Rescuers Keep Up Search in Oklahoma

LONE GROVE, Oklahoma — Rescuers sorted through bricks and shattered plywood Wednesday in search of more victims of a deadly tornado that blasted through a small Oklahoma town where many people in a trailer park had nowhere to escape the howling winds.

The death toll rose to nine Wednesday when a man who was injured and transferred to a Dallas hospital died, said Carter County Sheriff Ken Grace. Other victims were killed by flying debris and one man died when a pickup truck fell on him.

There were also miraculous tales of survival: People taking shelter in a closet pulled a woman to safety after the tornado blew part of the roof off and threatened to carry her away. Another woman was found injured but alive beneath an overturned mobile home.

Residents of Lone Grove, a town of 4,600 about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City, awoke Wednesday to find much of their community in ruins.

Shirley Mose was not at home when the tornado struck, but she returned to find the house destroyed and her pickup truck wrecked.

"I had a little Chihuahua that stayed in there," Mose said. "We found her bed, but not her. I guess she's gone."

The Lone Grove twister had winds estimated at 170 mph (275 kph)and remained on the ground for more than an hour, the National Weather Service said in its preliminary assessment.

It was among a cluster of unusual February tornados that touched down Tuesday in Oklahoma. A half-dozen homes and several businesses were also damaged in Oklahoma City and suburban Edmond, but no serious injuries were reported there.

Later Wednesday, high winds toppled trees and utility poles and knocked out power to nearly 205,000 customers in Ohio. And a wind gust of more than 90 mph blew through Allegheny County Airport, part of a strong line of storms in the Pittsburgh area that left more than 47,000 without electricity.

Authorities in West Virginia say one person died after a severe thunderstorm caused a school gym to collapse during a wake. Severe thunderstorms blew through the state, knocking out power to at least 153,000 customers.

Lone Grove firefighters methodically searched each damaged or destroyed structure, spray-painting a large "X'' on homes after inspection. Residents were then allowed to check for belongings.

Authorities gave as much as 35 minutes of warning that a twister was approaching.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning Tuesday evening, meaning a twister was imminent and residents should take shelter. Another warning was issued at shortly after when the actual tornado was spotted and hit Lone Grove minutes later.

"A lot of people just didn't leave," Grace said.

Tornadoes are relatively rare in the winter. Since 1950, Oklahoma has been struck by 44 in February, most recently on Feb. 25, 2000, when a twister damaged a barn and power lines in the western part of the state.

Most of the bodies were found in the mobile home wreckage. A trucker driving through town was also killed when winds slammed into his rig. Fourteen other people were seriously injured.

On Wednesday, all that was visible of the mobile homes were the cinder blocks they sat on. Trees were uprooted or snapped in half. Cars were flung around like children's toys. Hoods of vehicles were ripped off. And debris was scattered everywhere.

Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office, said some of the victims appeared to have been inside their homes when the tornado hit. Others had fled outdoors.

Most died from blows to the head.

"One victim was found underneath a pickup truck the tornado had lifted and dropped on him," Ballard said.

There was no shelter near the mobile home park for the residents to seek refuge.

Surveying the wreckage, Wade Talieferro pointed to a section of the park where six mobile homes had once stood.

"They're all gone," said Talieferro, whose uncle lives in the area. "I found a dead body in the pasture last night."

Thirty National Guard troops helped police provide security.

"The devastation literally takes your breath away," Gov. Brad Henry said. "It literally looks like a war zone. But on the flip side of that, it's amazing how many survived. In some way, this area was blessed by God."

Some 26,000 customers of Oklahoma Gas and Electric lost power after the central Oklahoma tornado, but power was restored to most within several hours. About 2,200 customers remained without power, mostly in southern Oklahoma.

Along the main road in Lone Grove, homes and businesses were destroyed. Trees were splintered. Roofs were missing. Power lines were on the ground, and electricity was out.

Trina Quinton stood next to a pile of rubble that used to be John's Furniture, which was owned by her cousin.

"This is where I was raised," Quinton said as tears rolled down her cheek. "This is where I grew up."

She was grateful that the business was closed at the time of the twister, but she doubted the family would be able to rebuild.

Joe Hornback, 42, said the roof was blown off a post office a few blocks from his home.

"We were very fortunate," he said. "We went into the only cellar on our block. There were 30 of us in a 6-by-6 (two meter by two meter) underground cellar."

Lana Hartman rode out the storm with seven other people in a small clothes closet of the rental house she moved into on Monday.

"We were all in the closet. The suction was so unreal," Hartman said.

The tornado blew part of the roof off the house and lifted one of her daughters into the air. Everyone grabbed the woman to keep her from flying off.

"I was in shock. I think I still am," Hartman said. "We're alive. That's all that matters."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us