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Tornado Deaths Likely To Spike, Coverage of the Oklahoma Tornado

Aired May 21, 2013 - 06:00   ET



ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Imagine that moment, tearful reunions. Parents and children are reunited after a deadly tornado flattened an elementary school. And a desperate search at this hour, rescuers continue to dig through debris. They are looking for any sign of life. Everything is gone, devastation and despair, families gather, searching for their loved ones. Pets and what is left of their belongings.

Welcome back to a special edition of EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin in New York. It's 6:00 a.m. in the East. John Berman is live in Moore, Oklahoma. He's also there with Pamela Brown and he is there with George Howell this morning. But what happened is they were moved from their location.

Where they are, they're surrounded by a lot of homes and police have asked them to please move from that location, because what they would like to do is hear in case anyone in the area inside of those homes is calling out for help. So they are moving to another location, and they will be with us shortly. They are live on the ground. They are gathering all this information.

George Howell has been there for a very long time. This is his hometown, so he brings a unique perspective also. So the race is on to rescue people had may be under a mountain of rubble. The town literally flattened by one of the most powerful tornadoes there is, an EF-4, packing winds of up to 200 miles per hour.

Two elementary schools packed with students were destroyed. Authorities say seven children died, at the Plaza Towers Elementary School where we are this morning, that's where they were moving from, there is nothing left of the school. It is just a pile of brick.

The other school, Briarwood Elementary, in all there are 51 confirmed fatalities, including 20 of them children, but that number, unfortunately, could rise dramatically. The medical examiner's office tells us 40 more bodies are on their way to them and half of those are children.

At least 145 victims are in the hospital at this hour. President Obama has issued an emergency disaster declaration for the area. It is clearing the way for a lot of federal assistance to head in that direction. And we have this story covered from every angle as only CNN can. So let's first show you how this all unfolded. Shocking, the community of Moore, Oklahoma.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The massive tornado tore across 20 miles of Oklahoma City suburbs, in just 40 minutes, From the sky, the mile-wide trail of destruction hard to comprehend and utterly catastrophic. The ferocious storm flattening homes and buildings, flinging cars in the air, and leaving two schools and a hospital barely recognizable in the hard-hit town of Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes.

BERMAN: Decimating everything in its path. Homes crushed to piles of debris. What looks like haystacks were houses once stood. As the injured poured into hospitals, cars tossed look toys from the parking lot of the Moore medical center piled up, blocking the main entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I actually heard it go over us, I felt our ears popping. This is something that we never experienced. It was really scary.

BERMAN: Nearby, a mother and her 7-month-old found dead where a 7-11 once stood. They tried to take cover in a freezer during the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Grabbing and throwing debris, trying to get anybody out.

BERMAN: A massive recovery effort at one of two schools for children buried under the rubble continued into the night, the grim reality setting in with rescuers and their anxious parents. Bloody teachers seen here carrying children away from Briarwood Elementary School destroyed from the monstrous twister trapping close to 100 students, tears of relief for one mother as she reunites with her first grade son and a hug to his teacher.


BERMAN: For miles, entire neighborhoods destroyed. Many describing the horror they faced.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We grabbed our motorcycle helmets and hid in the closet and prayed like hell and luckily the only room that was spared was the room we were in.

BERMAN: Debris churned through the powerful black funnel as this storm roared. You can hear the piercing winds reaching up to 200 miles per hour. At a family farm, as many as 100 horses were killed and most of the barns demolished.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two of these stalls like this, they came together and I was in between them. And they just, it just pushed us down the shed row.

BERMAN: President Obama declared Oklahoma a disaster area late Monday and called the state's governor.

GOVERNOR MARY FALLIN, OKLAHOMA: I know there are families wondering where their loved ones are and right now we're doing everything we can.


SAMBOLIN: Two elementary schools were directly in the path of that deadly tornado. One is the Plaza Towers Elementary School where John Berman was standing a little while ago, at least seven children were killed there. The other, Briarwood Elementary School, crews have been busy all night. They are searching the rubble at these schools for more victims. So far, 40 children confirmed dead and that number likely to go up. Pam Brown has all the details for us.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Illuminated by flood lights, rescue teams searched tirelessly throughout the night, sifting through mountains of debris where Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood. In some places, the debris was 10 feet high, underneath, every parent's worst nightmare, the bodies of school children who tried to seek shelter from a ferocious tornado. Many more were still missing.

The race to rescue dozens of students and teachers began right after the massive two-mile-wide tornado rip throughout two elementary schools directly in its path at hardest-hit Plaza Towers Elementary, a third grade class huddled in a hallway of their school.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado.

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 little kids underneath her, good job, Teach.

BROWN: Worried parents sent to a staging area at a nearby church and searched for answers. At first, several children were pulled from the levelled school alive, but with each passing hour, the operation tragically went from a rescue to recovery mission, the heart-wrenching reality of the storm's fury hard to comprehend, even for those covering it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is without question, the most horrific I've never seen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lance, listen we need to get this information.

BROWN: This new video shows raw emotional moments from parents reunited with their kids from Briarwood Elementary in the minute after the tornado hit. Searchers were able to reunite many kids with their families. CNN's Nick Valencia was there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Was it scary? What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It was like a big tornado hit the whole place.

VALENCIA: You are a tough one for sticking it out.


BROWN: What was once a place for learning became an unrecognizable place of horror, a student from Plaza Towers Elementary telling CNN's George Howell how he survived.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It was scary and a lot of my friends were still there when I left.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What did your teachers tell you to do? You showed me a moment ago.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You duck and covered your head with your hands.


BROWN: Just incredible moments there.

It is 7 minutes past the hour. A couple of things I want to tell you. The police department in the city of Moore is going to have a press conference. That is scheduled for 8:00 a.m. Eastern. At that time, they will give us an update what all the information that they know. They'll also explain they have asked the crews to move from the area.

Because where the crews were are a lot of homes and they want to be able to hear in case there are survivors in the rubble. So they can rescue them. So let's take a look at how exactly this massive storm actually formed. Meteorologist Indra Petersons has more on that from the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta -- Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Zoraida. One of the things I wanted to show you is how massive this really is. I mean, look at this huge supercell where we actually saw the tornado is just on the hook of this big supercell. I actually want to show you a different look at this, a 3D view.

I want to show you how high the debris field was. We're talking about two and a half miles wide, but look at the height. We're talking about debris flying as high as 20,000 feet, if not above, so a very scary situation out there, definitely indeed.

I do want to show you the path real quickly because that's one of the things we've been focusing on. We'll be looking at the lead time. This thing formed in an unpopulated area. It strengthened over Newcastle and when it went over Moore, it had 160 to 200-mile-per-hour winds out there and then it dissipated as when it went into, of course, once again unpopulated territory so really just a bad luck there.

SAMBOLIN: Indra, if we can talk about what's happening right now and you know, what is the latest on the storm's path? And who is in danger at this stage of the game? PETERSONS: Yes, this is the most scary part of today. We've seen so many storms already, so many more focused on the recovery stage, but today, it could be as bad as yesterday. We've actually now seen another moderate risk for today. We did not see this yesterday.

So now we have a moderate risk extending from Dallas even through Shreveport, portions of Arkansas, but again, the swath of even a slight risk out there through Wisconsin, Michigan, all the way through Texas, all of you under the gun today. So please pay attention, don't think this is something that happened yesterday, today could be a similar day.

SAMBOLIN: So that "moderate" word could change, almost in the blink of an eye we're finding out. Indra Petersons, thank you so much. We appreciate that. To find out how you can help the victims of the Oklahoma storms, visit our impact your world page. That's at

Strangers helping strangers, neighbors helping neighbors, a desperate search for survivors is under way at this hour. We have continued coverage of the deadly Oklahoma tornado aftermath. Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's just carnage, you know, it's, but it had to be done. People needed to be helped. So I started rounding everybody up. People were rounding up and down the streets. I got them hollering out. If you can hear me, call out. We started getting people out.



SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. A massive tornado touched down Monday afternoon in Moore, Oklahoma, leaving dozens killed and a path of devastation in its wake. Here are the latest developments for you. The official death toll now stands at 51, 20 children are among the dead, but those numbers are expected to rise sharply.

We are told about 40 more bodies have been taken to the medical examiner's office that happened overnight and 20 of those are said to be children. President Obama has signed a disaster declaration for Oklahoma. So that means federal emergency aid is on its way.

And Texas is sending its elite search and rescue team task force one to assist first responders there as well. Overnight rescuers have been combing through the wreckage of the Tower Plaza Elementary School, which was flattened by the tornado. At least seven students were killed there alone.

In a local hospital in Moore, Oklahoma also took a direct hit from the monster tornado. CNN's Nick Valencia at the Moore Medical Center with that part of the story for us this morning. Good morning to you, Nick. VALENCIA: Good morning, Zoraida. This hospital did take a direct hit, that EF-4 tornado shredding through this part of the community. You can see behind me the parking lot, looks like a junkyard. The second floor of this community hospital reduced to rubble.

There were at least 30 patients inside at the time of the tornado, local reports say that those patients and hospital staff went down into a basement. That could be explanation as to why no one suffered tornado-related injuries. As a result of the storm that moved through here.

We know that those patients, at least 12 were taken to nearby area hospitals. We don't know their conditions right now or what happens next for them. But we do know that this hospital and the community hospital around it is trying to help reunite patients with their family members. There's a report this morning of a 9-year-old girl with two missing parents, and the hospital staff trying to reunite that little girl with her family -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Gosh, we certainly hope that they're successful. Thank you so much. Nick Valencia, we'll check back in with you.

And I would also like to tell you, we have a complete crew on the ground. John Berman is there, along with Pamela Brown and George Howell. They were actually in front of the elementary they took seven of the children out dead. They had to be moved because police have asked that all the media crews move out of the way.

Apparently there are a lot of houses in that area and they want to be able to hear in case there are people trapped underneath all of the rubble so they can get in and rescue them.

So we are relocating them and they will be with us shortly with a live report from there as well.

And 145 people were sent to the hospital with injuries. They were ranging from minor to serious. About one-third of them are children.

Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen at the CNN Center in Atlanta with more on the effort to help all of the injured. And, Elizabeth, what type of injuries can we expect to see there?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Zoraida, if you look historically at the kind of damage that other tornadoes have done, about half of the injuries are going to be from flying debris, especially wood, because so many homes are made out of wood, that they're used to dealing with that kind of issue. And then the rest would be or much of the rest would be people who were actually hit by the tornado, where the tornado actually lifted them up, dropped them down. And that's a different kind of trauma, but also obviously a severe injury.

So these injuries can range from relatively minor, hit by, let's say, some wood that needs to be taken out of your skin or whatever. To obviously really, really major -- I mean we're talking about major trauma here -- Zoraida. SAMBOLIN: Elizabeth, I want to talk a little about the folks that are trapped under the rubble. And, you know, I know that this is all you know changing by the minute here. We're looking at all of the responders there on the ground, going through all of the rubble.

And you know, we were saying earlier that maybe this has turned into a recovery mission. And I just want to give people some home of the potentiality of finding their children and some of their loved ones alive under the rubble.

What kind of injuries do you think are involved there?

COHEN: You know what, Zoraida, whether it's a hurricane or an earthquake or the devastation that we've seen in the factories and other parts of the world, you never know what's going to happen. You always want to have hope that maybe there's someone in there who can be saved. It might not happen, but you always want to have that hope.

And in this case, what you're talking about is it could possibly be crush injuries. If a part of someone's body is crushed that can set off a devastating chain of events inside the body. And so, what you're hoping is that you can get to that person in time.

But certainly people have been known to survive for days and days, sometimes even weeks and weeks. I was in Haiti, for example, where an infant was found many days after the earthquake. And she was OK. She obviously was dehydrated, she obviously needed food, but she was OK.

So I know, I'm hearing that they're not finding many people right now. But, of course, you always hold out that hope.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. And maybe with daylight, that could help their effort as well. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

COHEN: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: We really appreciate that.

And some of the most traumatic images this morning come from you, the viewer. We have those stunning images coming up. Also, Chris Cuomo is there on the ground live. He's going to join us after this break.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Me and four other guys pulled a teacher out. She was on top of three kids, the kids were fine. She was hurt pretty bad, we put her on top of the Jeep and wheeled her to the ambulances because there were so many cars around.

Kids everywhere, people were running around screaming, there were cars on their sides, schools just gone.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Everybody, I'm Chris Cuomo here in Moore, Oklahoma. We're standing in front of First Baptist Church. One of the many staging areas in a situation that's far from over.

All morning long, we've been watching them getting ready. They're getting water. They're letting people know they have power. This situation is still very fluid here. Throughout the morning, you'll see huge waves of energy in the air, lightning, we're told the storms that are still in the area are not severe. That's very big, because the fear is very palpable on the ground right now.

I just got off the phone with one of the emergency workers heading up search and rescue. He just kept saying low, low, our death estimates are injured. What we can tell you right now is everything is very low because it's been very difficult to access areas.

What we understand about the perimeter they're dealing with is several blocks wide, 20 miles long, is the kind of band of destruction that this tornado dealt with.

Unusual for them in that unlike what you'll be hearing about, 2003, May of 2003, they got hit very badly here, a lot of loss of life and property. They rebuilt.

However, this seems to come down to one huge tornado as opposed to a population of several. And it did unfortunately hit the Briarwood and Plaza Towers Schools. Plaza Towers, much more severe. That's where they're doing the digging. That's where they're trying to get through rubble.

Our crews are been moved, other media has been moved because supposedly wanting to keep it as quiet as possible, to hear people. That's the type of situation they are, an emergent situation. They don't know where people are. The number of injured in hospitals around 200 right now, minor injuries, they believe a lot of injured are still out there.

So what they're doing is two-fold. One they're getting as many available search and rescue assets as possible into these communities. Again, one of the benefits of the search is it's not a very broad area. But it is very long, 20 miles.

The homes that we have seen, it is, it's as if once where there were houses, there are now bales of hay. Everything is destroyed. They are splintered, they are tinder boxes -- which means literally they could light on fire, there are a lot of natural gas leaks going on right now.

Officials are worried where they can turn off gas, where they can't. Power is very spotty. Water is spotty in different places in Moore, Oklahoma.

So, in terms of priorities, here's what we've been told: search and rescue, find those who are alive. These are very difficult houses and structures to search. Mostly wooden, what they call stick houses, when they fall on top of themselves. They're very dense, difficult to get through. It's difficult to get earth-moving equipment.

You'll see pictures throughout the morning of literally, by hand. These are regular cars, SUVs, they're having a tough time getting the big earth-moving equipment, the bull-dozers, the back-hoes in to dig through rubble. So a lot of it is being done by human hands right now.

The response has been extraordinary in terms of surrounding areas bringing people here. However, that's the first thing they're doing: looking through rubble. A lot of communities are organizing to do it themselves.

The priority of children, of course, at the plaza towers school, huge rush of manpower there to find a way in. They did find bodies there.

We're staying away from that, I'm staying away from any death toll numbers or injured, because the accuracy of them is secondary right now. It's bad here. It's going to get worse.

The numbers themselves are secondary importance to finding people alive. That's where the energy is a lot of families are being rue united. That's what First Baptist is about.

Throughout the morning you're going to see a lot of activity here because the need is incredibly great. But what we want to let you know at this time is one throughout the morning, we'll be telling you how to help.

People here lost everything. You've heard stories like this before. Nothing destroys like a tornado. Hurricanes, fires, they're all terrible.

But there's something unique about a tornadic effect of its ability to tear through communities and that's what happened here. So, we know they're staging search and rescue. We know they don't understand a lot about the ultimate death toll and certainly those injured. Property damage is probably going to be one of the most clean-ups in history. That's not going to be surprising.

The weather here should hold for the day. It's scary to see a lot of energy in the air, a lot of lightning. But we're told there should be no more tornadic effect.

We're going to be monitoring here. It's tough to get information. I'm going to go back to the studio so we can get more information about where there's damage, where people can go to get help.

But places like First Baptist, if you're local in Oklahoma, here on Moore, it's on northwest 27th, right off of I-35. That's where First Baptist is. They have power and water.

I'll go back to you in New York right, I believe, so we can get some more reporting on what's going on here on the ground.

But a very emergent situation, a lot of people still in need and distress and it will be like that for most of the day until they can get a handle on this with search and rescue -- guys.

SAMBOLIN: Chris, I cannot tell you how much we appreciate having you there on the ground because as I said, our crews have been moved because police want to hear if in fact somebody is trapped under the rubble. So, glad you're in a great location for us. We'll check back in with you.

And still ahead on EARLY START, storm-chasers got a firsthand look at the massive twister that rip throughout Oklahoma yesterday. What was it like? They're going to tell you, coming up.