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Photographer captures snapshots of courage after tornado levels OKC school

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
May 23, 2013 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
Steve and LaDonna Cobb take children away from Briarwood Elementary after a tornado destroyed the school Monday.
Steve and LaDonna Cobb take children away from Briarwood Elementary after a tornado destroyed the school Monday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Woman in one of the images: "We'll heal. We're here. That's what's most important"
  • Photographer for The Oklahoman arrived at school 5 minutes after tornado leveled it
  • Rescue officials had yet to arrive, but injured teachers were ferrying students from rubble
  • Photographer: "Seeing parents come together with their children ... was exciting"

(CNN) -- Photographer Paul Hellstern snapped his shutter just minutes after the tornado reduced Oklahoma City's Briarwood Elementary School to rubble.

In that fraction of a second, he captured the courage and selflessness that overcame adults at the school in the moments after the Monday devastation.

"I'd just arrived, probably five minutes after the tornado passed, and came into that neighborhood and noticed that school there and children pouring out," he told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "It was pandemonium, with children crying everywhere, bloody teachers and so forth."

Cameras ready, the photographer for The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City area's only daily newspaper, ran as quickly as he could to capture images from the scene.

A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. View more photos of the aftermath in the region and another gallery of aerial shots of the damage. A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. View more photos of the aftermath in the region and another gallery of aerial shots of the damage.
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
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Photos: Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma Photos: Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma
An aerial view of the destruction caused by the massive tornado that struck areas south of Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, shows the magnitude of damage left in its path. The storm's winds topped 200 mph as it carved a 17-mile path of destruction through Oklahoma City suburbs. On Tuesday, May 21, CNN sent photographer David McNeese to capture the story from above: An aerial view of the destruction caused by the massive tornado that struck areas south of Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, shows the magnitude of damage left in its path. The storm's winds topped 200 mph as it carved a 17-mile path of destruction through Oklahoma City suburbs. On Tuesday, May 21, CNN sent photographer David McNeese to capture the story from above:
The path of destruction from above
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Photos: Destruction from above Photos: Destruction from above
Tearful reunions at elementary school

Teachers save lives during tornado

Police and emergency officials had yet to arrive, but Hellstern said teachers were carrying and escorting children out of the debris that once was their school. The teachers themselves were injured, Hellstern said. One had an ankle injury. Many were bloodied.

With rafters and torn brick walls as his backdrop, Steve Cobb, a brown-haired man in a T-shirt and shorts, clutches a blond girl -- one of his daughters -- in brightly colored New Balance sneakers. She peers over his shoulder as he carries her away from the school.

Inside a tornado-ravaged school

Following him is his wife, LaDonna Cobb, blood over her left eyebrow and smeared down her face and neck, onto the frills of her V-neck collar.

She appears to have a black eye, and she's holding the hand of a crying, barefoot girl with a large heart on her blue T-shirt.

"We're lucky to be alive, and our hearts go out to those who weren't as fortunate," LaDonna Cobb told CNN's Piers Morgan.

"We'll heal. We're here. That's what's most important."

A teacher at Brairwood, she had the day of the tornado off. She and her husband were going to close on a house but they went to the school to check on their three children as the storm approached.

"Him, and I and the teacher just jumped on top of the kids and rode it out there," she said.

Steve Cobb told Morgan that he had doubts.

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"I was truly fearful. I didn't think we were going to live. I thought it was just going to flatten everything out and we would probably die. But somehow or another everyone survived.

Mapping the twister's 40-mile path of devastation

Hellstern said he was amazed by the adults' response, especially those who gathered their composure to bring children out of the school, then returned to the rubble to search for more.

Police and emergency officials soon joined them in the search. Hellstern said he was moved to see distraught children and parents reunite at the school of about 700 students, located in the Oklahoma capital.

"The emotion of seeing parents come together with their children for that first moment, finding them alive and still well, was exciting," he said.

How to help

Another of Hellstern's photographs captured a child leaping into a man's arms. The man cradles the child's head with one hand and hugs his waist with the other, his face flush with emotion.

The man is Jim Routon, the child a 7-year-old boy named Hezekiah. They are just neighbors, but the love and relief in the photo bespeaks the bond of blood relatives.

Hours after the shutter snapped and media around the world published Hellstern's photograph, details of their story came into focus.

Hezekiah, a first-grader, described the picture to Routon: "I knew that you were going to pick me up, so I just jumped. And I just started hugging you really hard. I was crying a little bit, and I was happy that I survived."

Routon said he needed the hug as much as Hezekiah did.

"It was so chaotic. We just weren't sure. The school was pretty much devastated and mostly destroyed. We weren't sure if anyone was going to come out alive," he told CNN's Erin Burnett. "To go over and see one of my favorite neighbor's child emerge, it was awesome. It was just an amazing feeling."

Routon said it's hard to believe a photograph of him and his neighbor is among the dramatic images of the storm transmitted far beyond his state's borders. But the stories of recovery that the photos tell are inspiring to many Oklahomans, too, he said.

"It actually helps us, you know, in the healing process," Routon said, "and helps us to learn and see that ... we have to depend on one another to get through these types of things."

CNN's Dana Ford and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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