Teachers emerge as heroes in the eye of the storm

May 23, 2013, 07:25 IST | Moore

Tales of heroism during the Oklahoma tornado are flooding in, including those of educators who shielded their students with their bodies to keep them safe

Terrified children clung on for their lives as one of the most powerful tornadoes in US history made a direct hit on their school.

Debris rained down on them as the 200mph, two-mile wide twister flattened Plaza Towers elementary in a suburb of Oklahoma City.

Picking up the pieces: Teachers Amber Ford hands first grade teacher Sheri Bittle items found inside Bittle’s classroom at Briarwood Elementary School after the building was ruined by the tornado. Officials said that over thousands of homes had been destroyed and 50,000 were left without any power. Pics/AFP

Rescuers are still searching for survivors as the official death toll from the tornado stood at 24, including nine children. Seven youngsters trapped beneath the rubble are believed to have drowned when underground water pipes burst.

But yesterday it was revealed many others in Moore were saved by their courageous teachers.

One of them, Rhonda Crosswhite, was praised for her bravery after ordering a group of children, aged eight and nine, into the girls’ toilets - then lying on top of them to protect them as the tornado struck.

Rhonda told how, as the roof and walls collapsed on to them one little boy cried out to her: “I love you, I love you, please don’t die with me!”

She added: “But we’re OK. We made it out. I never thought I was going to die. The whole time I just kept screaming to them, ‘Quit worrying, we’re fine, we’re fine’.

And I’m very loud, so I just hoped they could hear me – because I could hear them screaming. One girl was sobbing, and I was like ‘We’re going to be fine, I’m protecting you’.” Nine-year-old Damian Britton told how his teacher had saved his life.

He said: “Miss Crosswhite lay on top of us. She was covering me and my friend Zachary.

I told her we were fine because we were holding on to something, and then she went over to my friend Antonio and covered him too – she kept us safe.”

The force of the wind, which swept the ground for 45 minutes, even sucked up horses and other livestock, sending them spinning through the air around the centre of the devastating storm.

Pieces of flying debris from wrecked homes were found more than 100 miles away. The tornado also devastated another school, Briarwood elementary. Suzanne Hale, who had been protecting children at Briarwood Elementary in Moore, suffered a horrifying injury where her lower right leg was shot through by a metal pole.

Haley had her leg pierced by the leg of a chair or table. The first-grade teacher had been cowering with the young children under upturned desks as the tornado barreled directly towards their school.

A total of 237 people were injured and at least 105 have been pulled alive from the rubble. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed and 50,000 people have been left without power. 

Search nears end
Rescue workers believe their search of the debris left by the tornado that tore through Oklahoma is almost over. Moore’s fire chief, Gary Bird, said he was “98 per cent sure” nobody else would be found in the wreckage of Moore, Oklahoma.

Woman reunited with cat found in tornado rubble
June Simpson (above) was relieved when she recovered her cat Sammi from the rubble of her family’s Moore, Oklahoma home on Tuesday, one day after a devastating tornado levelled the neighbourhood. June’s husband Eric and their neighbour Jo McGee were on hand to share in the experience. Other stories of residents discovering pets as they search through the rubble has set social media abuzz. Barbara Garcia found her missing dog beneath the debris.

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