Crews Race To Find Survivors As Medical Examiner Revises Death Toll

MOORE, Okla. (CBSNewYork/AP) —  The search for survivors and the dead was nearly complete Tuesday in the Oklahoma City suburb that was smashed by a mammoth tornado, the fire chief said.

Gary Bird said he’s “98 percent sure” there are no more survivors or bodies to recover under the rubble in Moore, a community of 56,000 people.

PHOTOS: Tornado Hits Oklahoma | MORE: Complete Coverage From CBS News | How To Help

His comments came after emergency crews spent much of the day searching the town’s broken remnants for survivors of Monday’s twister, which flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. The storm killed at least 24 people, including at least nine children.

Every damaged home was searched at least once, Bird said. His goal was to conduct three searches of each location just to be sure. He was hopeful the work could be completed by nightfall, but the efforts were being hampered by heavy rain.

Volunteers and disaster relief workers from around the Tri-State Area headed to Oklahoma to help with the massive recovery effort.

About 60 patients remained hospitalized following Monday’s tornado, though some were expected to be released Tuesday.

Norman Regional Hospital spokeswoman Melissa Herron said 20 of the more than 100 patients her hospital treated remained hospitalized.

Tuesday morning, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half, saying at least 24 people were killed, including at least nine children. Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children.

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

The ferocious storm  laid waste to scores of buildings. Block after block lay in ruins. Homes were crushed into piles of broken wood. Cars and trucks were left crumpled on the roadside. Rescuers launched a desperate rescue effort at the elementary school, pulling children from heaps of debris and carrying them to a triage center.

WATCH: Tornado Survivor Finds Dog Buried Alive Under Rubble

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.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was an EF5 twister, the most powerful type, with winds of at least 200 mph.

At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the storm tore off the roof, knocked down walls and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal.

Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from the rubble. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain to the triage center in the parking lot.

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.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin deployed 80 National Guard members to assist with rescue operations and activated extra highway patrol officers.

Fallin also spoke Monday with President Barack Obama, who declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

“In an instant neighborhoods were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, many more were injured,” Obama said Tuesday from the White House State Dining Room.

Fallin vowed to account for every resident.

“We will rebuild, and we will regain our strength,” said Fallin, who went on a flyover of the area and described it as “hard to look at.”

Obama spoke following a meeting with his disaster response team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and top White House officials.

WATCH: Obama Makes Statement On Oklahoma Tornado

Early Tuesday morning, disaster relief workers with Stamford-based AmeriCares left for Oklahoma, where they were to assess immediate needs and coordinate with health clinics and shelters.

“The immediate phase is all about getting the supplies to the shelters, helping the families that are displaced and making sure they have the basic necessities to get through the next couple of days,” spokeswoman Donna Porstner told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams. “Then we start looking at the long-term — are there health care facilities that are damaged that need to be repaired? Are there medicines that we can send? Can we help restock the local hospital? Can we send vaccines? And then it’s some of the longer term needs like things like counseling.”

Officials said those critical supplies were already packed and ready to go at AmeriCares’ warehouse in Stamford.

“We keep a stock of targeted medicines, family emergency kits and relief supplies on hand to help partner clinics in disaster-prone areas, so we are ready to respond quickly,” vice president of emergency response Garrett Ingoglia said in a statement.

Local Red Cross chapters were also sending volunteers to Oklahoma. Craig Cooper with the Suffolk County Red Cross was one of the first from the New York area to head down to Oklahoma.

“When you think about the Joplin tornado that happened just a couple of years ago, the New York area sent out almost 100 volunteers by the time everything was said and done, so I expect that while I might be the first one going out, there will be many other people with a variety of skills who come right behind me,” he said.

Monday’s tornado loosely followed the path of a killer twister that slammed the region with 300 mph winds in May 1999, a storm that damaged 600 homes and about 100 businesses.

Monday’s storm 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., where 116 people died.

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