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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 tornado that was more than a mile wide 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 school 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.”

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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.

The twister swirled out of a fast-developing storm that cut a devastating path through Moore and other sections of the southern Oklahoma City suburbs, plowing through 17 miles of ground, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals in Moore and Oklahoma City. Winds reached speeds of up to 210 mph, and many structures were wiped clean to their foundations.

Severe weather has become an almost routine part of life around Oklahoma City, a section of Middle America where the lore of twisters and thunderstorms has long been embraced and at times even celebrated. The NBA 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 1.3-mile-wide tornado that struck Plaza Towers stunned Oklahomans with 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 Gossett said. “It felt like the school was just flying.”

At Plaza Towers, seven students were killed when a cinder-block wall collapsed on them. Scores of children and their teachers survived by crowding into a girls’ bathroom, with the teachers lying on top of small children as the maelstrom removed the roof as easily as if it were made of cellophane.

State officials lowered the death toll dramatically to at least 24, explaining that some bodies might have been taken to funeral homes instead of the state medical examiner’s office.

The confusion only added to the unease. As officials spoke Tuesday at City Hall, heavy rain and booms of thunder could be heard, severe weather that had periodically delayed rescuers and those assessing the damage throughout the day.

President Obama, who declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had been dispatched to Moore.

After surveying the wreckage in Moore, officials at the National Weather Service upgraded its assessment of 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.

Moore, population of 55,000, is 11 miles south of downtown Oklahoma City. It is the home of the country-music star Toby Keith, as the giant letters declare on a white silo off Interstate 35.

Questions about school

Parents and residents questioned whether Plaza Towers Elementary — a 47-year-old public school whose students range from pre-kindergartners to sixth-graders — was the safest place for the children to seek shelter.

Albert Ashwood, director of the State Department of Emergency Management, said Plaza Towers and another hard-hit school in Oklahoma City, Briarwood Elementary, did not have safe rooms because the appropriate state financing had not been sought. The presence of safe rooms, he said, did “not necessarily” mean more students would have survived, but it is a “mitigating” factor. “This was a very unique tornado,” he said.

Moore Police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis said there were no basements at either of the affected schools and that no children had drowned, disputing an earlier account from Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb.

Storm researcher Tim Samaras, whose work is supported by the National Geographic Society, said sheltering in interior hallways is insufficient in a direct hit.

“The only way you’re going to solve that problem is to build tornado-proof rooms in these schools that can hold 500 to 700 children. Unfortunately it comes down to cost. There is no part in a school building that can withstand an EF4 or EF5 tornado. None,” Samaras said.

Despite being in a region prone to tornadoes — and being devastated by one in 1999 — Moore, according to its website, has no ordinance requiring safe rooms in buildings, and the city itself lacks a community shelter. A state lawmaker whose district includes Moore, Rep. Mark McBride, said the deaths should force an examination of whether Oklahoma schools should be required to have storm shelters.

Mayor Glenn Lewis said the schools that were rebuilt after the 1999 tornado had safety enhancements, but not Plaza Towers, an older school. Pam Lewis, a fourth-grade teacher and the mayor’s wife, said, “It would be very rare to find schools with safety rooms, because it’s so expensive.”

Mother rushes to son

Parent Echo Mackey said she had gone to Plaza Towers as the sky turned dark, saying she had wanted to be with her son when the storm hit. But after it did, she said, she concluded the school was not equipped to shelter children from the power of an Oklahoma twister.

“There’s no question in my mind that that school was not safe enough,” she said.

And now the city is coping with the infrastructure and communication problems common in natural disasters — power outages, gas leaks, lack of water, poor cellphone service. Roughly four square miles were sealed to outsiders as first responders continued to search for victims amid great heaps of debris.

One of the first things workers did Tuesday was put up street signs.

“You can’t tell where you’re at. The whole city looks like a debris field,” the mayor said.

Law-enforcement officials blocked entry into the worst-hit neighborhoods. Outside one barricade, Robin Wood camped out with 25 cases of water bought by the Community Church of Lawton. Over the day, a tent city had arisen, stocked with food, clothes, toys and water.

By Tuesday afternoon, every damaged home had been searched at least once, Fire Chief Gary Bird said. His goal was to conduct three searches of each building just to be certain there were no more bodies or survivors. But the work was being hampered by heavy rain.

No additional survivors or bodies have been found since Monday night, Bird said.

From the air, large stretches of town could be seen where every home had been cut to pieces.

Also visible were large patches of red earth where the tornado scoured the land down to the soil.

Additional material from Seattle Times news services.

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