TODAY | May 21, 2013
>> now. this is just more of what the people of moore, oklahoma, don't need. let's go back and try to piece together what happened. started about 2:56 yesterday afternoon.
>> oh, my god.
>> this is not good.
>> reporter: one of the most powerful tornadoes in history touched down a little before 3:00 monday afternoon, leveling entiring neighborhoods and leaving a swathe of destruction up to two miles wide. two elementary schools suffered direct hits, their walls torn apart by winds measuring up to 200 miles per hour.
>> this is terrible. this is war zone terrible.
>> reporter: at plaza towers elementary, only some children emerged safely from the wreckage, images that soon contrasted with scenes of utter heartbreak.
>> we had to pull a car out of the front hallway off the teacher and i don't know what that lady's name is but she had three little kids underneath her, good job, teach. it ripped our house up. i still got a little girl buried in there so i gotta go.
>> reporter: the older kids had reportedly been evacuated from the school before the tornado hit but children in grades k through 3 were forced to ride out the storm inside.
>> i had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe because i didn't want to fly away in the tornado.
>> a line went down and hit me in the head and all the other girls were screaming and they were crying.
>> i was on top of six kids.
>> reporter: on top of six children and they're all okay?
>> all mine are okay.
>> reporter: as night fell, a desperate search and rescue operation at the plaza towers school turned into a recovery mission. the grim search for the bodies of students buried in the rubble. at nearby briarwood elementary, despite the destruction, early reports indicated no lives had been lost.
>> i thought the worst because of how devastating.
>> reporter: have you seen the scene yet?
>> no, but i did talk.
>> reporter: the speed within which the tornado approached shocked observers.
>> abandon where you are if you cannot get belowground.
>> reporter: in less than an hour sunny skies gave way to dark funnel clouds. local forecasters begged fewers to take over.
>> can't think or delay and act and act to save your life and your loved one's lives.
>> reporter: the twisters left cars piled up in front of medical buildings and theaters.
>> we thought we died.
>> reporter: even homes with sturdy storm cellars were not safe.
>> it ripped open the door and slamming glass and we thought we were dead to be honest.
>> reporter: moore has been hit in may, 1999 when the most powerful winds ever recorded touched down in a storm path nearly identical to this.
>> everything is gone. everything is gone, but the important thing is we're alive.
>> reporter: now another massive relief effort is under way as hundreds of homes have been lost and lives torn apart in just one afternoon.
>> i came out and i