Twisters Rip Through Oklahoma, Killing Elementary School Students

By Nirvi Shah — May 21, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


The deadly, churning tornadoes that cleared a path through Oklahoma on Monday killed at least seven children at a Moore, Okla., elementary school, multiple media outlets are reporting.

They were found drowned at Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, where rescuers searched through the night for survivors, reported. According to the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner’s Office, they were found in a pool of water at the school.

The tornado struck Moore just after 3 p.m. Monday, around the time school typically lets out, said. As teachers, students and staff took shelter at Plaza Towers, the massive tornado hit the building, collapsing its walls and roof.

The school was built in 1966 and did not have a shelter, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said on CNN on Tuesday morning, adding that most of the schools in Oklahoma do not have built-in storm shelters, in part because of the cost. (Learn more about that here: It has to do with Oklahoma’s soil, in part.)

UPDATE noon State Rep. Mark McBride, whose district includes Moore, told CNN on Tuesday morning that requiring or paying for shelters at schools may be considered by the state legislature after this week’s tornadoes.

“I don’t think it’s been a priority,” he said. “I think after this it will become a priority.”

UPDATE 1:58 p.m. Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said at a press conference Tuesday that the district is reviewing all of its safety procedures, but the district does regularly practice tornado drills.

“The decisions we make are always with safety in mind,” she said.

Graduation for three of the district’s high schools will continue as scheduled on
Saturday in Oklahoma City, Pierce said, although one school scheduled to host graduation Tuesday canceled its ceremony. In addition, the district will be closed for the rest of the year.

Plaza Towers Elementary was expanded in the last few years, with the district approving the addition of 11,000 square feet of classroom space, a computer lab, storage, and restrooms about seven years ago, The Oklahoman has reported. The goal was to shed the portable classrooms the school was relying on at the time.

Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s emergency management director, said the state has used federal money to build safe rooms at about 100 schools in the state, but none of those rooms were at the schools ravaged by tornado winds Monday.

“It’s not a matter of they were being left out for any reason,” Ashwood said at the Tuesday afternoon press conference. But he said the state will be looking at trying to get more safe rooms across the state.

“When you talk about any kind of safe room,” he added, “it’s a mitigating measure. There’s no guarantee that everyone would be safe.”

UPDATE 6:15 p.m. There is already a petition going asking that all schools and child care centers in Oklahoma have storm shelters.

In all, said Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, confirmed at least 24 people in the area had died, the New York Times reported, and officials said that toll was likely to climb.

The two schools with the heaviest damage were the 500-student Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore and the 670-student Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City. Both are part of the 23,000-student Moore school district, the state’s third-largest, my colleague Lesli A. Maxwell reports at the District Dossier blog. Briarwood was damaged and students suffered minor injuries, as this tweet shows.

The Oklahoman told one story of a Briarwood teacher who held hands with her son at the school until rescuers arrived, even as her body was being crushed by metal beams and cinder blocks.

During a press conference Monday night, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said the state schools chief told her at least five schools in the state had been damaged by two days of tornadoes racing through the state. Fallin said she had declared a state of emergency in 21 counties.

“Our hearts are just broken for the parents wondering about the state of their children,” Gov. Fallin said.

But while Briarwood was damaged, all the children inside were found alive.

At Plaza Towers, Tuesday morning was supposed to be an awards ceremony for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Plaza Towers students, similar to one for 1st and 2nd graders Monday morning, according to the Plaza Towers PTA facebook page.

The twisters come near the end of an already tragic school year, one Twitter user noted, recalling the deaths of 26 students and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December.

On May 22, 2011, tornadoes that ripped through Joplin, Mo., destroyed three schools and severely damaged six others. At the time, the National Weather Service called the twister the deadliest since it began keeping records in 1950. It killed at least 134 people.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum recommended a number of resources to help children cope with the devastation.

View more photos of the destruction by clicking on the image below.

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: Workers continue to dig through the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School after a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., on Monday.—Sue Ogrocki/AP

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.