'Good job, teach': Educators emerge as heroes in Okla. tragedy

Briarwood Elementary P.E. teacher Mike Murphy comforts Aiden Stuck, 7, as he waits for his mother at the school after a tornado destroyed Briarwood El... Nate billings / AP
Briarwood Elementary P.E. teacher Mike Murphy comforts Aiden Stuck, 7, as he waits for his mother at the school after a tornado destroyed Briarwood Elementary.

As stories of survival emerged from sites devastated Monday by the Oklahoma tornado, so did accounts of the heroic actions of teachers who risked their lives to save students from the deadly storm. The tornado struck direct blows on two elementary schools.

One survivor told KFOR-TV about how he worked to rescue a teacher stuck beneath a car that landed in the front hallway of one of the schools.

“I don’t know what that lady’s name is, but she had three little kids underneath her. Good job, teach,” he said, breaking into tears.

Sixth-grade teacher Rhonda Crosswhite never feared for her own life as she draped her body across six students inside a Plaza Towers Elementary School bathroom stall. Instead, she focused on providing what little comfort she could to the screaming and sobbing children beneath her.

“I never thought I was going to die. The whole time I just kept screaming to them, ‘Quit worrying, we’re fine, we’re fine, we’re fine,’” Crosswhite told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie Tuesday.

"One of my little boys just said, he just kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, please don’t die with me, please don’t die with me,’" she said.

The teacher said she has a loud voice, but she feared she wouldn’t be heard over the storm and the screams of the students beneath her.

“’We’re going to be fine. I am protecting you,’” Crosswhite said she told one girl. “And then I said a few prayers. ‘God, please take care of my kids.’ And we’re fine.”

Teacher reunion. TODAY
Rhonda Crosswhite reunites with Damian Britton, one of the students she helped protect from the Oklahoma tornado, as mom Brandi Kline brushes away tears.

Crosswhite got a chance to reunite, on air, with one of the students she saved. Damian Britton, a fourth-grader who was in the same bathroom with Crosswhite, credited the teacher earlier on TODAY for saving his life.

The two embraced each other while Crosswhite whispered, “I told you we were going to be OK.”

The boy’s mother, Brandi Kline, then joined the two in their embrace before recognizing her efforts.

“Thank you so much. Thank you all the teachers that were out there,” she said.

Crosswhite downplayed her efforts, instead praising the work of the entire school’s staff and faculty.

“Just doing our job,” she said.

Photographs of teachers carrying or holding the hands of children overcome by the ordeal also were widely distributed.

The tales eerily echoed the heroic stories that emerged from another recent tragedy. Teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., also risked their lives to put their students first and save them from the gunman who stormed the school last December.

School principal Dawn Hochsprung was killed after running toward the danger when the shooting rampage began, according to accounts told by victim relatives.

First-grade teacher Vicki Soto also died while trying to save her students, discovered by authorities trying to shield her students from the spray of bullets.

Rescuers in Oklahoma continued their search efforts Tuesday at both elementary schools and throughout Oklahoma City suburbs devastated by the tornados. Authorities say at least 24 people were killed, a lower estimate than the 51 originally provided. It was unclear how many children were among those who died.

Tune in to NBC at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT Tuesday night foran NBC News special focusing on the Oklahoma tornado.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Image: *** BESTPIX *** Moore Residents Begin Painful Recovery From Massive Tornado Strike

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    A monster tornado hit Moore, Okla., leaving at least 24 dead.

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    Volunteers (left to right) Jaqi Castro, Angelica Morris-Smith and Cetoria Petties walk through a tornado ravaged neighborhood handing out supplies to residents and volunteers, May 27, 2013, in Moore, Okla.
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    Lights shine during the evening of May 26 from the tops of crosses making up a memorial outside the Plaza Towers elementary school where seven children died and several students and teachers were injured by the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla.
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    Volunteers pray at a makeshift memorial outside Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 26, in Moore, Okla.
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    A tornado ravaged neighborhood on May 26 in Moore, Okla.
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    President Barack Obama is greeted as he tours a tornado affected area on May 26 in Moore, Okla. Obama meet with victims and first responders during his visit to the area, promising help.
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    Jennifer Doan, left, is embraced by her fiance, Nyle Rogers, right, during a memorial service at the First Baptist Church in Moore, Okla., May 26. Doan, a teacher at Plaza Towers elementary school, was trapped under the rubble after the Moore tornado.
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    Deana Sanderson, left, and Timothy Gansman embrace as they view a memorial in front of the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School where seven children lost their lives during Monday's tornado on May 25 in Moore, Okla.
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    Two boys work to remove debris from a field near the Orr Family Farm in Oklahoma City, Okla., on May 25. The tornado that hit the area May 20 was the strongest in the United States in nearly two years and cut a path of destruction 17 miles long and up to 1.3 miles wide. Storm experts said it was remarkable that only 24 people were killed, as tornadoes of this strength can blow away a well-constructed brick or wood house.
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    Mike Hitch prepares to tow a classic Corvette that was pulled from debris of a home May 25 in Moore. The car will be sold at auction to help the insurance company recover some of the loss.
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    Volunteers from Texas make their way through a tornado-ravaged neighborhood while helping residents clean up May 25 in Moore.
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    Southmoore High School senior Jake Spradling, hugs a classmate as they get ready for their commencement ceremony in Oklahoma City, Okla., May 25, five days after a tornado destroyed a large swath of the area in Moore, Okla., that their school draws from. Spradling's home was among those destroyed.
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    Thomas Alford, right, and his son Thomas Alford Jr. help Sheri Cushman look through her family's home May 24 in Moore.
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    Volunteers help a homeowner dry his clothing at a tornado-devastated home in Moore on May 24.
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    Jessica Fowler digs through the remains of her destroyed bedroom May 24 in Moore.
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    Lightning from a thunderstorm strikes amid the wreckage of twisted cars and structures at Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 23.
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    A woman searches for salvageable belongings at a tornado-devastated home May 22 in Moore.
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    Tornado survivor Arlisha Hall holds her 2-month-old daughter, Akai Hall, as she and husband Wyatt Hall walk back to their home May 22 in Moore.
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    Two satellite views show Moore, Okla., before (Top) and after (Bottom) the passage of a powerful EF5 tornado, which passed through the town on May 20, destroying homes, schools and businesses and killing 24 people, including 10 children.
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    Christine Jones, left, and her daughter Ashley embrace while standing in front of their destroyed home on Wednesday, two days after a killer tornado hit in Moore, Okla. The storm, estimated to contain winds of more than 200 mph, flattened homes and schools, killed at least 24 people, including nine children, and injured more than 200 others May 20.
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    John Wilson surveys the neighborhood May 22 from atop the rubble that was once a home his son and ex-wife shared before the neighborhood was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through the area.
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    Thomas Trowbridge, left, with wife Kelcy, center, and her mother, Cindy Moore, salvage items May 22 from Trowbridge's house, which was destroyed by the tornado two days before in Moore, Okla. The Category 5 tornado killed at least 24 people and left behind extensive damage to homes and businesses.
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    Dean Dye looks over a storm shelter on May 22 in a home that was destroyed by a tornado in Moore, Okla. The shelter is across the street from Dye's daughter's home, which was damaged by the storm.
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    Men push over what remains of a chimney May 22 in a destroyed home two days after a killer tornado hit in Moore, Okla. The storm is estimated to have contained winds of more than 200 miles per hour.
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    Joe Bell recovers a mixer in what remains of his kitchen, May 22, after a tornado destroyed his house in Oklahoma City, Okla.
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    A tornado survivor looks through a pile of clothing at a road side relief camp on May 22, in Moore, Okla. As rescue efforts in Oklahoma wound down, residents turned to the daunting task of cleanup and rebuilding.
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    A sign reads 'God Bless Moore' as workers make repairs on May 22 to the Warren theatre in Moore, Okla., which was left devastated by a tornado.
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    Volunteers fill boxes with nonperishables food items at the Feed the Children distribution center in Oklahoma City, Okla., May 22. The boxes will be given to various non-profits to help tornado victims.
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    A woman searches for her possessions at sunset in the Moore, Oklahoma on May 21.
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    Standy Stewart, right, and her pregnant daughter-in-law Robyn Rojas have their dinner at what is left of their home on May 21 in Moore, Okla.
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    Danielle Stephan holds boyfriend Thomas Layton as they pause between salvaging the remains of a family member's home in Moore, Okla., on May 21. Rescuers went building to building in search of victims, and thousands of survivors were homeless on Tuesday after a massive tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb, wiping out whole blocks of homes and killing at least 24 people.
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    An aerial view shows destroyed houses and buildings on May 21 in Moore, Okla.
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    June Simson receives a hug from her neighbor Jo McGee while embracing her cat Sammi after she found him standing on the rubble of her destroyed home on May 21 in Moore, Oklahoma.
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    Police stand beside two men sitting handcuffed on the street whom they have detained on suspicion of looting in Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    Utility workers raise cable as they try to restore power to a section of town May 21, the day after a killer tornado hit in Moore, Okla.
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    A woman and young boy walk along a street and view destroyed houses on May 21 in Moore, Okla.
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    A man salvages items from what is left of a bedroom of his home on May 21 in Moore, Okla.
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    Two frightened and apparently lost dogs sit on a coffee table top in a destroyed neighborhood in Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    A chair sits against a bare tree next to a destroyed home on May 21 in Moore, Okla.
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    An aerial view shows an entire neighborhood destroyed by Monday's tornado, on May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed in the massive tornado that flattened homes and a school in Moore, on Monday afternoon.
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    U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Justin Acord sifts through the rubble of his father-in-law's home in Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    Destroyed vehicles lie in the rubble outside the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla., on May 21, after the school was destroyed by a massive tornado on May 20. Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the rubble of homes, schools and a hospital in an Oklahoma town hit by a powerful tornado.
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    An aerial view shows homes damaged by Monday's tornado as others appear untouched, on May 21, in Moore, Okla. At least 24 people, including nine children, were killed in the massive tornado that flattened homes and a school in Moore, on Monday afternoon.
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    Lea Bessinger salvages a picture of Jesus as she and her son Josh Bessinger sort through the rubble of the elder Bessinger's tornado-ravaged home, on May 21, in Moore, Okla.
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    Austin Brock holds his cat Tutti shortly after the animal was retrieved from the rubble of Brock's home, which was demolished a day earlier when a tornado moved through Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    An aerial view shows Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., on May 21, as rescue workers make their way through the structure.
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    A girl rides her bike through a destroyed neighborhood the day after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    AT&T employees sort through tangled phone lines as they clean up in a tornado-ravaged neighborhood, on May 21, in Moore, Okla.
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    People recover belongings from the rubble of a home in Moore, Okla., on May 21.
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    A mangled highway sign rises along Interstate 35 as traffic slowly passes by a day after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., May 21.
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    Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen work with emergency crews as they look for survivors from a devastating tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., on Monday, May 20. President Obama declared a major disaster in Oklahoma after a powerful tornado tore through parts of the state.
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    A man and two children walk through debris after a huge tornado struck Moore, Okla., near Oklahoma City, May 20.
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    Cindy Wilson texts friends after her home in Moore was destroyed in the tornado. Cindy and her husband took cover in their bathtub when the tornado hit. Cindy received a deep gash to her forehead, which was treated by first responders at the scene.
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    A child calls to his father after being pulled from the rubble of the Tower Plaza Elementary School following a tornado in Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    An aerial photo shows damage to Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., after it was hit by a massive tornado on May 20.
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    Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school on May 20.
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    Children wait for their parents to arrive at Briarwood Elementary school after it was struck by a tornado on May 20.
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    A fire chief coordinates rescue workers at Briarwood Elementary School on May 20.
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    Two girls stand in rubble after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    A teacher hugs a child at Briarwood Elementary School after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City on May 20.
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    A man looks through the remains of a home after a huge tornado struck Moore, Okla, on May 20.
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    Gene Tripp sits in his rocking chair at the spot where his home stood, before it was destroyed by a tornado in Oklahoma City on May 20.
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    The remains of homes destroyed by a massive tornado are seen in Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20.
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    A couple searches for belongings after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20.
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    A man and a woman assist a state trooper carrying a large tarp to cover a tornado victim found in a field in Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    Rebekah Stuck hugs her son, Aiden Stuck, 7, after she found him in front of the destroyed Briarwood Elementary School on May 20. Aiden was inside the school when it was hit.
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    The remains of homes hit by a massive tornado are seen in Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    A woman walks through the debris of a bowling alley after a huge tornado struck Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    Two men attempt to pry open a door on a car to check for victims in a business parking lot west of I-35 south of 4th Street in Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    A man looks at a boulder that hit a car after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20.
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    A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., on Monday.
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    Rescue workers help free one of the 15 people that were trapped at a medical building at the Moore hospital complex after a tornado tore through the area of Moore, Okla., May 20.
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    Rescue workers help free one of the 15 people that were trapped at a medical building at the Moore hospital complex after a tornado tore through the area of Moore, Okla., May 20.
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    Rescue workers dig through the rubble of a collapsed wall at the Plaza Tower Elementary School to free trapped students in Moore, Okla., following a tornado Monday.
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    A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers on May 20.
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    A boy is pulled from beneath a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. on Monday.
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    Injured horses huddle together near 149th and Drexel after the tornado hit Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    A fire burns in the Tower Plaza Addition in Moore, Okla., after a tornado hit on May 20.
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    An aerial photo shows the remains of homes hit by a massive tornado in Moore, Okla., on May 20.
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    A massive twister near Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon, May 20.
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    Earlene Langley, left, and Jerry Dirks, hug following a tornado that struck Dirks' home just south of Carney Okla., on May 19. Dirks was in her cellar at the time the tornado hit.
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    Maeghan Hadley, of One Day Ranch pet rescue, checks over a kitten pulled from under the rubble of a mobile home destroyed by Sunday's tornado in the Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park, near Shawnee, Okla., on May 20.
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    Lightning from a thunderstorm passes over Clearwater, Kansas, in an open field on May 19. A massive storm front swept north through the central United States on Sunday, hammering the region with fist-sized hail, blinding rain and tornadoes, including a half-mile wide twister that struck near Oklahoma City.
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    Residents walk down a street in Carney, Okla., after a tornado swept through the area on May 19.
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    Wesley Little looks through the large opening in the roof of his home's family room after a tornado swept through the area. Little and his wife, Barbara, have lived in this home for 25 years and took shelter in the basement with 6 other people and four dogs.
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    A tornado touches down southwest of Wichita near the town of Viola, Kansas, on May, 19. The tornado was part of a line of storms that passed through the Central Plains states.
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    Allen Cook talks on his cell phone as he stands next to a downed tree which missed falling on a home in a mobile home park, where several other homes were destroyed by a tornado, west of Shawnee, Okla., on May 19.
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    The funnel of a tornadic thunderstorm almost touches the ground near South Haven, Kansas, on May 19.
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    Debris is seen at a mobile home park which was destroyed by a tornado on Sunday, west of Shawnee, Okla. on May 19.
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    Damaged cars on May 19, 2013, after a tornado swept past I-40 at the junction with US 177 on the west side of Shawnee, Okla.
    Jim Beckel / © 2013 The Oklahoman, NewsOK.com
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