MOORE, Okla. At the end of the day Monday, in the last week of the school year, students at Plaza Towers Elementary in this blue-collar suburb were zipping their backpacks. A fifth-grade class had just finished watching a movie about a boy who survives the crash-landing of a plane in the Canadian wilderness.
Then the sirens started to wail.
Claire Gossett's teacher hurried her fifth-grade class into the hallway, then into a bathroom as a giant tornado drew closer. Claire, 11, crammed into a stall with six other girls. They held onto each other. The sirens wailed two, three, four times.
Echo Mackey, crouched in a hallway, hugging her son Logan, a first-grader, said, "I heard someone say, 'It's about to hit us,' and then the power went out."
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.
Throughout the 500-student school, teachers and parents had shielded students and crammed into closets and anywhere else they could squeeze as the tornado bore down on them.
It swirled out of a fast-developing storm that began cutting a devastating path through Moore and other sections of the southern Oklahoma City suburbs about 2:45 p.m., plowing through 17 miles of ground over 50 minutes, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes and businesses in Moore and Oklahoma City, just to the north. Winds reached 210 mph, and many structures were wiped clean to their foundations.
Severe weather has become an almost routine part of life in Oklahoma City and its suburbs, a section of Middle America where the lore of twisters and thunderstorms has long been embraced and at times even celebrated. The National Basketball Association team is called the Oklahoma City Thunder, and there is an annual National Weather Festival, where families gather for weather balloon launches and storm-chaser car shows.
But the tornado that struck Plaza Towers on Monday stunned Oklahomans, in both its size and the number of victims, dozens of whom were students who were killed or injured.
School windows were smashed and the ceiling ripped away, showering the students with glass, wood and pieces of insulation.
"I couldn't hear anything but people screaming and crying," Claire said. "It felt like the school was just flying."
Speaking Tuesday in the lobby of Moore City Hall, which was running on generators because of a widespread power failure, Gov. Mary Fallin said she had taken an aerial tour of the tornado's path and toured the damaged areas by ground. She said she was left speechless.
"There's just sticks and bricks, basically," she said, adding, "It was very surreal coming upon the school, because there was no school. There was just debris."
Officials said it was still too early to say precisely how many people had been killed, but the toll appeared to be significantly less than the nearly 100 initially feared. One reason for the uncertainty was that officials believed some bodies might have been taken to funeral homes instead of the state medical examiner's office. But it appeared that 48 people who were believed to be missing Monday night and were feared dead had been found. More than 200 were injured, including 70 children.
The confusion only added to the unease. As officials spoke at City Hall, heavy rain and booms of thunder could be heard, severe weather that periodically delayed rescuers and those assessing the damage throughout the day.
President Barack Obama, who declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, said Tuesday at the White House that the tornado had been "one of the most destructive in history," and that he had informed aides that "Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away." He said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had been dispatched to Moore to aid in the recovery.
"For all those who've been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead," Obama said. "In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed, but you will not travel that path alone."
After surveying the wreckage in Moore, officials at the National Weather Service upgraded the twister's power to Category 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of zero to 5, with 5 being the most destructive.
It touched down at 2:45 p.m. about 4 1/2 miles west of Newcastle, to the west of Moore, and ended at 3:35 p.m., almost five miles east of the city, weather officials said.
Susan Pierce, the superintendent of the Moore school district, said administrators and staff put a crisis plan into action Monday and monitored the weather throughout the day.
"With very little notice, we implemented our tornado shelter procedures at every school site," she said.
Pierce said the state requires school tornado drills, and the district has exceeded that requirement.
Late Monday afternoon, as the skies darkened, numerous parents rushed to the school. Some, like Mackey, arrived as the tornado approached and decided to seek shelter inside with their children. Others had arrived earlier and had enough time to flee, which may have prevented more casualties.
Jennifer Doan, a Plaza Towers teacher who is eight weeks pregnant, waited anxiously in a hallway with 11 of her third-grade students who had not yet been picked up by their parents.
An announcement blared over the intercom that the tornado was upon them, and Doan, 30, quickly wrapped several of her students in her arms. The walls suddenly caved in, she told her boyfriend, Nyle Rogers.
Doan was conscious, buried under piles of rubble, but she was not sure her students were safe.
She thought she could make out their body movements beneath the debris. In the distance she could hear their voices: "I can't hold the rock anymore," one said. Eventually the voices stopped.
Rogers had gone speeding toward the school when he got word of the tornado.
"As I got closer, I saw debris and backpacks," he said. "And when I turned the corner, I just saw a wasteland. I didn't know how anyone could have survived."
But Doan did. She was lifted out of the rubble, put into the back of a pickup truck and shuttled to a nearby church and then to a hospital, where she was in stable condition Tuesday with a fractured sternum and spine. A piece of rebar speared her left hand. Their unborn baby, Rogers said, appeared to be fine.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rogers said he was informed by the principal that seven of the students who were with her in the hallway had died. He had not yet told Doan.
"She's just worried about her kids," he said. "That's all she's thinking about right now."
The principal told him something else, however. Two of the students she had wrapped in her arms had survived.
Revised lower to at least 24 dead, including nine children.Winds hit 210 mph as the tornado cut a wide swath.President Barack Obama calls on FEMA to render assistance.California sends specialists to aid in the search. Page A14