MOORE, Okla. — The principal's voice came on over the intercom at Plaza Towers Elementary School: A severe storm was approaching and students were to go to the cafeteria and wait for their parents to pick them up.
But before all of the youngsters could get there, the tornado alarm sounded.
The plan changed quickly.
“All the teachers started screaming into the room and saying, 'Get into the hallway! We don't want you to die!' and stuff like that,” said sixth-grader Phaedra Dunn. “We just took off running.”
The mountain of rubble that was once Plaza Towers Elementary School has become the emotional and physical focal point of one of the most destructive tornadoes to strike Oklahoma. Although the casualty toll fluctuated wildly early on, officials said Tuesday that at least 24 people had died, including nine children, seven of them at Plaza Towers.
The tornado also slammed Briarwood Elementary, but all the children there appear to have survived.
More than 200 were injured Monday, including 70 children.
Students and parents recounted stories Tuesday of brave teachers who sheltered their pupils, in some cases by herding them into a closet and a restroom amid the fear and panic.
After the tornado alarm went off, students at Plaza Towers scrambled into the halls. But the halls — some of which were within the view of windows — did not appear safe enough.
Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys' bathroom.
“We were all piled in on each other,” the 12-year-old said. Another teacher wrapped her arms around two students and held Antonio's hand.
Twenty seconds later he heard a roar that sounded like a stampede of elephants. His ears popped.
Then it stopped almost as suddenly as it started. Crouched down, his backpack over his head, Antonio looked up. The skylight and the ceiling were gone, and he was staring up into a cloud filled with debris.
Antonio and a friend were among the first to stand up. They climbed over debris where their classroom had been just moments earlier. Students and teachers were struggling to free themselves from under the bricks, wooden beams and insulation. Some people had bleeding head wounds; blood covered one side of someone's eyeglasses, Antonio said.
“Everybody was crying,” Antonio said. “I was crying because I didn't know if my family was OK.”
Then Antonio saw his father ride up on a mountain bike, yelling his name.
Phaedra's mother, Amy Sharp, who had rushed to the school just moments before the tornado hit, covered Phaedra's head with a blanket to protect her from hail and ushered her out the door, along with Phaedra's 10-year-old sister, Jenna.
At Briarwood Elementary, the students also went into the halls. But a third-grade teacher didn't think it looked safe, so she herded some of the children into a closet, said David Wheeler, one of the fathers who tried to rush to the school after the tornado hit.
The teacher shielded Wheeler's 8-year-old son, Gabriel, with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it sucked glasses off kids' faces, Wheeler said.
“She saved their lives by putting them in a closet and holding their heads down,” Wheeler said.
Gabriel and the teacher — whom Wheeler identified as Julie Simon — had to dig their way out of the rubble. The boy's back was cut and bruised and gravel was embedded in his head, Wheeler said. It took nearly three hours for father and son to be reunited.
Other parents waited even longer, as they drove from one emergency shelter to another in search of their children.
At St. Andrews United Methodist Church, 15-year-old Caitlin Ulrey waited about seven hours before her parents found her. Her high school had not been hit by the tornado. But her nerves were frayed.
“I was starting to panic and shake and have an anxiety attack,” Caitlin said.
At Plaza Towers, several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried dazed and terrified children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot.
On Tuesday, after nearly 24 hours of searching, Moore's fire chief said he was confident that there were no more bodies or survivors in the rubble.
“I'm 98 percent sure we're good,” Gary Bird said at a press conference.
Authorities were so focused on the search effort that they had yet to establish the full scope of damage along the storm's long, ruinous path.
They did not know how many homes were gone or how many families had been displaced. Emergency crews had trouble navigating devastated neighborhoods because there were no street signs left. Some rescuers used smartphones or GPS devices to guide them through areas with no recognizable landmarks.
By Tuesday afternoon, every damaged home had been searched at least once, Bird said. His goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors.
Scientists concluded that Monday's storm was a rare and extraordinarily powerful type of twister known as an EF5, ranking it at the top of the scale used to measure tornado strength.
The National Weather Service said the tornado had winds of at least 200 mph and was on the ground for 40 minutes.
The tornado could rank as the state's costliest in terms of damage, state officials said.
Kelly Collins, a spokeswoman for State Insurance Commissioner John Doak, said that while the agency has not compiled a preliminary damage estimate, “in his opinion it's going to top $1 billion.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday to marshal the resources of the federal government to help the victims of the deadly tornado.
Promising to provide Oklahoma “everything that it needs right away,” Obama dispatched W. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate recovery efforts. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, is to follow Fugate to Oklahoma today.
Obama scrapped his morning schedule to call Oklahoma leaders and meet with his advisers, then made a brief televised address. “For all those who've been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead,” he said. “In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed. But you will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel it with you, fueled by our faith in the Almighty and our faith in one another. So our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today, and we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Tulsa World.
Deadly Nebraska tornadoes
March 23, 1913: Omaha and Ralston, F4, an estimated 103 people die and $8.7 million in damage
June 7, 1953: Arcadia, 11 deaths. No Fujita rating or damage estimate available
June 3, 1980: Grand Island, F4, five deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 9, 1953: Hebron, F3, five deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 8, 1965: Primrose, F4, four deaths, $25 million in damage
May 6, 1975: Omaha, F4, three deaths, $250 million in damage
June 8, 1949: Belvidere, three deaths, no Fujita rating or damage estimate
May 5, 1964: Bradshaw, F5, Bradshaw, two deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 7, 1988: Sarpy-Douglas Counties, two tornadoes merge into one F2, two deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 22, 2004: Hallam, F3, one death, $100 million in damage
June 23, 2003: Deshler, F2, one death, $5.5 million in damage
Compiled by World-Herald librarian Sheritha Lewis
Source: Ken Dewey, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, www.stormhorizon.org
Top ten deadliest U.S. tornadoes since 1900
695 deaths. March 18, 1925, in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana
216 deaths. April 5, 1936, in Tupelo, Miss.
203 deaths. April 6, 1936, in Gainesville, Ga.
181 deaths. April 9, 1947, in Woodward, Okla.
158 deaths. May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Mo.
143 deaths. April 24, 1908, in Amite, La., and Purvis, Miss.
116 deaths. June 8, 1953, in Flint, Mich.
114 deaths. May 11, 1953, in Waco, Texas
114 deaths. May 18, 1902, in Goliad, Texas
103 deaths. March 23, 1913, in Omaha
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration