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Death toll reduced amid tornado chaos

Rescue workers and their dog rest Monday outside Briarwood Elementary School after a tornado destroyed the school.   AP photo

Searchers rest outside the Briarwood Elementary School after the tornado destroyed the school , Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/ The Oklahoman, David McDaniel)

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From page A2 | May 21, 2013 |

MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Emergency crews combed the sticks and rubble remains of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday morning, less than a day after a massive tornado slammed through the community, flattening homes and demolishing an elementary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least seven children, and those numbers were expected to climb.

As the sun rose over the shattered community of Moore, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half.

Spokeswoman Amy Elliot said she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said.

“It was a very eventful night,” Elliot said. “I truly expect that they’ll find more today.”

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

New search-and-rescue teams moved in as dawn broke Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who scoured the neighborhood all night with a helicopter shining a spotlight from above to aid their search.

Fire Chief Gary Bird said the fresh teams would search the whole community at least two more times to ensure that no survivors — or victims — were missed. They were painting an ‘X’ on each structure to note it had been checked.

“That is to confirm we have done our due diligence for this city, for our citizens,” Bird said.

By early Tuesday, the community of 41,000 people, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, braced for another long, harrowing day.

“As long as we are here … we are going to hold out hope that we will find survivors,” said Trooper Betsy Randolph, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children.

Search and rescue teams continued their desperate efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the school’s roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said she watched up close late Monday as rescuers tried to find people in the wreckage of the school.

“It was massive destruction last night,” Fallin said in an AP interview Tuesday. “It was an incredible sight to see how big the debris field was and how much destruction there was. It would be remarkable for anyone to survive.”

Children from the school were among the dead, but several students were pulled out alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.

Officials were still trying to account for a handful of children not found at the school who may have gone home early with their parents, Bird said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

The National Weather Service issued an initial finding that the tornado was an EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the second most powerful type of twister. It estimated that the twister was at least half a mile wide.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., forecast more stormy weather Tuesday, predicting golf ball-sized hail, powerful winds and isolated, strong tornadoes in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The area at risk does not include Moore.

In video of the storm, the dark funnel cloud could be seen marching slowly across the green landscape. As it churned through the community, the twister scattered shards of wood, awnings and glass all over the streets.

Monday’s powerful tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999. It was the fourth tornado to hit Moore since 1998. It also came almost exactly two years after an enormous twister ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring hundreds more.

That May 22, 2011, tornado was the deadliest in the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before Joplin, the deadliest modern tornado was June 1953 in Flint, Mich., when 116 people died.

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By Nomaan Merchant and Tim Talley. Associated Press writers Sean Murphy and Ramit Plushnik Masti; and Associated Press photographer Sue Ogrocki contributed to this report.

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