on top of six children in a bathroom to shelter them.
It was not clear how many children still were missing. Some students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade were evacuated to a church, but students in lower grades had sheltered in place, KFOR reported. More than two hours after the tornado struck, several children were pulled out alive.
The twister was a mile wide at its base, according to The Weather Channel. A reporter for KFOR said the tornado kicked up a cloud of debris perhaps two miles wide. The National Weather Service initially classified the storm as an EF4, the second-strongest type, with winds of 166 to 200 mph.
Please keep all those impacted by today's storm in your thoughts & prayers.#okwx— Governor Mary Fallin (@GovMaryFallin) May 20, 2013
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster, making federal aid available to people in five counties, and planned a statement from the White House later in the morning.
Expressions of grief and support came from across the world. Queen Elizabeth II extended her deepest sympathies, and Pope Francis said on Twitter: “I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them.”
Relief efforts sprang up. The Red Cross said it was opening a shelter, and the University of Oklahoma opened some of its housing for displaced families.
Aerial pictures of the destruction brought to mind Joplin, the Missouri town virtually wiped off the map two years ago when an EF5 tornado killed 158 people and caused $2.8 billion in damage.
Joplin city officials said Monday they were sending a team of 10 officers and three firefighters to Moore to help. “Giving back in whatever way we can,” the mayor said on Twitter.
The tornado Monday also came one day after another cluster of storms in Oklahoma that killed two elderly men in the town of Shawnee. Tens of millions of people from Texas to the Great Lakes — an area covering 55 million people — had been warned to brace for the severe weather.
More on the Oklahoma tornado:
NBC News' Jeff Black, Tracy Connor and Kristen Welker contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 6:14 AM EDT