Oklahoma tornado: The storm was a monster - even for Tornado Alley

Residents of Moore are used to severe weather patterns – but the strength of Monday’s twister left them shocked and awed

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The people of Moore know a twister when they see one. On 3 May 1999, an EF-5 storm tore through the Oklahoma suburb, killing 36 people and injuring 583. So when a dark, spinning cloud appeared in the skies to the southwest on Monday afternoon, they were prepared - or so they thought. The tornado touched down at 2.46pm.

Lando Hite, an exercise rider and caretaker at the Celestial Acres horse training facility, had been readying to weather a regular storm when he realised what was coming. His experience of living in Oklahoma's “Tornado Alley”, he said, had likely saved his life: when the wind seemed to die down suddenly, he knew danger was imminent, and took refuge in a stable.

“I jumped into one of the [horse] stalls and they collapsed on top of me,” Hite, still shirtless and caked in mud, told local news station KFOR later. “It was unbearably loud. You could see stuff flying everywhere, just like in the movie Twister.”

While the storm wreaked havoc on Celestial Acres, across town in the Warren Theatre's IMAX auditorium, 25-year-old James Dock was sitting down to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. As the movie began, its noisy sound effects were joined by the sound of something heavy bouncing off the roof of the cinema. “I thought it was hail,” Dock told the Los Angeles Times. Just before 3pm, the manager came into the theatre and asked patrons to retreat to the hallway for shelter.

By that time, the tornado had crossed the nearby Newcastle neighbourhood, and been upgraded to a category EF-4 storm, with wind speeds of 200mph or more. Elderly Moore resident Barbara Garcia was sitting on a stool in her bathroom, hugging her dog as the twister struck. The lights went out, and she felt the stool rise up off the floor. When she came to, she was covered in debris, lying beside an upturned stove in the rubble of her home. “I hollered for my little dog, and he didn't answer,” she said.

Ben Holcomb, 28, lives 15 miles from Moore and has been a storm-chaser for six years. He followed the tornado from beginning to end. “As soon as it formed, it was obvious that it would be a monster,” he told The Independent. “I could tell by how fast it developed, how intense it looked - and the fact that it was heading right into a very heavily populated area. I love chasing storms, I love the power of nature, but I don't look forward to the destruction that comes with it. This is absolutely the worst tornado I've ever seen, by far.”

As the twister bore down on Briarwood Elementary School, pupils took cover under stairs, desks and bathroom sinks. Teachers shielded the children; one lay on top of her own son to protect him from falling debris. The wind peeled the walls and roof from the building but, remarkably, no one was killed. Plaza Towers Elementary, struck minutes later, was not so lucky. Though some older pupils had been evacuated to a nearby church, those from kindergarten to third grade were still huddled in the building as it succumbed to the storm. Trapped in the basement as the water pipes burst, seven children were found drowned beneath the rubble of the school on Monday evening.

The tornado passed over the Warren Theatre at 3.25pm, and dissipated not long afterwards. When the moviegoers emerged from the cinema, said Dock, “Mud and debris were covering everything. The marquee of the theatre had been torn off of the front, and there was broken glass everywhere.” A bowling alley had been completely destroyed, he said, “the medical centre looked torn in half, and there was a car sticking out of it.”

By Tuesday morning, the death toll was estimated at 24, with further fatalities feared. More than 140 people had been injured. There was a glimmer of hope for Barbara Garcia, who found her dog in the rubble during an on-camera interview with CBS News, apparently uninjured. “Well I got God to answer one prayer to let me be OK,” said an emotional Garcia, “but he answered both of them because this was my second prayer.”

Story of the destruction: The tornado’s path

1 Spinning cloud spotted around 45 kilometres south-west of the centre of Oklahoma City at 1.54pm.

2 Tornado touches ground at 2.46pm local time, heading north-west. At this point, it is a Category 3 storm, with wind speeds above 150mph. The mile-wide twister would eventually cover 20 miles in around 40 minutes.

3 Shortly afterwards, Lando Hite narrowly survives being crushed after seeking refuge in a stall at his horse farm. “I jumped in and they collapsed on top of me,” he says, shirtless and covered in mud. “It was unbearably loud; you could see stuff flying everywhere, just like in the movie Twister.” Hite sets several of his horses free before taking cover.

4 By 3pm, the tornado has reached the suburb of Newcastle. It is now a Category 4 storm, characterised by wind speeds in excess of 200mph.

5 Roughly 11 minutes later, the storm has travelled the 5.5 miles to the Briarwood Elementary School, which takes a direct hit. The walls and roof are blown off the building but miraculously no one is killed. The pupils remain inside and take cover inside bathrooms, and under stairs and desks.

One parent describes how a teacher protected his son: “The teacher held their heads and bricks were falling all over the kids. She got her arm injured. One of the boys on her other side got a big gash in his head, but he’s OK,” he says. Another member of staff is able to save her own son from harm.

6 Sweeping north-west, the strengthening winds flatten an entire neighbourhood between Penn Lane and Santa Fe Avenue. Oklahoma City is built on hard ground and many houses in Moore have no storm basements.

7 Minutes later, another elementary school, Plaza Towers, feels the full force. “The walls were pancaked,” Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb later told ABC News. Police spokesman Sergeant Gary Knight confirms that at least seven children have died, all of them drowned.

Rescue crews work through the night searching for survivors amid the devastation, passing the injured down a human chain to a hastily established first-aid centre in the car park. Fourth- to sixth-grade pupils are evacuated to a local church, while the younger children from kindergarten to third grade are kept inside the building. Bodies of adults are found on the school lawn. One man tells how he helped to pull a car off a teacher and found her underneath with three children she had shielded with her body.

8 At around 3.25pm, the tornado strikes the Warren Theatre, which, unlike other buildings in the area, remains standing. It too becomes an emergency triage centre. At the Moore Medical Centre, the 200mph winds sweep dozens of cars from the car park into the main entrance.

At around the same time, cars on Interstate 35 are picked up and  flung into a pile around the central reservation. A family of four with a baby are reported to have been  killed near 4th Street and Telephone Road after they try to take refuge in  a freezer.