Sue Ogrocki / AP
A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday's tornado.
Seven children were found drowned at a tornado-flattened elementary school where rescuers were searching through the night for survivors as parents kept a heart-breaking vigil, officials said.
The students killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School were among at least 24 lives claimed by the monster twister that laid to Moore, Okla.
Several children and staffers were pulled alive from the ruins of Plaza Towers in Moore after the building took a direct hit Monday afternoon.
A little girl was lifted out by rescuers, while a small boy was carried to a triage area by a woman whose face was streaked with dirt and etched with worry.
Sue Ogrocki / AP
A woman carries an injured child to a triage center near the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.,
In another image captured by an Associated Press photographer, a crowd of firefighters worked to remove a woman — her hair and clothes covered in dust and bits of debris — from the pile.
Those hopeful scenes were soon followed by devastating news as the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner's Office confirmed seven students were found dead in a pool of water.
It was unclear if any other children were killed or trapped alive.
Hysterical parents who had converged on the sprawling pile of broken concrete and twisted metal were later taken to a church to await word on the fate of their youngsters.
“Our hearts are just broken for the parents,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said at the briefing.
“Our prayers are with you. We are working as quickly as we can to get through the debris and answer some questions about where loved ones are.”
The funnel cloud slammed two schools — Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary. There were no reports of casualties from Briarwood, although the building was heavily damaged.
At Plaza Towers, the fourth, fifth and sixth grades were evacuated to a church about a quarter-mile away from the 440-student school before the tornado touched down.
Students in kindergarten through third grade sheltered in place, according to NBC station KFOR. Some of those students had been in a hallway when the twister struck, others in bathrooms.
BING / Microsoft Corp., Steve Gooch / AP
Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., before and after Monday's tornado hit.
"I had to hold on to the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado," one girl told the station.
James Rushing, who lives across the street, ran to the school to take shelter, thinking the building would be safer than his own home.
"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," he told The Associated Press.
The twister — deemed at least an EF4, the second-highest strength, by the National Weather Service — tore the roof off the building and knocked down its walls.
A truck that was tossed through the air landed in the spot where the school's main office would have been, KFOR reported. Books were scattered across pancaked slabs of concrete.
A crying man described to a reporter how he and others pulled a car off a teacher in the front of the building and found three children she had shielded with her body.
"Good job, teach," the man said, his voice choked with emotion.
A sixth-grade teacher told KFOR she laid on top of several children in a restroom to protect them from winds that may have topped 200 mph, and all survived.
Officials said search and rescue efforts would continue through the night.
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KFOR television reporter Jesse Wells reports Plaza Towers Elementary school was totally destroyed. Most of the walls of the school have collapsed, and cars were thrown into the front of the building. Emergency crews continue to look for kids who may still be inside.
This story was originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 7:02 PM EDT