Rescuers search for more victims of Okla. twisters

February 11, 2009 8:57:32 PM PST
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 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 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.

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 at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, meaning a twister was imminent and residents should take shelter. Another warning was issued at 7:15 p.m. when the actual tornado was spotted. It hit Lone Grove at 7:25 p.m. "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.

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."

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