The search through rubble left in the wake of a massive tornado that ripped through an Oklahoma City suburb Monday ramped down as the local fire chief said it appeared no one remained trapped in the debris, but weather experts now say the twister ranks among the strongest ever.
The swirling winds that killed at least 24 people on a 20-mile path of destruction almost two miles wide was ruled an EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which puts it in a category reached by only 59 tornadoes in U.S. history. It means winds reached in excess of 200 miles per hour.
Several meteorologists contacted by The Associated Press used real time measurements to calculate the energy released during the storm's life span of almost an hour. Their estimates ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb with more experts at the high end.
The tornado at some points was 1.3 miles wide, and its path went on for 17 miles and 40 minutes. That's long for a regular tornado but not too unusual for such a violent one, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. Less than 1 percent of all U .S. tornadoes are this violent , only about 10 a year, he said.
Among the destroyed buildings was an elementary school in Moore, a suburb just south of Oklahoma City, where some children reportedly died. The total fatalities was revised down Tuesday from earlier reports, the AP reported, because some victims were counted twice. More fatalities were expected. At a 2 p.m. press conference, state officials said 237 people were injured.
Moore fire chief Gary Bird told reporters at the press conference that while search crews continued to focus efforts on the pile of rubble that was formerly Towers Plaza Elementary School, he was unaware of any reports that students or school staff remained trapped under the debris. He also said search dogs had not hit on any trapped people and that no one had been rescued Tuesday.
Rescuers also were walking through neighborhoods in Moore, listening for people calling from the rubble. More than 100 people have been rescued alive, CNN reported.
Getting to safety
People fled to escape the tornado or sought refuge in their basements.
Julie Jones, a journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, told the Los Angeles Times that she ran into a traffic jam trying to get away.
"It was crazy. We could see the tornado in the rear-view mirror getting closer, closer and closer, and we’re stopped in traffic," she told the newspaper. Jones, 54, called the tornado a "big, dark menacing act of nature."
"This one was a monster," she said. "It was huge, dark and scary."
Joseph Lambert rounded up neighbors to wait out the storm in his basement.
"I banged on as many doors as I could," he told the Oklahoman. His family also experienced the May 3, 1999, twister.
"I think I'm ready to move," Lambert's mother, Cecilia Lambert, told the newspaper.
Two first-grade teachers told ABC News how they got their students to safety.
"i had them take their backpacks and put them over their heads, just as another safety precaution," Sherri Bittle said.
Cindy Lowe said she "saw the tornado coming" and "knew how serious it was."
She told ABC that she placed "my body on top of as many kids as I could."
Waiting for news
People waited at churches, schools and hospitals for news about their loved ones.
"Wait, that's all we can do is wait," Mark Troxell, told KFOR as he waited at the Oklahoma University Trauma Center. One of Troxell's nine brothers has been missing since the twiste.
“What I heard is he was opening the front door and then his house blew away,” he told the television station.
At St. Andrews United Methodist Church, parents stared into the distance as they waited, some holding the hands of young children who were missing siblings.
Tonya Sharp and Deanna Wallace sat at a table in the church's gymnasium waiting for their teenage daughters. As Sharp and Wallace spoke, a line of students walked in.
Wallace spotted her 16-year-old daughter, who came quickly her way and jumped into her mother's arms, pushing her several steps backward in the process. But Sharp didn't see her daughter, a 17-year-old who has epilepsy. She worried her daughter hadn't taken her medicine.
"I don't know where she's at," Sharp told the Associated Press. Later, she went to speak to officials who helped her register so she could be notified as soon as her daughter was found.
Some families were successfully reunited.
Shelli Smith told the AP that she had to walk miles to find her children. She was reunited with her 14-year-old daughter, Tiauna, around 5 p.m. Monday, but hadn't yet seen her 16-year-old son, TJ, since he left for school that morning.
TJ's phone had died, but he borrowed a classmate's phone to tell his mother where he was. However, Smith couldn't get to him due to the roadblocks. So she parked her car and started walking.
It took her three hours, but a little after sunset, she found him. She grabbed her son and squeezed him in a tight hug that lasted for several seconds before letting go. TJ hugged his sister, and then hugged his mom again.
The family had a long walk back to their car and then home, but she said she didn't mind.
"I was trying to get him and they wouldn't let me," she said, adding later: "I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to get my son.'"
Saundra Knight and her husband dug in the rubble of their destroyed house to find their dog, according to the Oklahoman.
They found 4-year-old Clara alive.
And another woman, Barbara Garcia, was telling her story to CBS News when her dog emerged from the rubble in the middle of the interview.
"I thought God just answered one prayer, to let me be okay. He answered both of them. Because this was my second prayer," Garcia told CBS after the dog was freed from her destroyed home.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.