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Rescue efforts ongoing as grim scene emerges after tornado

May 21, 2013|By Matt Pearce

MOORE, Okla. -- After darkness fell over this tornado-stricken city on Monday night and early Tuesday morning, rescuers confronted a strange and grim tableau.

Trees were wrapped with aluminum,  and downed power lines ran over streams from broken water mains. In a city with so many ruined homes -- and at least 51 dead after an enormous twister cranked through the southern Oklahoma City suburb -- call after call for victims went without answer.

"First responders! Do you need any help?" shouted one nurse who picked through a home without a roof and without a door.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

Moore police officials told local television news early Tuesday that "hundreds" of people had been rescued overnight.

Flashlights flicked over mud-spattered walls and lawns strewn with battered vehicles.

Somebody noticed the strong smell of a gas leak. Another searcher then lit a cigarette, and nobody said anything.

The day and night had been long, and the work grim.

"Is there anybody in here? Anybody in here? Hello!"

Silence.

A strict police cordon around the city during its first night after the twister diverted many gawkers, reporters, volunteers and even emergency officials from Moore's disheveled interior.

National Guard troops checked and rechecked storm-blasted homes only to discover nobody, but they occasionally recovered ceremonial flags and old police memorabilia for noticeably absent owners.

Homeowners were among those turned back at the police cordons, and for at least one night, Moore belonged totally to the rescuers.

"I don't know what's going to happen," said Bridgette Wallace, a nurse from southern Oklahoma City who arrived earlier in the afternoon to help search and was now waiting for another neighborhood to check.

Some blocks had floodlights to aid with the checks; much more of the city was lit only by another approaching thunderstorm and the persistent circlings of a search helicopter.

Much of the search focused on the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where a large number of children were feared dead. As the night progressed, officials scooted reporters away from the tragic scene.

Salvation Army Lt. John Autry, standing in front of an impressive ziggurat of bottled water and boxes of Pop-Tarts and doughnuts, had also been turned back at the police cordon before persistence -- and common sense -- won him entry.

He was, after all, here to feed everybody, particularly the weary firefighters drifting in and out for brief breaks before filing off to another ruined section of the city.

Autry, a Moore resident, had watched the mighty twister drop right out of the sky and start to "churn, churn, churn" like crazy. He told his wife, who was hiding in her closet, to instead drive away from the storm. The funnel spared their home by "a sixteenth of a mile," he said.

"I've been through eight hurricanes, and I'd never seen something like this," he added, while goading first responders to eat.

As Moore residents pondered what uncertainties awaited them at daylight, a similarly sad contingent sat in cages in front of the local Home Depot.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

They were lost dogs, among 42 dogs, cats and birds that had been found "roaming, under rubble, tied to trees in the hopes that somebody would come back for them," said Eric McCune, 39, of Oklahoma City, who runs a care group called the Bella Foundation.

Inside the Home Depot was the pet triage where volunteer veterinarians decided if the rescues needed emergency care. One Pomeranian didn't make it.

Out front were the lucky ones: Almost a dozen dogs, at least momentarily ownerless, laying with their heads bowed as one of their brethren barked inconsolably.

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