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Oklahoma school will rise from rubble, with or without 'safe room'

Darla Buck / Moore, Okla., public schools

Stuffed animals and crosses are seen at a makeshift memorial at the site of the Plaza Towers elementary school. Inside the rubble, debris removal workers found signs that read "believe," "love," and "dream," and stuck those by the memorial instead of throwing them out.

As demolition work began Thursday on Plaza Towers elementary school in Moore, Okla., remnants of life before tragedy struck were visible. 

Signs that read "believe, reach, love, dream, succeed." Cabinet doors from classrooms. Reminders that an ugly pile of rubble was a place where children gathered, learned and grew. 

Construction vehicles started tearing down what was left of Plaza Towers on Thursday morning. The school, which collapsed under the powerful EF5 force of a May 20 tornado, will eventually be rebuilt on the same spot — but whether it will include a storm shelter this time is still up for debate.

"That's part of the dialogue that we're starting right now. It's so preliminary at this point. It's really not a Moore public schools issue as much as it belongs to the state and the county and the communities of Moore and south Oklahoma City that were affected," Anna Trowbridge, a volunteer spokeswoman for Moore public schools, said.

Demolition begins on the destroyed Plaza Towers elementary school on Thursday, in Moore, Okla.

Neither Oklahoma schools nor homes are required to have storm shelters. 

"Never in the history of Moore public schools had a tornado blown through during school hours. But all that is out the window. It's just a new reality that we have to consider for the safety of our children, faculty, staff," she said. "No person should have walked away from Plaza Towers."

Seven kids, all third graders, died at the school. The tornado killed 24 people and injured 377, and highlighted the lack of storm protection in an area of the country so frequently hit by twisters that it's nicknamed Tornado Alley.

Darla Buck, a liaison for the Moore public schools, was at the Plaza Towers site Thursday as the demolition began. She said the Army National Guard was protecting the perimeter as large equipment vehicles removed debris. Construction workers, after seeing the classroom signs with words like "believe" on them, pulled them aside and put them out front for onlookers to see, she said.

The new Plaza Towers elementary school is slated to reopen in August 2014, but a tornado shelter is not a "top priority" for Superintendent Susan Pierce at this early stage, Buck said.

"The top priority is just getting her students and her staff and getting things back to normal," Buck said. "Trying to prepare for next year's school year. They weren't even finished with this year. Right now they're having to deal with grades and financial obligations and having a makeshift office. It's just day-to-day things."

Repeated calls to the superintendent and assistant superintendent from NBC News were not returned on Thursday.

The demolition is an emotional beginning to the healing process from the tornado.

Fio Varillas, whose daughter was one of many children who survived the tornado at Plaza Towers thanks to the acts of a teacher who lay on top of her, told NBC affiliate KFOR in Oklahoma that her daughter was still grieving.


Tom Pennington / Getty Images

A monster tornado hit Moore, Okla., Monday afternoon, leaving at least 24 dead.

"My daughter knows all these kids," Varillas told KFOR. "It's not going to be the same. Nothing's going to be same."

Briarwood Elementary, which was also wiped out by the tornado, will be demolished at some point soon. It, too, is supposed to reopen in August 2014. Administrators have not yet figured out where children who attended those schools will go in the meantime.

A third Moore school, Highland East Junior High School, suffered damage to its gymnasium, Trowbridge said. That school will be reopened to students in the fall.

After the tornado, dueling tales of heartbreak and heroism emerged from Plaza Towers: the father of 9-year-old Ja'Nae Hornsby, for example, who frantically rushed to the school after the twister to search for his daughter in the rubble, only to find out later that she had perished. And sixth-grade teacher Rhonda Crosswhite, who gathered kids in a bathroom stall and threw her body across six students, protecting the students from flying debris.

For the first time since Monday's devastating tornado, teachers, students, and parents at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. gathered together Thursday afternoon. Said one teacher, "I know I'm probably still in shock."  NBC's Kate Snow reports.

Buck said communities would benefit from having school safe rooms, whether tornadoes strike during school hours or not. 

"If you have safe rooms or basements or cellar-type shelters for people, your public can come in. They can open the doors for people who don't have a shelter [in their homes]," she said. "If they did have a safe room in the school, and it did happen in the evening, these people could have just run across the street. That would have been a blessing."

Besides the schools, a bank in Moore has been demolished, and the Moore Medical Center and a shopping center are scheduled to be razed, Moore's city manager, Stephen Eddy, said on Wednesday.

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