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Tornado Hits Oklahoma City at Rush Hour; 104 Injured

May 09, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

OKLAHOMA CITY — A tornado swept through here Thursday, flattening hundreds of homes and scattering cars and mobile homes across the landscape. In eastern Kansas, a twister caused damage in Lawrence.

At least 104 people were injured in the Oklahoma City area, five critically, said Paul O'Leary, spokesman for the city's ambulance service.

There were no reports of fatalities, though O'Leary said a man brought to a local hospital from an area hit by the storm died of a heart attack.

The twister struck just as the afternoon rush hour was beginning, ripping roofs off homes and businesses and damaging a General Motors plant.

Emergency officials in Moore, just south of Oklahoma City, reported that about 300 homes had been destroyed and that 300 to 500 others had been damaged. Gov. Brad Henry said state officials would seek a federal emergency disaster declaration.

Truck driver David Waller was on Interstate 40 when he saw the tornado coming his way. He parked his 18-wheeler and ran for a clump of bushes. He and two other men clung to a tree as the tornado passed by.

"I'm scared to death," said Waller, who was shaking, his clothes covered with mud. His semi was picked up by the tornado and dropped on its side.

For many Oklahomans, the tornado was eerily reminiscent of one that ripped through the Oklahoma City area on May 3, 1999, killing 44 people.

In Thursday's storm, sirens sounded just before 5 p.m. CDT and the twister touched down in suburban Moore 15 minutes later. Shrouded by rain, it moved over Interstate 35 and a mall before moving to the northeast and into two more suburbs -- Midwest City and Del City.

"You could see birds and all kinds of stuff flying around in it," said Jennifer Leger, an employee at a Subway sandwich shop. "We closed. We had the lights off and were just letting in people who were caught outside."

Steve McManus, assistant fire chief in Midwest City, said about 100 homes were damaged or destroyed in Midwest City and Oklahoma City.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said employees at the plant had ample time to take shelter. None of the plant's 3,000 employees was hurt, but two truck drivers were injured.

Flores said the extent of damage to the plant was not immediately determined.

Officials at nearby Tinker Air Force Base said that the storm damaged a fence line but that there were no injuries.

East of Oklahoma City, I-40 was littered with boards, trees, twisted metal and insulation. Authorities closed parts of Interstate 240 after heavy wind damaged nearby industrial buildings, a mobile home sales lots, a bank and a fast-food restaurant.

About 37,000 customers in the area were without power, Oklahoma Gas & Electric said.

In Kansas, damage and a few injuries -- but no deaths -- were reported in several eastern counties, where at least seven tornadoes were spotted.

In Lawrence, at least one tornado tore roofs off homes and apartment buildings, but a hospital reported only minor injuries.

The National Weather Service said straight-line winds were suspected of causing a train to derail in Chase County, where authorities evacuated about 15 homes for about four hours because of spilled sulfur dioxide.

No one aboard the train was hurt, but a passerby suffered inhalation injuries, said Chase County Sheriff Gerald Ingalls. The passerby's condition was not immediately available.

Since Sunday, tornado-packed storms have killed at least 42 people -- 18 in Missouri, 15 in Tennessee, seven in Kansas and two in Illinois. Officials have estimated damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

*

Times staff writer Larry B. Stammer in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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