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By Erin McClam, Staff Writer, NBC News
A monster tornado roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs and killed at least 37 people Monday, pulverizing block after block of homes, tearing the walls off an elementary school and leaving behind miles of mangled cars and splintered wood.
Crews frantically searched the wreckage and were only beginning to get a sense of the destruction. Hospitals reported several dozen injured.
“The whole city looks like a debris field,” said Mayor Glenn Lewis of the city of Moore, which appeared to be hardest hit.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the tornado tore the roof off, and authorities kept hysterical parents back because it was too loud to hear screams for help. A teacher told NBC affiliate KFOR that she draped herself on top of six children in a bathroom to shelter them.
It was not clear how many children were trapped. Students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade were evacuated to a church, but students in lower grades had sheltered in place, KFOR reported. More than two hours after the tornado struck, several children were pulled out alive.
NBC's Brian Williams and NBC's Al Roker report on the aftermath of a tornado, which is believed to have been up to a mile wide, and left a huge path of destruction as it cut across Moore, Oklahoma.
The Weather Channel said the twister was a mile wide at its base, and a reporter for KFOR said it kicked up a cloud of debris perhaps two miles wide. The National Weather Service initially classified the storm as an EF4, the second-strongest type, with winds of 166 to 200 mph.
“It seems that our worst fears have happened today,” said Bill Bunting, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman, Okla.
For miles, television footage showed a landscape utterly shattered. Emergency workers stepped gingerly around piles of wreckage left on the foundations of homes. Other people simply walked around dazed, marveling that nothing was left of their houses — and in many cases that they themselves were alive.
“I lost everything,” one man said as he walked through the ruins of an obliterated horse farm. “We might have one horse left out of all of them.”
The tornado struck at mid-afternoon and tore a 20-mile path, said Rick Smith, another weather service meteorologist. He said it was on the ground for 40 minutes. Much of the storm’s rampage was captured on live television, perhaps alerting people in its path to seek shelter.
At one hospital in Moore, cars were “piled like Hot Wheels” in the parking lot, and police were searching them one by one and spray-painting X’s to mark them clear of victims, said Kurt Gwartney, news director for radio station KGOU.
An Oklahoma emergency management spokesman said a hospital was being evacuated after sustaining severe damage, and 16 ambulances were being sent to move patients. It was not clear whether it was the same hospital.
President Barack Obama pledged the full help of the federal government. Gov. Mary Fallin asked the people of Oklahoma for patience and promised: “We will bring every single resource out that we can.”
Relief efforts sprang up. The Red Cross said it was opening a shelter, and the University of Oklahoma opened some of its housing for displaced families.
In addition to Plaza Towers, Briarwood Elementary School was heavily damaged, KFOR reported.
Search and rescue teams converged on a staging area at the Warren Theater, which was also damaged, as the tornado churned toward other Oklahoma towns. The storms were expected to continue through the evening.
Grasping for comparisons, some people said it looked like Joplin, the Missouri town virtually wiped off the map two years ago when a tornado — this one an EF5 — blew through and killed 158 people.
For people in Oklahoma, the ferocity was reminiscent of May 3, 1999, when a tornado registered wind of more than 300 mph, left 46 dead and damaged or destroyed more than 8,000 homes.
Video of the historic F5 tornado in Moore Oklahoma may 3rd 1999
Videos of the historic F5 tornado in Moore Oklahoma may 20th 2013