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Okla. reporter tells of 'hysterical' parents at devastated school

A reporter from NBC affiliate KFOR described the "heartbreaking" scene as parents desperately searched for their children at the Moore, Okla. elementary school ravaged by the deadly tornado Monday afternoon.

Lance West arrived at the devastated Plaza Towers Elementary School shortly before firefighters and police. Fifteen minutes after the authorities arrived, parents began showing up to search for their children.

“They were hysterical, as you might expect,’’ West told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday. “My kids are in there, why aren’t you doing anything?’ I can tell you, we spent 10 hours out there, and these search and rescuers did everything they could to get to these little victims at the bottom of the pile of rubble.

“It was heartbreaking to watch and see the hopelessness and helplessness on their face and the heartbreak of all these parents. It’s just one of those things you never want to experience.’’

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West became emotional on air during his report Monday as he surveyed the damage and the reports of lives lost, including children. There have been 24 confirmed deaths, according to the Oklahoma medical examiner.

“We navigated our way over to Plaza Towers, and it was gut-wrenching,’’ he said. “You heard the emotion obviously, and sometimes we’re more human than reporter, and that happens. Images I will never forget.”

After following an ambulance to the elementary school area, West saw a mother, daughter and nephew emerging from an underground storm shelter in tears.

“The story they shared was just heartbreaking because 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,’’ West said. "Who knows what happened to that family."

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Rescue workers at one point asked helicopters to move away from the scene so they could listen for voices crying out from the wreckage. Workers pulled 101 people alive from the rubble.

Monday’s deadly EF-4 tornado is not the first to hit Moore. An outbreak of tornadoes with winds clocked at a record 318 miles per hour struck Oklahoma and Kansas on May 3, 1999, killing 46 people and destroying or damaging 8,000 homes.

“I think the difference (from the 1999 tornado) is that this storm dropped from the sky so quick and grew so big and powerful,’’ West said. “It went from a small tornado, a funnel, into this monster grinder that was two miles wide. In many cases when we have tornadoes here, you can get into a closet, you can get into a bathroom and you’re OK.

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“Unless you were underground, you were not going to survive this storm. It was that powerful.”

West estimated that less than 10 percent of Moore residents have an underground storm shelter.

“Most people think they can survive hiding under a staircase or in the bathroom,’’ he said. “I can tell you that sales of storm shelters are going to go up after this because this is what Mother Nature can do, unfortunately.”