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Oklahoma Tornadoes; Several School Children Among the Dead; Medical Center "Flattened" in Storm

Aired May 21, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD coming to you live from Moore, Oklahoma, where there is only leader today, the race to find survivors in this unreal destruction surrounding us.

Right behind me, as we speak, search-and-rescue crews are going through the debris, these homes on the Southwest Sixth Street here in Moore. You can see the rescue effort going on over my left shoulder.

The rescue crews said that they would be back in this neighborhood for a second and third time to make sure that there was no one needing rescue and recovering. And that is why they're here right now. The mission here is daunting, rubble amassed along a 17- mile-long path carved by one beast of a tornado, itself at least two miles wide at points.

We know that 24 people died when it touched down 24 hours ago. At least nine of them were children. The death toll is lower than was first indicated, but it could be very much in flux, as rescuers scour for heartbeats in the debris.

At least 237 people were injured. More than 100 people have been rescued so far, direct hits tragically at two elementary schools. So, the stories from there are harrowing. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin put the damage into perspective earlier today.


GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: Homes were absolutely destroyed, taken away. There's just sticks and bricks, basically. It's hard to tell if there is a structure there or not. You get into some of the major neighborhoods, you can't tell where the streets were.


TAPPER: The National Weather Service says survey crews found at least one area of EF-5 damage. That's a category of hurricane, the worst. And that means winds of 200 miles per hour or higher; 40,000 people remain without power here in the state of Oklahoma.

For blocks and blocks here, there are now no homes to send power to. The city of Moore, where I am standing right now, saw the worst of it, of course. The skies here have not yet cleared. More rain pounded the area today. It felt almost like hail at times. This is one of those times when words really fail to capture the scope of the damage.

As survivors look upon the twisted metal and the snapped wood and smashed brick that used to be their homes and their businesses, their schools and their playgrounds, they know the work here is really just beginning.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have lost everything. We don't have anything left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just devastating. I -- I don't have any words.

TAPPER (voice-over): The day after, an urgent, frantic search for survivors, entire neighborhoods blown apart, homes blasted to nothing but boards and splinters, trees uprooted like weeds, rubble towering over survivors' heads, debris turning up at least 100 miles away, all of it from this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I probably hope to never see anything like this again.

TAPPER (on camera): All over Moore, Oklahoma, are scenes like this with individuals trying to tow the debris away and isolate it, put up a fence, and try to get back to normal. This was a truck.

(voice-over): Today, condolences for the tornado victims rolled in from all across the world. The president vowed to give all the help that is needed in the face of utter administration.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: But if you are in this area, Newcastle, Moore, and points up toward the north and toward the northeast, you need to take cover now.

TAPPER: The tornado hit just about 24 hours ago, all of it playing out live in real time on our air.

(on camera): Our breaking news, a tornado just touched down in Newcastle, Oklahoma.

SPENCER BASOCO, STORM CHASER: This type of tornado will just level towns. Honestly, this is getting very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A large mile-wide tornado.

TAPPER (voice-over): The nation watched helplessly on television as people in the region rushed to get out of harm's way. We have all seen footage of tornadoes before, but it only took a glance to know this one was different, not so much a twisting column, but a roving leviathan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not good. Please -- dear God, please keep these people safe.

TAPPER: At least two miles wide by the time it tore through the town of Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to go just to our north.

TAPPER: The gigantic tornado raked across the suburbs of Oklahoma City, 17 miles in the span of 40 minutes. To everyone's horror, two elementary schools stood directly in its path.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is another school that is trashed.

TAPPER: The tornado hit just as the school day was ending, children scrambling for safety, teachers attempting to shield them, with the monster on the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had to pull a car out of the front hallway off a teacher. And she -- I don't know what that lady's name is, but she had three kids underneath her. Good job, teach.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His teacher saved his life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who is his teacher?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mrs. Lowe (ph). I have no doubt that God and his teacher, they lifted a wall of these kids.

TAPPER: Parents suffered unbearable moments of uncertainty. They had sent their little ones off to school that morning, never imagining that it could be the last time they would ever see them.

For the lucky, ultimate, intense relief, and hugs they never wanted to end.


TAPPER: We are going to hear more about those heroic teachers who did all they could to protect their students in just a moment.

But, right now, I want to speak to Moore City Manager Stephen Eddy.

Mr. Eddy, thanks so much for joining us.


TAPPER: So, quick question for you, first of all. We are told that the death toll right now is 24, 24. Do we think that that is going to stay at that?

EDDY: That is what my understanding is now, that it is that number. And it's been at that number for some time. So, I -- we feel confident that it is going to remain at that number. TAPPER: And there was confusion earlier because they were double-counting? Is that what happened?

EDDY: I'm not exactly sure. I don't know exactly what the confusion was, but there definitely was some, because, from our perspective, the number for Moore never was over about 19 or 20.

TAPPER: And we think of the 24, nine of them are children?

EDDY: Seven, I believe, is what I have heard, or nine.

TAPPER: Seven?

EDDY: Somewhere along in there, yes, sir.


And, of course, the big question everybody wants to know is, of those who are missing, there were numbers given yesterday of hundreds missing, have most of them been located or found one way or another?

EDDY: As I understand it, again, we had the press conference that was earlier over at City Hall. The sources then, fire chiefs and the Oklahoma City chief have indicated that everyone has been found.

TAPPER: Of course, this is a horrific, horrific storm. And while we are more focused right now on the loss of life and those who have been hurt, this is going to take a huge financial toll on the city.

Is Moore going to be able to recover from this?

EDDY: Absolutely, we will.

Certainly, we will have to have the help of our friends in the federal government and -- with FEMA. So, with that coming -- and we are confident that will come -- we will be fine.


EDDY: We have been through this before. We had a major storm in '99 about this level.

TAPPER: Sure, May 3.

EDDY: May 3 of '99. We had another one in 2003, very similar, similar tracks. And we have come back stronger than before every time.

TAPPER: Is there anything that could have been done differently?

EDDY: It came up very quickly.

It really wrapped up very quickly. So, if it hadn't have been that, for that, in terms of a little bit longer warning perhaps, but there was a good probably 15 or 20 minutes' warning before it hit our city limits, actually, so I don't think there is anything more that could have been done with this type of storm, as big as it was.


TAPPER: And so little, so little warning. Thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it.

EDDY: Certainly.

TAPPER: And God bless and good luck to your city.

EDDY: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: It was the end of the school day, and the kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School were closing their books, stuffing their backpacks, getting ready to head home.

That is when the tornado warnings changed everything. I spoke with fifth grader Lauryn Fugate about what it was like when the tornado hit.


LAURYN FUGATE, SURVIVOR: The roof caved in on all of us while we were in the school.

TAPPER: And where were you? Did you go to the basement?

FUGATE: Well, the fifth and the sixth graders were all huddled in the bathrooms.

And all we heard was a lot of rumbling, and then stuff falling on our heads.

TAPPER: Did something fall on your head?


TAPPER: What fell, just parts of the ceiling?


FUGATE: ... the roof and stuff. So, I know that the vent fell on my best friend, McKenzie (ph), so...

TAPPER: Is she OK?


TAPPER: And how did -- what grade are you in?

FUGATE: I'm in fifth grade.

TAPPER: And how did the fifth graders do?

FUGATE: A lot of them were scared crazy. But some of them were bleeding worse than others, but -- yes. TAPPER: Did everybody make it?

FUGATE: Most of us did.

TAPPER: And what was it like when you guys found her? Let me get you guys into this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The school was just flattened. And then they had her -- searching for her. And then they brought her. One of the teachers, one of the moms had her and brought her out to me. She was covered, covered in dirt and...

TAPPER: Where were you? Had you run to the school or...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had run to her friend's house, because that is where she was supposed to be after school. And, of course, that was the backside of it, where everything was on fire and everything. So, I was just going to the house, which was gone, and looking for her. So...

TAPPER: And tell me about the moment when you saw her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, it was very emotional, I mean, kind of in shock at seeing her all wet and dirty, but yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She kept it together.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We kept it together, yes.

TAPPER: What was it like to see your mommy?

FUGATE: I started crying and I, like, hugged her and stuff. I was like, I love you, mom. And, yes.

TAPPER: It must have been a pretty good hug.




TAPPER: The 17-mile-long twister stayed on the ground for 40 minutes. When it was finally gone, so was the school. Seven children were killed.

Oklahoma needs our help. You can donate online at or text Red Cross to 90999. That's text Red Cross to 90999 to give $10 to the relief effort. You can also call 1-800-RED-CROSS to donate by phone.

Coming up on THE LEAD: Anguished parents rush to their children's schools moments after the tornado hit. And now we are learning just how terrifying it was for those kids. We will talk to one teacher who shielded her students from the storm. Plus, another teacher had more than students to save. Her own son was also in that room with her -- their story next, as our special coverage of the Oklahoma tornadoes continues.


TAPPER: You're looking at live pictures of the scene here on Southwest Sixth Street in Moore, Oklahoma. Welcome back to THE LEAD. I am live here on this street in Moore, Oklahoma, where homes and businesses were literally shredded by yesterday's powerful tornado.

We have seen this far too often lately, teachers thrust into the role of lifesaving heroes, rushing kids to safety, comforting them, and shielding them with their own bodies until they were reunited with their parents, saving dozens of lives that are just getting started. We saw it at Sandy Hook Elementary, and now at two schools that were flattened here in Oklahoma.

Ed Lavandera spoke to some of those brave educators and is with me now.

Now, Ed, teachers around here, tornadoes are not new. They are trained to deal with this type of natural disaster.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They go through the training. They know it well. They have come to expect it here in Oklahoma, especially here in the town of Moore.

And we went just a few miles from where we are standing here. We met Tammy Glasgow at Briarwood Elementary and she talked about what those moments were like as that storm was heading toward her classroom. In fact, her classroom was on the back edge of the school and was one of the first classrooms that was hit as this tornado barreled through the city here of Moore.

She talked about how she brought the students into a couple of bathrooms. She had about 20 students in all, a terrifying experience. I mean, we met with her a little while ago at Briarwood and talked about what that experience and what the ordeal was like for her.


LAVANDERA: When you look at what is left it is simply staggering to comprehend that everyone walked out of here alive, students and teachers and administrators. You look at the trucks and cars that were blown on top of the building and landing on the very areas and spaces where these kids were seeking shelter, it makes it more incredible to believe that they all walked out of here alive.

When you put the kids in the room and you told them that you loved them, do you think that they grasped what was about to happen?

TAMMY GLASGOW, BRIARWOOD ELEMENTARY TEACHER: I'm not really sure. I mean, still at the moment, they were saying this isn't a drill. It's not a drill, sweetheart. You know, just put the book over your head and pray. LAVANDERA: This is what you saw just --

GLASGOW: Yes, right before we went in. You could feel the suction and my ears were popping. That's when I looked up and I could see just like chocolate brown milk. It looked like chocolate milk color. My ears started popping.


TAPPER: Powerful story. Ed Lavandera, thank you so much.

And now, joining me on the phone is Chad Lowe. His wife, Cindy, is a first grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary School. And she risked her life and limb to shield the kids in her class, including their own 6-year-old son.

Chad, thanks so much. And God bless you and your family.

How are your wife and little boy doing today?

CHAD LOWE, HUSBAND OF BRIARWOOD ELEMENTARY TEACHER CINDY LOWE (via telephone): My little boy is fine. He's got no more bumps and bruises than he does any other day. My wife, she got, you know, a concussion. So, obviously, she is trying to just remain calm and try to stay in dark, sort of secluded places and makes herself feel better. She has a bad sprain on her ankle and lots of cuts and bruises, but she is going to be OK.

TAPPER: Well, thank God.

They routinely practice tornado drills at the school, of course, because this area does have a lot of tornadoes. The moment by moment details of when the tornado hit are chilling.

Tell us about what your wife did to protect these children, including your own son as the school literally crumbled around them.

LOWE: Well, you know, they have procedures as was mentioned and the procedures state to go to the inner part of the room. In this case they had a built in book shelf there. All of the kids are instructed to get into the fetal position and also grab some books and, you know, use those to shield their heads.

My wife got some desks and pushed those up sort of giving them a shield from the rear, and, you know, just got ready. She heard a knock at the door. It was a couple of parents. And one of them is a teacher's assistant at that school. She let them into the room.

So, they all sort of huddled down. That's when she sort of got over my son and got over the other children and just sort of was trying to shield anyone she could.

TAPPER: Chad, your son's in kindergarten. Did you know that he was with your wife when the tornado hit?

LOWE: I had a pretty good idea. You know, phone reception was difficult because the signals were strained. She did text me that she had requested for him to be brought to her room and, you know, have a teacher's aid or someone bring him there.

So I got that text message. I felt pretty certain. And, typically, the schools are made of cinder blocks and have steel. I thought the school will be fine.

And, obviously, you can see what happened.

TAPPER: Well, we are so glad that your wife and your son are all right. Thank you for sharing your incredible story with us today, Chad.

LOWE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Plaza Towers Elementary School also took a direct hit, that's the same school where seven children drowned while taking shelter in a basement.

THE LEAD's Erin McPike is here in Moore as well. She joins us now live by phone with more on the recover effort there -- Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Hi, Jake.

Well, I can't get up very close to the school because there is such an intense effort going on right there. There is a lot of law enforcement in the neighborhood. They are very tense and there are evacuating that area right now because there are a lot of gas leaks and they don't think it's safe for anybody to be walking around.

Now, there are, of course, rescue teams around the school. There is a big crane overhead and a lot of industrial lights still shining in so they can do more of the recovery action.

But they are very serious that people cannot get that close while they continue to search and go through all of this debris. The neighborhoods around, of course, are destroyed. I did talk to a couple of teenager who had family in a house very close to the school. They said their grandmother was able to stay safe hiding in a bathroom, which was the only room in that house still standing. It's obviously destroyed right around the school, Jake.

TAPPER: Heartbreaking. Erin McPike, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, it's the question so many people here in Oklahoma are asking, why were some homes flattened while others are spared as if nothing had happened at all? We'll take a look at how fast the winds were going in the path of this massive storm.

Plus, this --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wounded people walking around the streets. You know, they were walking wounded. I mean, they were bloody. There were people that had stuff sticking out of them from things flying around in the air.


TAPPER: Just what kinds of injuries are doctors dealing with here? Our own Sanjay Gupta is at Moore Medical Center with an update on the wounded.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

I'm Jake Tapper live in Moore, Oklahoma.

You are looking at shots from southwest Sixth Street here in Moore, where we're standing.

More than 100 people have been pulled from the wreckage here after yesterday's monster tornado. One that left one hospital destroyed with hundreds in need of care.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us outside of what once was Moore Medical Center.

Dr. Gupta, thanks so much for being with us.

So, that hospital was right in the path of the storm. And looking at the building right now, you would think it would be hard to survive. But they did. How?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's pretty remarkable. You remember, Jake, we saw something similar in Joplin, as well, where a hospital becomes something in the path of the storm.

Look, some of it is just fast thinking. Some of it's preparation by people in order to try to make sure patients and staff are safe moving. For example, as you have heard since you're a kid, to the center of the building if you can, to an area that's away from windows.

It was fast thinking I think and a lot of prep work. But nobody in my understanding is talking to some of the doctors here, Jake. No one was even injured sort of inside that hospital.

And, again, you look at that. The top floor is just gone. It's a 45-bed hospital. Many patients were evacuated after that.

And keep in mind, Jake, the situation at that time. There were still storms. There were still concerns about tornadoes at that time.

So, in addition to trying to get these people to safety they, themselves are putting themselves at risk. So, it was -- it was a pretty dramatic unfolding situation, Jake. TAPPER: Dozens of survivors have been hospitalized and more than 200 others have been treated. What types of injuries are we talking about?

GUPTA: When you think about this and we have talked about it in the context of other natural disasters. But think about, you know, the primary injury, first of all, just from the force of the tornado itself.

You know, now, we're hearing winds, sometimes over 2001 miles an hour.

But then, secondary wave of injuries is usually from shrapnel that's going through the air. And I'll show you just around me here even, Jake, probably around you as well, there is just debris everywhere.

I guess this is something that came off of probably a house. Something like these. These all become potential sources of injury, impalements, broken bones. We hear of at least two patients who have significant spinal cord injuries at one of the trauma centers close to here.

Bowling ball, for example. We find bowling balls, again, being thrown around. All of this part of the second wave of injuries.

And, finally, the third wave when bodies themselves, people actually going, being thrown against other objects.

So, those are the types of injuries. What is interesting, and we're going to dig deeper and find out why, thankfully, this happened. There weren't as many brain or head injuries as you'd normally expect. That they even saw back here in '99 with a string of tornadoes. Not sure why that is, but a little good news for you perhaps.

TAPPER: All right. Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much.

And coming up next, we'll talk about the 1999 tornado. One family's home was obliterated 14 years ago. This time, they were not taking any chances. They survived hunkered down in the basement. But, sadly, their neighbor did not make it. That story is coming up next.

Plus, why do so many massive tornadoes hit this one area of Oklahoma? Well, it's not a coincidence. We'll explain.