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May 22, 2013

Oklahoma teachers saved lives, witnesses say

The Associated Press

MOORE, Okla. — The principal's voice came on over the intercom at Plaza Towers Elementary School: A severe storm was approaching and students were to go to the cafeteria and wait for their parents to pick them up.

click image to enlarge

T. Sgt. Robert Raymond, left, runs to embrace his son Ethan, 11, center partially obscured, with his daughter Lily, 17, right, at Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Hellstern)

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Amy Sharp hugs daughter Jenna Dunn, 10, a day after she picked up her children from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., which was leveled by a tornado packing winds of up to 200 mph. on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla. (AP Photo/Peter Banda)

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But before all of the youngsters could get there, the tornado alarm sounded.

The plan changed quickly.

"All the teachers started screaming into the room and saying, 'Get into the hallway! We don't want you to die!' and stuff like that," said sixth-grader Phaedra Dunn. "We just took off running."

In the moments that followed, some of the children at Plaza Towers Elementary would, in fact, die. At least seven were killed by the twister Monday afternoon. Others would crawl out of the rubble, bloodied and bruised, utterly terrified.

The tornado that devastated this Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people destroyed Plaza Towers and also slammed Briarwood Elementary, where all the children appear to have survived. Students and parents recounted stories Tuesday of brave teachers who sheltered their pupils, in some cases by herding them into a closet and a restroom amid the fear and panic.

After the tornado alarm went off, students at Plaza Towers scrambled into the halls. But the halls — some of which were within the view of windows — did not appear safe enough.

Sixth-grader Antonio Clark said a teacher took him and as many other youngsters as possible and shoved them into the three-stall boys' bathroom.

"We were all piled in on each other," the 12-year-old said. Another teacher wrapped her arms around two students and held Antonio's hand.

Twenty seconds later he heard a roar that sounded like a stampede of elephants. His ears popped.

Then it all stopped almost as suddenly as it started. Crouched down, his backpack over his head, Antonio looked up. The skylight and the ceiling were gone, and he was staring up into a cloud filled with debris.

Antonio and a friend were among the first to stand up. They climbed over debris where their classroom had been just moments earlier. Students and teachers were struggling to free themselves from under the bricks, wooden beams and insulation. Some people had bleeding head wounds; blood covered one side of someone's eyeglasses, Antonio said.

"Everybody was crying," Antonio said. "I was crying because I didn't know if my family was OK."

Then Antonio saw his father ride up on a mountain bike, yelling his son's name.

Phaedra survived, too. Her mother rushed to the school just moments before the tornado hit, covered Phaedra's head with a blanket to protect her from hail and ushered her out the door. Phaedra's 10-year-old sister, Jenna, didn't want to budge from the school.

The principal "grabbed her backpack, put it over her head and literally said, 'You're mom's going to open the door. Get out. You're safer with your mom,' and pushed her out the door," said Amy Sharp, the girls' mother.

At Briarwood Elementary, the students also went into the halls. But a third-grade teacher didn't think it looked safe, so she herded some of the children into a closet, said David Wheeler, one of the fathers who tried to rush to the school after the tornado hit.

The teacher shielded Wheeler's 8-year-old son, Gabriel, with her arms and held him down as the tornado collapsed the school roof and starting lifting students upward with a pull so strong that it literally sucked glasses off kids' faces, Wheeler said.

(Continued on page 2)

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