Oklahoma tornado leaves massive path of death, destruction; at least 51 dead

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MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) — Clinging to the hope of finding more survivors, rescue workers raced overnight scouring mountains of rubble where houses and schools once stood– even as the sobering death toll continued to climb.

The vicious tornado that tore across central Oklahoma on Monday has killed at least 51 people — with about 40 more bodies expected to arrive at the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office, Amy Elliott of the coroner’s office said. The official death toll will gradually rise as the bodies are processed.

At least 20 of those killed were children, including seven from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore — the site of a frantic search early Tuesday morning.

About 75 students and staff members hunkered down in the school when the tornado hit, CNN affiliate KFOR reported. The school in the direct path of the monster storm’s fury.

A father of a third-grader still missing sat on a stool outside. Tears cascaded from his face as he waited quietly for any news.

Even parents of survivors couldn’t wrap their minds around the tragedy.

“I’m speechless. How did this happen? Why did this happen?” Norma Bautista asked. “How do we explain this to the kids? … In an instant, everything’s gone.”

Across Moore, even the city’s main hospital fell victim to the tornado.

“Our hospital has been devastated,” Mayor Glenn Lewis said. “We had a two-story hospital, now we have a one. And it’s not occupiable.”

So dozens of wounded had to be rushed to other hospitals.

At least 145 people were taken to three area hospitals.

That number includes 45 children taken to the children’s hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, Dr. Roxie Albrecht said. Injuries ranged from minor to severe, including impalement and crushing injuries.

Not the first time

Even for a city hardened by massive tornadoes, no one in Moore had seen this kind of devastation.

The suburb recovered from a fierce twister in 1999 that killed six people there and dozens in the area. When that tornado struck, it was the most devastating in history in terms of wind speed, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Tom Lamb said.

This time, the 2-mile-wide twister stayed on the ground for a full 45 minutes. The death toll has far surpassed anything the area has seen from a tornado — and is expected to climb.

“Our worst fears are becoming realized,” Bill Bunting of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center said Monday afternoon.

The preliminary rating of damage created by the tornado is at least EF4, meaning it had winds between 166 and 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

After the ear-shattering howl of the killer storm subsided, survivors along the miles of destruction emerged from shelters to see an apocalyptic vision — the remnants of cars twisted and piled on each other to make what had been a parking lot look like a junk yard.

Many survivors in the city looked like zombies, unable to process the breadth of the tragedy, KFOR reporter Scott Hines said.

Hiding in refrigerators

Hines said rescuers found a 7-month-old baby and its mother hiding in a walk-in refrigerator. But they didn’t survive.

At the devastated hospital in Moore, some doctors had to jump in a freezer to survive, Lamb said.

Lando Hite, shirtless and spattered in mud, described how the storm pummeled the Orr Family Farm in Moore, which had about 80 horses.

“It was just like the movie ‘Twister,'” he told KFOR. “There were horses and stuff flying around everywhere.”

‘This is not over yet’

The tornado also disrupted roads, piling them high with debris and complicating both travel and communication.

“People are trapped. You are going to see the devastation for days to come,” said Betsy Randolph, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Highway Patrol. She did not say how many people were stuck.

More than 38,000 electricity customers in Oklahoma are without power, according to local power providers. The city of Moore had no running water overnight, the mayor said.

While the threat of killer tornadoes is subsiding, severe weather threatened to strike states farther east.

‘We’re also concerned that there may be an enhanced and widespread damaging wind threat with storms as they merge together,” Bunting said.

“This is not over yet.”

CNN’s George Howell and Gary Tuchman reported from Oklahoma; Holly Yan reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Dana Ford, Nick Valencia, Monte Plott, AnneClaire Stapleton, Phil Gast, Ed Payne, Joe Sutton, Devon Sayers, Miriam Falco, Sean Morris and Debra Goldschmidt contributed to this report.

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