TODAY   |  May 21, 2013

Okla. tornado leaves at least 24 dead

Shocked and grieving residents of Moore, Okla., are struggling to cope with the devastation of a massive tornado that has claimed the lives of 24 people, with the death toll expected to rise. TODAY’s Matt Lauer reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> 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