William M. Welch, Donna Leinwand Leger and Doyle Rice
MOORE, Okla. -- Residents of suburban Oklahoma City are picking through rubble today after a monster tornado more than a mile wide ripped through with 200 mph winds, killing at least 51 people, demolishing two schools and flattening entire subdivisions.
Officials were struggling with rescue efforts as darkness fell. The National Guard was called in to help, and the Oklahoma state medical examiner reported that 51 were confirmed dead as of 8:48 p.m., with the death toll expected to rise.
Area hospitals reported treating more than 120 injured, including about 70 children.
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Television helicopter footage showed Moore, Okla., directly south of Oklahoma City, in ruins, with at least two elementary schools destroyed. Flames could be seen from some structures.
Rescue crews and volunteers worked to pull students out of the debris of what was once Plaza Towers Elementary School, where some children were sheltered as the tornado passed through. A second school, Briarwood Elementary, was also destroyed.
Several children were pulled out alive, according to the Associated Press, whose photographer witnessed the rescue. More than 60 people were treated at area hospitals, including a dozen children.
President Obama spoke by phone with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. The White House said the administration, through FEMA, "stands ready to provide all available assistance."
The National Weather Service issued a preliminary estimate that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most-powerful type of twister, with winds up to 200 mph.
The devastation had a familiar feel for many residents. Moore was struck by a May 3, 1999 tornado that packed the highest surface winds ever recorded, 302 mph. It killed 36 people and caused $1 billion in damage.
Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokesman Jerry Lojka said rescuers are "going house to house and block to block to try and find any survivors that are out there and trapped."
He said rescue efforts will take days because the area of destruction is so vast.
"We can only imagine that there are still many others there that are unaccounted for," he said.
Lojka said emergency management officials, working from an underground command center in Oklahoma City, do not know how many students were in the two elementary schools in Moore that were destroyed.
"We can't confirm how many students were in there. We don't know how many were rescued or if they have been transported. Unfortunately, there's so much unknown information at this point," he said.
The twister was on the ground for 40 minutes and cut a path one and a quarter mile wide.
"It traversed the entire width of the city of Moore," Lojka said. "We're talking about a massive storm."
Among more than 60 patients treated for tornado injuries at Norman Regional Medical Center is 9-year-old Kaileigh Hawkins. Kaileigh, who was at one of the schools hit by the twister, is doing fine, says hospital spokeswoman Kelly Wells, but hospital officials have been unable to locate her parents.
The injuries flooding the emergency department include broken bones, lacerations and internal injuries, Wells said. Some patients are in critical condition, but Wells said the patients are coming in so quickly and the situation is changing so rapidly that she doesn't have an accurate count of the injuries and conditions.
The hospital also had to relocate 30 patients at the Moore Medical Center, Wells said.
"It took a direct hit," she said.
They have accounted for all patients and staff. The patients have been transferred to two local hospitals, including one in Norman, the next city south of Moore, she said.
Police Capt. Dexter Nelson said downed power lines and open gas lines posed a risk in the aftermath of the system.
At Plaza Towers school, rescuers lifted children out of rubble and passed them down a human chain to a triage center set up in the school's parking lot.
James Rushing, who lives across the street from the school, heard reports of the approaching tornado and ran to the school, where his 5-year-old foster son, Aiden, attends classes. Rushing believed he would be safer there.
"About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart," said Rushing, whose home was virtually destroyed.
Holly Porter and her husband, Tracy, loaded up their truck with water and blankets, hitched up their horse trailer and headed to Moore, 40 minutes from their home, after the storm. The tornado sucked away barns and fencing in an area where many horses are kept. Residents may have nowhere to keep their animals, she said.
"We have 60 acres and we can take cows and horses," she said. "We're just going to help anyone we can."
"Search and rescue efforts will continue through the night, as long as they need be," Moore Police Chief Jerry Stillings said in an evening news conference.
"We've been through this before," city manager Steve Eddy said, referring to the 199 tornado and others over the years. "Our citizens are resilient."
Douglas Sherman rushed two blocks from his home to help rescue survivors at the Plaza Towers school.
"Just having those kids trapped in that school, that really turns the table on a lot of things," he said.
Tiffany Thronesberry said she got an alarming call from her mother, Barbara Jarrell, after the tornado.
"I got a phone call from her screaming, 'Help, help! I can't breathe. My house is on top of me!'" Thronesberry said.
Thronesberry hurried to her mother's house, where first responders had already pulled her out. Her mother was hospitalized for treatment for cuts and bruises.