WASHINGTON, May 21 (RIA Novosti) –Search and rescue efforts continued in Moore, Oklahoma on Tuesday, where the hope of finding survivors was growing dim a day after a killer tornado ripped through the town, flattening homes and buildings including an elementary school full of students and teachers, killing at least 24 people, at least nine of them children.
More than 100 people have been pulled alive from the rubble, officials said, but the death toll was expected to climb as emergency crews continued a frantic search for survivors. US President Barack Obama called it “one of the most destructive tornadoes in history.”
“In an instant neighborhoods were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, many more were injured, and among the victims were young children trying to take shelter in the safest place they knew, their school,” Obama said in a live address from the White House on Tuesday.
The tornado swept through the town of Moore and the surrounding area on Monday afternoon, cutting a path of destruction up to two miles (three km) wide and 22 miles (32 km) long that turned homes and buildings into piles of tangled debris, including two elementary schools.
At Plaza Towers Elementary, older children were evacuated to a nearby church, but students in kindergarten through third grade sheltered inside the school as the tornado approached. The Oklahoma City’s Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed seven children inside the school were found dead.
"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 local news station KFOR-TV.
"The walls were just pancaked, absolutely flattened and the students were just grouped together," said Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb in an interview with ABC News.
A number of children remained unaccounted for on Tuesday, and search crews said they were working to recover bodies and were unlikely to find more survivors at the school.
The National Weather Service (NWS) gave the tornado a preliminary rating of EF-4, the second most powerful type of twister, which indicates wind speeds of 160 – 200 miles per hour (257 – 322 kph).
In the immediate chaos of the storm officials said the death toll was at least 51, but on Tuesday they said some victims were counted twice and downed communication lines made it difficult to share information.
Obama said he had issued a disaster declaration that would expedite rescue and recovery resources and provide assistance to those who suffered losses in the storm.
“The people of Moore should know their country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them for as long as it takes,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences to Obama after the storm and stressed Russia’s readiness to provide assistance during the relief efforts, according to the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Monday’s tornado was the fourth to hit Moore since 1998, including a twister in May 1999 that produced the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth’s surface – 302 miles per hour (486 kph).