Search for survivors winds down as Oklahoma begins daunting recovery
Fire chief: The 7 who died at an elementary school were in a classroom, not a basement
MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) — What began as a desperate hunt for survivors in this debris-covered city is giving way to an arduous road to recovery.
No survivors or bodies have been found in Moore since Monday, the day a mammoth tornado ripped through 17 miles of central Oklahoma and pummeled 2,400 homes.
The mayor of Moore, which bore the brunt of the tornado's wrath, said he doesn't expect the death toll to climb any higher. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed, the state medical examiner's office said.
"I think that will stand," Mayor Glenn Lewis said.
Earlier reports of at least 51 deaths were erroneous, said Amy Elliot of the state medical examiner's office. She said some of the dead were apparently counted twice during the chaotic aftermath of the twister.
But some loved ones are still missing.
Cassandra Jenkins has no idea what happened to her grandparents, more than a day after the twister struck their hometown of Moore.
"All we know is that their home is still left standing. However, they have not been seen or heard from since the storm hit," she said as her daughters clutched photos of their great-grandparents.
"We've tried to locate them at every hospital, every shelter, every Red Cross. Anything we could possibly reach out to, we have."
While the mayor of Moore said he doesn't think the death toll will rise, each passing hour brings more sobering news about the catastrophe.
About 2,400 homes were damaged or destroyed in Moore and Oklahoma City, a spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management said late Tuesday night. The twister directly affected roughly 10,000 residents, Jerry Lojka said.
The financial impact will also be monumental. Insurance claims will probably top $1 billion, said Kelly Collins of the Oklahoma Insurance Commission.
Young lives remembered
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in Moore is the pile of wreckage where Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood.
Seven of the nine children killed in the storm were inside the school when it collapsed.
The children were in a classroom, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird told CNN Wednesday. He also said they did not die from drowning. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb told CNN the youngsters had drowned in a school basement.
Ja'Nae Hornsby, 9, was one of them.
"There's no other kid like her," Ja'Nae's aunt Angela Hornsby said. "She's the sweetest thing, the bossiest thing, the most fun, always trying to make us laugh."
Ja'Nae's father, Joshua Hornsby, isn't ready to accept that his little girl is gone.
"I'm still hoping for that call to say, 'We've made a mistake,' " he said. "I just pray that's what it is."
Destruction on a colossal scale
Damage assessments Tuesday showed the tornado packed winds over 200 mph at times, making it an EF5 -- the strongest category of tornadoes measured, the National Weather Service said.
Lewis said the devastation was so catastrophic that city officials rushed to print new street signs to help guide rescuers and residents through the newly mangled and unfamiliar landscape.
The rescue workers in Moore included police and firefighters from Joplin, Missouri -- a city all too familiar with grief and devastation.
Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the tornado that pulverized Joplin, killing at least 158 people. It was the deadliest single U.S. tornado since federal record-keeping began in 1950.
"We remember the amount of assistance that we received following the tornado two years ago, and we want to help others as they helped us," Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said.
"We know too well what their community is facing, and we feel an obligation to serve them as they have served us."
'Still can't believe this'
Some residents of Moore ventured back to where their homes once stood, only to find unrecognizable scraps of their lives.
"You just want to break down and cry," Steve Wilkerson said, his voice trembling.
He held a laundry basket that contained the few intact belongings he could find.
"I still can't believe this is happening. You work 20 years, and then it's gone in 15 minutes."
Teachers lauded for saving students
Amid the trauma and grief, tales of heroism and gratitude sprouted up across Moore.
Several teachers at Briarwood Elementary shielded their students with their bodies or distracted them with impromptu games as they took cover from the tornado that demolished their school.
Suzanne Haley was impaled by the leg of a desk while protecting her students.
"We crowded the children under desks, and me and a fellow teacher put ourselves in front of the desks that the children were under," she told CNN's Piers Morgan.
The roof and walls collapsed around them as the tornado's fury enveloped the school. The leg of the desk pierced her right calf, jutting out on both sides.
"By the grace of God, I kept it together," she said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. I had to be calm for them."
Miraculously, everyone at Briarwood survived.
While many describe the teachers as heroes, Haley dismisses the title.
"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do," she said. "These children -- we see their smiles, their tears, every day, in and out, and we love them."
CNN's Holly Yan and Chelsea J. Carter wrote and reported from Atlanta; Sara Weisfeldt reported from Oklahoma. CNN's Brian Todd, Mayra Cuevas, Anderson Cooper, Gary Tuchman, Ed Lavandera, Dana Ford, Pamela Brown and George Howell contributed to this report.
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