TODAY   |  May 21, 2013

Reporter: Tornado aftermath ‘was gut-wrenching’

Lance West, a reporter for Oklahoma’s NBC affiliate KFOR, was on the scene at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was destroyed by Monday’s tornado while kids and teachers were inside. He describes being overcome with emotion by what he witnessed.

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

>>> the reporters who was first on the scene at plaza towers elementary school was lance west from affiliate kfor and gave viewers a gripping and emotional account of what was unfolding. take a look.

>> reporter: i am standing where a whole bunch of folks are gathered. they're bringing out some boards, some stretchers, what looks to be like a whole lot of effort momentarily the national guard has arrived. i do have reason to believe that they have found some victims -- i asked --

>> lance?

>> excuse me, i asked one of the medics if he could confirm that -- he just put his head down and said "i can't answer that." i ran down to the school to talk to emergency personnel and i have been told by some reliable sources here on the scene that this is no longer a search and rescue operation. it's now a recovery mission. it is my understanding that there are up to two dozen children, victims trapped at the bottom of that school right now. this is eagle drive right here. we understand there could be as many as a half dozen more fatalities on this street alone in this area. the emergency personnel have backed out of the school, they're pulling in more vehicles, they're backing people away, and i understand they're going to start pulling these tiny victims out of the rubble here shortly.

>> all right, lance.

>> lance, i'm so sorry. hang in there, my friend.

>> but --

>> and lance west joins us now. i think we were all with you in that moment when you realized what you have to report.

>> it was one of the most heartbreaking events i've had to cover. we followed an ambulance, piggy piggybacked into the area where the elementary school was, the first thing we saw when we got out of the car was a family coming out of their storm shelter, a mom, her daughter and a nephew, they were in tears obviously seeing everything they saw around them, but the story they shared was heartbreaking, they said someone was pounding on the door to get in and they didn't have the strength to open the door because the wind was so powerful so who knows what happened to that family. those stories again and again are what we heard yesterday and then we navigated our way over to plaza towers and it was gut wrenching. you heard the emotion obviously and sometimes we're more human than reporter and that happens but images i will never forget.

>> i can't imagine the scene as parents must have been rushing to the school.

>> we got there right before a lot of the firefighters and the police and then about 15 minutes later parents started to show up and they were hysterical as you might expect. "my kids are in there. why aren't you doing anything?" we spent ten hours out there. the search and rescuers did everything they could to get the little victims at the bottom of the rubble. it was heartbreaking to see the hopelessness and heartbreak of all the parents. it's just one of the things you never want to experience.

>> we heard there was a time when they actually asked some of the choppers to back off because rescuers were walking through the rubble calling names, hoping to hear little voices rise up.

>> right, and there was a lot of noise and they took a lot of the people that moved in the back, volunteers, people coming up to offer help, to be able to get victims out of the rubble and by the way i don't know if you know this or not we heard overnight they rescued 101 people alive in the rubble, and that search and rescue effort continues today. because of all the noise they had to move people back so that the experts could do the job they needed to do.

>> this is a beautiful community to live in but one of the hard parts of it is tornado alley and this community has seen horrific damage before. how does this compare for example to may 3rd , 1999 , which is an ef5, winds of more than 300 miles an hour but it feels like this devastation is on a magnitude worse.

>> i think the difference here is that this storm dropped from the sky so quick and grew so big and powerful, it became from a small tornado, a funnel into this monster grinder that was two miles wide and in many cases when we have tornadoes here you can get into a closet or you can get into a bathroom and you're okay. unless you were underground, you were not going to survive this storm. it was that powerful.

>> do you feel like folks here have underground shelters? is that something fairly common, or only the privileged few?

>> yes, i would say less than 10% maybe have a storm shelter here and most people they can survive hiding under a staircase or bathroom. sales of storm shelters will go up after this because this is what mother nature can do, unfortunately. lot of great stories coming out of that school. i think a teacher, rhonda, i had a chance to meet her yesterday, she laid on top of six of her kids and saved their lives.

>> we had a little boy on air saying my teacher saved my life. lance west you have been up all day, all night. thank you for your coverage and being such a poignant voice and such a terrible story, i appreciate you being here.