Also visible were large patches of red earth where the tornado scoured the land down to the soil. Some tree trunks were still standing, but the winds ripped away their leaves, limbs and bark.
In revising its estimate of the storm’s power, the National Weather Service said the tornado had winds of at least 200 mph and was on the ground for 40 minutes.
The agency upgraded the tornado from an EF4 on the enhanced Fujita scale based on reports from a damage-assessment team, said spokeswoman Keli Pirtle. Monday’s twister was at least a half-mile wide. It was the nation’s first EF5 tornado of 2013.
Other search-and-rescue teams concentrated on Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the roof, knocked down walls and destroyed the playground as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms.
Seven of the nine dead children were killed at the school, but several students were pulled alive from under a collapsed wall and other heaps of mangled debris. Rescue workers passed the survivors down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers. Parents carried children in their arms to a triage center in the parking lot. Some students looked dazed, others terrified.
Neither Plaza Towers nor another school in Oklahoma City that was not as severely damaged had reinforced storm shelters, or safe rooms, said Albert Ashwood is director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
More than 100 schools across the state do have safe rooms, he said, explaining that it’s up to each jurisdiction to set spending priorities.
Ashwood said a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at Plaza Towers.
“When you talk about any kind of safety measures ... it’s a mitigating measure, it’s not an absolute,” he told reporters. “There’s not a guarantee that everyone will be totally safe.”