MOORE, Okla. (CBSNewYork) — Residents have begun the painful process of picking up the pieces of their lives, after the devastating tornado that ripped through the town on Monday.
The National Weather Service confirmed that the tornado was an EF-5 – the largest and most powerful classification of tornado on the Fujita scale. It was on the ground for 50 minutes, and was 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.
“We’ve seen numerous structures that are wiped clean to the foundation. We have the top experts in the field out there on our survey teams today looking at that,” Rick Smith of the National Weather Service said on Tuesday.
As CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported from Moore, Fred Galarza was out surveying what little was left of his business Tuesday night – despite two broken ribs, fractured vertebrae and a brush with death.
“This should be where the bathroom door was,” Moore said.
“I could hear everything hitting the wall, I could hear the noise, the wind,” he continued. “And at some point, I look up and I see the roof come off — I could see the sky. And at that point, I just basically dove into the space underneath the sink.”
Pieces of the building began collapsing around Galarza. Within seconds, he was trapped.
“At that point, that’s when I felt stuff falling on me. I felt something fall on my back and legs,” he said. “I think it was the toilet that broke and pinned my feet down.”
Galarza couldn’t move, but he had a cell phone. He tried to reach his wife, but had no luck, so he called 911.
“I said, ‘Please hurry, because I can barely breathe,'” He said.
The paramedics arrived and followed Galarza’s voice to get him out. When he broke free, he saw the devastation and was happy to be alive.
“The only thing I could think of, was I looked around and I saw all this (damage). I was shocked and amazed. And then I looked over and saw what was left of 7-Eleven,” he said, “and I couldn’t imagine what happened to the people in the coolers, because there’s still a big pile of rubble on top of them.
“I asked the EMT when we went to the hospital, I asked her, and she said some of them didn’t make it,” he continued. “So at that point, I considered myself pretty blessed.”
Police said a mother and her child were, in fact, killed at that 7-Eleven, Schneider reported.
Another resident, Ann Friess, narrowly escaped the tornado that ripped through the town.
“We were south of the tornado but we could hear it. We could see it. We could see the debris,” Friess said.
When the warnings sounded, she grabbed her husband, hopped in their truck and drove away.
“He wanted to stay. He wanted to stay in closet. I told him we had to get out,” Friess said. “I took the keys and he followed me. Where our closet was there’s nothing.”
If they had stayed, Friess said, they would have died.
“It was really bad and I was like, ‘Let’s go,’” said her husband, David Friess. “At the last second my wife said, ‘We’re not staying. We’re going across street. They have a cellar over there.'”
David and Ann Friess said all their neighbors survived. But their dog did not, and David does not know what happened to his cats.
They spent five hours Tuesday digging through the mud. The motorcycles and cars that once sat in their driveway were gone – literally blown out of sight.
Others that sat in garages were left sitting uncovered, and the homes they once stood next to had vanished.
“We just pulled boards and trash and everything away, and waited for people to scream and pull them up from there. You basically ran from pile to pile and waited for someone to scream,” a neighbor said of Monday night’s rescue effort.
The people in the area had resorted to searching the grounds where they once had a home, looking for anything to hold onto.
“Jewelry pictures, my grandmother’s silver; her wedding ring. My friend just found her watch, I don’t know how she found it… she came running, she said, ‘Did this belong to you?'” Ann Friess said. “But we were hoping to find more pictures.”
Some of the youngest people in Moore also found themselves the most vulnerable to the tornado’s wrath, CBS 2’s Dana Tyler reported. The massive twister had Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools in its crosshairs.
“I’m amazed that he walked out of that alive,” said Moore mother Trenda Purcell.
Purcell was reunited with her son not long after the disaster. She credited his teacher for keeping her little boy alive.
Many parents have stories of heroic teachers.
“I’ve not a doubt that God and his teacher — I mean, they lifted a wall off of these kids,” one woman said.
“The wall fell on us, and they had to take the wall off of us so we could get out,” said student Ashley Bersche.
Educators sacrificed their own safety to keep children safe.
“All the desks were on top of us and the teacher got stuck, and so somebody had to help her because the desk was on her leg,” one girl said.
Rescue workers dug through the rubble of the schools hoping to find survivors, but they could only do so much. At Plaza Towers Elementary School — the worst hit of the two schools — seven students were lost.
Danny Neal, of the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, learned the Great Plains were ripe for tornadoes last week, and hit the road Friday night. He followed a storm system south from Kansas on Saturday, and by Monday he was heading into Moore, about a mile away when the tornado hit, Mike Krauser of WBBM Newsradio in Chicago reported.
“When we saw how big it was, and listened to the roar, it was probably one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever heard, because I knew exactly where it was heading,” he said. “As it passed us, and we lost sight of it, because the rain wrapped around it, it was like the most sickening, deafening roar you could ever imagine going into the city, and we just knew something bad was happening.”
Neal said the Oklahoma twister was probably the strongest and deadliest tornado he’s ever seen. He’s been chasing and documenting storms for more than 15 years, and has witnessed more than 100 tornadoes.
“Everybody started crying, and I started crying because I didn’t know if I was gonna make it or not,” a little girl at one of the two schools flattened by the massive twister said.
Rescuers searched every home in the destruction zone in Moore and the fire chief said he’s 98 percent sure there are no more bodies or survivors in the rubble. Rescuers were making multiple sweeps of each property and were prepared to wrap up that work Tuesday evening, CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported.
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