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Heroes or just doing their jobs? Teachers save lives during Okla. tornado

By Ed Lavandera and Dana Ford, CNN
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A teacher was impaled by the leg of a desk while protecting her children
  • NEW: "Amazingly, by the grace of god, I kept it together," she says
  • NEW: Another teacher distracted students with games and songs
  • Everyone survived at Briarwood Elementary, which was leveled by Monday's tornado

Oklahoma City (CNN) -- Second-grade teacher Tammy Glasgow walks around what's left of Briarwood Elementary, struggling to pick out of its wreckage the things that once made a school.

"This was the cafeteria."

"This is where my desk sat."

"This is my classroom door."

"That yellow wall that's standing, that's where we were," said Glasgow, pointing to a squat stack of cinder blocks.

She, like many teachers at Oklahoma City's Briarwood, helped keep students safe when a tornado tore through Monday, killing at least 24 people. Incredibly, given the state of the building, everyone at Briarwood survived.

Teacher shielded students from tornado
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Teacher impaled while protecting class

Their actions no doubt saved lives.

Many have called the teachers -- some of whom literally shielded children with their bodies -- heroes.

But that's a word the teachers themselves don't use.

"It's just our job," Glasgow said Tuesday.

Opinion: The courage of teachers

Right before the tornado hit, she hurried students into two bathrooms and a closet. There were about eights boys in the boys' bathroom, including Glasgow's son, and a dozen girls in the girls' bathroom.

She and other adults were with three children in the closet.

"Before I shut the doors, because both bathrooms had doors, I said, 'I'm going to shut these doors,' and I said, 'I love you.' The boys looked at me a little strange. (I) walked in the girls' (bathroom) and said, 'I love you' and they all said 'I love you' back.

"I just told them to pray, and then that's what we did the whole time in the closet, just prayed," said Glasgow.

The storm blasted through.

Stuff flew everywhere. A cinder block fell on her neck.

"I just kept saying to the little girl next to me -- 'It's almost over. It's almost over. It's almost over.' And it just wasn't over," she said.

Eventually though, rain started to fall and the sky lightened.

Glasgow heard voices and so she and others started opening doors and pulling kids out.

The children were remarkably calm.

When asked to explain why that was, Glasgow said she thought they felt safe.

A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. View more photos of the aftermath in the region and another gallery of aerial shots of the damage. A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. View more photos of the aftermath in the region and another gallery of aerial shots of the damage.
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
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Photos: Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma Photos: Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma
An aerial view of the destruction caused by the massive tornado that struck areas south of Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, shows the magnitude of damage left in its path. The storm's winds topped 200 mph as it carved a 17-mile path of destruction through Oklahoma City suburbs. On Tuesday, May 21, CNN sent photographer David McNeese to capture the story from above: An aerial view of the destruction caused by the massive tornado that struck areas south of Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, shows the magnitude of damage left in its path. The storm's winds topped 200 mph as it carved a 17-mile path of destruction through Oklahoma City suburbs. On Tuesday, May 21, CNN sent photographer David McNeese to capture the story from above:
The path of destruction from above
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Photos: Destruction from above Photos: Destruction from above
Storm chaser pulls 15 people from rubble
Tornado shelter saves lives in Oklahoma

"We did our best to take care of them and make them feel loved and secure. People talked about us being brave, but it's just our job. We love these kids like they're our own."

Inside a tornado-ravaged school

'It was a miracle'

While Glasgow was hunkered down in the closet, Waynel Mayes, a first-grade teacher, distracted her students with songs and games.

"I just got all the desks and I told the kids that we were going to play worms," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

"I told them to get underneath the desks, and I put them two by two, and I said, OK, we're going to play our musical instruments, and we're going to play worms, and we're going to play as loud as we can."

She didn't want the children to know what was going to happen.

She didn't want them to hear the roar of the storm.

"I told them to sing as loud as they could and if they got scared, they could scream," she said.

"But keep playing, keep playing, keep playing."

Afterward, Mayes was sitting outside on a curb with one of her students when his mom walked up. She was crying and hugged her son with her whole body, happy to finally have him in her arms.

Trenda Purcell had first gone to another place looking for him, but he wasn't there.

Relief flowed like tears.

Photographer captures snapshot of courage at school

"I'm doing great," Purcell told Cooper. "I am happy and pleased as punch with this lady right here because I think that she had an integral part in saving all the kids in her room. It was a miracle that kids walked out alive of that building."

Another grateful parent struggled to find the right words to thank his son's teacher at Briarwood, Julie Simon.

David Wheeler, the father of a third grader, was about 100 miles away when the tornado struck his son's school.

He drove as fast and he could, ran about a mile and hopped a ride on a couple of trucks.

"It was the worst day built in to one of the happiest moments of my life," he said about the moment he spotted his son.

"When I saw him running down the street with Ms. Simon, everything was OK for us at that moment."

Wheeler said there's no way to repay her for what she did.

Simon will forever be a part of their family.

"She is a hero," he said.

Opinion: We love and fear the Oklahoma skies

'His teacher saved his life'

Other teachers literally risked both life and limb, shielding students with their bodies.

Suzanne Haley was impaled by the leg of a desk protecting her children.

"We crowded the children under desks, and me and a fellow teacher put ourselves in front of the desks that the children were under," she told CNN's Piers Morgan.

The roof and walls collapsed around them.

"Amazingly, by the grace of god, I kept it together," she said. "I couldn't go into hysterics in front of my children, in front of the other students. I had to be calm for them."

"It's nothing anybody wouldn't do," Haley said. "These children -- we see their smiles, their tears, every day, in and out, and we love them."

Another Briarwood teacher, Cindy Lowe, instructed students to move to an inner part of a room where there was a built-in bookcase as the tornado approached.

They crouched in the fetal position and used books to protect their heads, according to Lowe's husband.

Among the kids she was watching was their son.

"She sort of got over my son, got over the other children, just sort of was trying to shield anyone she could," Chad Lowe told CNN.

"A cinder block wall actually fell on her back, and she kind of lifted herself up," he said.

After the storm passed, another teacher came to help the kids get out from under the wall and help Cindy Lowe, too.

Lowe suffered a concussion and has a bad sprain on her ankle and lots of bruises, her husband said, but is expected to be OK.

Their son and the other children all survived.

"His teacher saved his life," a mother gushed to CNN affiliate KFOR. "I have no doubt that God and his teacher, I mean, they lifted a wall off of these kids."

Survivors tell harrowing stories

CNN's Ed Lavandera reported from Oklahoma. Dana Ford reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Jake Tapper, Ashley Fantz and Sherisse Pham contributed to this report.

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