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Parents walked for miles, not knowing if they'd find their children dead or alive

WITH faces bruised and bloodied, parents, teachers and children staggered from the wreckage of their suburban school in Oklahoma only minutes after it had been obliterated by a 200-mph tornado.

One man tried to comfort a small girl in his arms, while a woman with a black eye clung tightly to the crying child at her side. Around them, youngsters in shorts and T-shirts wandered in a daze, staring uncomprehendingly at the post-apocalyptic devastation that had once been their classrooms.

The roof of Briarwood Elementary School had been ripped off and cars tossed into the building like toys. Miraculously, everybody survived.

At the nearby Plaza Towers Elementary School, which also took a direct hit from the monstrous storm, pupils were not so lucky, however. At least seven perished in the terrible winds.

The small backpacks of the victims still hung neatly on pegs on a partially standing hallway wall. All around was a mangled mess of contorted metal and broken beams, books, small chairs and other remnants of daily school life littered in the wreckage.

HEROISM

The children at Plaza Towers, aged as young as five, had thought their building's basement would be a place of safety, but instead it turned into a watery grave for those who sought refuge there.

As water pipes burst, the basement filled quickly. Trapped by the debris, the youngsters seeking sanctuary had nowhere to go.

Above ground, other children were led into a bathroom by teachers as emergency sirens wailed during 40 minutes of terror and carnage. They adopted their well-practised tornado drill and crouched, heads in hands, in a corridor that was supposed to be a designated safe area, then clung desperately to walls and doorways before those were torn away. As the full impact of the storm hit, teachers threw themselves on their pupils, using their own bodies to save them.

In the aftermath, parents rushed to the scene and clawed at the wreckage trying to reach those trapped. Police and firefighters used bars to raise concrete blocks. The lucky ones were pulled, looking stunned and bedraggled, from underneath the remnants and passed to safety down a human chain of rescuers and neighbours to a makeshift triage centre.

There were scenes of joy as parents embraced the surviving children. One little girl told local television: "I had to hold on to the wall to keep myself safe."

A teacher described how "parents walked for miles just to get to their children. They were out of breath and crying but so happy to see them."

Oklahoma State Police sergeant Jeremy Lewis said: "They literally were lifting walls up and kids were coming out. They pulled kids out from under cinder blocks without a scratch on them."

In the early hours of yesterday, a man stood with a megaphone outside St Andrews United Methodist Church, now a Red Cross shelter, calling out the names of children confirmed to have survived.

Anxious parents crowded around, hoping to hear the name of their sons and daughters. "I haven't seen him since this morning," the mother of one boy, Dylan Hall, told reporters. "I just can't find my son".

At Briarwood Elementary School parents paid tribute to the heroism of teachers who had saved their children.

Irish Independent