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Oklahoma tornado: "It's a miracle to have survived"

Survivors of the deadliest tornado in Oklahoma recall moments of the horrific event

The suburb of Moore in Oklahoma was reduced to rubble after a massive tornado hit on 20 May 2013. Picture: AFP

OKLAHOMA - Tornado survivors thanked God, sturdy closets and luck in explaining how they lived through the colossal twister that devastated an Oklahoma town and killed 24 people, an astonishingly low toll given the extent of destruction.

At least one family took refuge in a bathtub and some people shut themselves in underground shelters built into their houses on Monday when the powerful storm tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.

While rescue workers and body-sniffing dogs sifted through the ruins on Wednesday, those who escaped told their stories of survival while trying to salvage what was left of their belongings.

"Yesterday I was numb. Today I cried a lot. Now I'm on the victory side of it," said Beth Vrooman, who hid in a shelter in her garage in Moore during the storm.

The tornado's winds exceeded 320 per hour, flattened entire blocks and demolished two schools and a hospital on its 27km, 50-minute rampage through central Oklahoma.

Of the 24 people killed, 10 were children, including seven who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School. About 240 others were injured, emergency management officials said. The youngest victim was 4 months old, the oldest was 63.

Authorities had said six people were unaccounted for early on Wednesday, but later in the day said all the missing had been found. Five of the six were alive and the sixth was dead but had already been included in the tornado's death toll of 24, Moore Police Chief Jerry Stillings said.

The Oklahoma governor had said earlier in the day that the number of injured was more than 320, but emergency officials later said the total was unchanged at 237.

Listed as the highest category of storm - an EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale - the twister damaged 12,000 to 13,000 homes and affected an estimated 33,000 people, said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

President Barack Obama was due to survey the damage on Sunday, a White House spokesman said.

The clean-up continued Wednesday with an eye toward the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. More than 500 people showed up to clear debris from the biggest cemetery in Moore so that Memorial Day services can be held there as usual, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said.

'A MIRACLE'

Trying to explain the low death toll, experts cited a relatively long advance warning of 16 minutes for the tornado and high awareness of the dangers in a region known as Tornado Alley.

Tonya Williams, 38, said she still felt in shock after surviving the tornado, as so many did, by taking shelter in a closet.

"We prayed. I could feel pressure, and being sucked. I put my body over them to try to protect them," Williams said.

The roof and upper story of the house had collapsed into and around the closet, but neighbours dug them out. Williams and her children suffered only minor injuries.

A large wooden cross that had been hanging on an upstairs wall was found on top of them, she said.

"If you weren't a religious person before, you are now," Williams said. "No word can describe it but a miracle."

Most of the victims died of blunt force injuries and five of the children died from mechanical asphyxiation, when a person's chest is compressed so that it cannot take in air, the state medical examiner said.

Jessica Parmenter, 26, and her three small dogs were at home and directly in the tornado's path. Neighbours rushed to a nearby storm shelter but she did not make it in time and took refuge in a closet.

"The only thing standing was the closet," said Parmenter's mother-in-law, Lori Blake. "There is a hole in the closet. It kept trying to suck her out and she kept holding on."

TORNADO ALLEY

Some ascribed the relatively few deaths to "storm safe" shelters, but only 2.5% of homes in Oklahoma County were so equipped, officials said.

Moore, which has seen four tornadoes since 1998, had experienced the fury of the strongest category of tornado previously when an EF5 twister devastated the region on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people.

The National Weather Service had been issuing alerts for days ahead of the latest storm.

"As much as any place on earth, the people of Moore know what severe weather alerts mean," said Bill.

Bunting, chief of operations for the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Centre in Norman, Oklahoma.

Still, the largely conservative state so far has resisted government imposing requirements that new homes or schools come equipped with storm shelters.

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