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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Oklahoma Tornadoes

Aired May 21, 2013 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It is 10:00 p.m. here on the East Coast, 9:00 p.m. here in Moore, Oklahoma.

We're standing in a neighborhood that is really almost unrecognizable, even to the people who live here, at the end of a very, very rough day.

In a moment, some of the heroes who have done all they could do to redeem this disaster, and, as you can see, it stretches for mile after mile. We learned late today that the tornado that came through here was as powerful as they come, an EF-5 storm with winds topping 200 miles an hour. It stayed on the ground for 17 miles, house after house destroyed, a hospital damaged, movie theaters, stores, a bowling alley all torn up.

The cost in lives, so far, 24, including nine children, seven at the Plaza Towers Elementary School, this video from late last night, when the death toll was considerably higher because local authorities seem to have mistakenly counted some of the fatalities twice.

Now, it is still a sobering number, no doubt about it, 24 killed, several hundred injured, and lives torn apart.

President Obama spoke today of the loss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms and classrooms. And, in time, we're going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Mr. Obama said that Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away to recover and pledged to do all he can to make that happen.

Even as the search and the recovery goes on, we keep getting new and incredible pictures of the brutal storm, including some home video taken from a storm cellar as the funnel cloud goes directly overhead. Watch.

Imagine being in that storm cell. The photographer who took those pictures lived to post that tape and tell a story. So did others who had shelters to hunker down in. Others, including the students at Plaza Towers Elementary School, had to settle for hallways and bathrooms and closets. Many survived, but, as we told you , some did not. So, later tonight, we will ask why in the middle of this Tornado Alley aren't shelters more widespread?

But, first, the latest on the search effort from chief national correspondent John King, who joins us now.

So, what do we know? What is going on?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Remarkably, Anderson, 30, 31 hours after the storm hit Moore, and you see the devastation, they say they are just about done. A few last places to go back, a few I's to dot, T's to cross. But they say they're essentially done now with three sweeps, three sweeps through each of these communities.

They have gone back and forth, back and forth. I was out with a search-and-rescue team until about 2:00 a.m. this morning. Some of them stayed out all night. At daybreak this morning, we met someone. You talk about these first-responders and talk about these the storm cellars.

We met Reena (ph) and Paul Phillips this morning. They were in their home. They built their cellars after they rebuilt after the 1999 tornado. They added one of those cellars. The storm hit. Eight of them, including a 2-year-old grandchild, got down into the cellar. Then the house collapsed on top of it. They said when the first- responders came through, they heard them screaming.

Listen to a bit of their story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was loud and windy and -- you know, but once it was over, our cellar started filling up with water on both sides. And that's when the grandbaby started panicking.

KING: It must have been pretty scary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was scary, but we knew we were going to get out. We may have been walking in a little water, but we knew we'd get out, that the people here in Moore, and the people that's come in to help, they're family.

PAUL PHILLIPS, SURVIVOR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're family.

PHILLIPS: Yes, they put the come along on there and was trying to open it up, and then they realized that they were trapped.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, they were helped out in the first wave in the first hours after the storm. That was daybreak after we saw them. And not long after that, as you know, there was a really cold, driving rain here today. It was horrible in the early hours to continue the search. But the search did continue neighborhood by neighborhood.

We were in this neighborhood earlier today. You and I were talking on live television when we saw the search teams come back through for the second sweep. A hazmat team came first to make sure no open gas lines, none of these structures were in danger of falling. And then you see here pickaxes, people going through the debris.

It's dangerous. There are nails. There's broken glass. There's broken everything here, dogs with them, search dogs going in. The dogs are heroes, too. And when we were talking earlier, we saw one of the dogs step on a nail in this debris. And they have gone it all now.

And it is remarkable, it is remarkable. This community is mourning the loss of 24 of its sons and daughters, seven of them young children tonight. And we will never, ever make light of that. But when you go block by block, as I know you have and I did today, and you see this devastation, 24 killed, 237 injured, and they believe they are all but done with the search, moving on out to recovery. It is remarkable. Again, there's mourning to be done here, but it's a miracle.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Yes. It could have been much worse. I mean, when you look around, it's stunning that it's not. And thank goodness that it's not.

What comes next? They wanted to search three times each location, each structure, even vehicles. Once they have done that, tomorrow, the days ahead?

KING: A number of things.

Number one is, there is still a little confusion. There's still a lot of cell phones caught spotty. Some people don't have cell phones. A few people still saying they haven't accounted for family members. So, they're going to double-check and triple-check. They think those people are either out of town -- but there's a few places they still want to double-check and triple-check.

Then we move on to the cleanup part. And you see this. This is going to be a job. They already think a billion dollars at least in insurance claims. We saw just in this neighborhood several of the big insurance companies already had folks in today taking pictures and walking around.

And then you go through the -- so far, the Republican governor has had high praise for the Democratic president and the administration when it comes to FEMA and emergency grants. Five counties here have been declared disaster areas. So you move into the difficult cleanup, recovery. God forbid, if there's still someone out there, they will keep searching if they get a tip on something like that.

And we're about to mark the two-year anniversary of Joplin. Some folks from Joplin are actually coming to give some advice to this community about the long haul ahead.

COOPER: Yes. And it is going to be a long haul.

John, appreciate the reporting. It's been a long day.

And now one of the best stories to emerge from this disaster, and it begins outside Briarwood Elementary School shortly after the storm, as frantic parents search for their kids.

Now, we just want you to watch this so that you understand -- and you don't even need to see the video to understand what it's like for parents to who aren't sure what has happened to their children. But this is what happened yesterday in the school parking lot.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SHOUTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That last reunion was Trenda Purcell, her son Kamden there, and Kamden's teacher Waynel Mayes.

We spoke in the 8:00 p.m. hour. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: It is so good to have you all here and doing so well. How are you holding up?

TRENDA PURCELL, MOTHER: Thank you. Thank you. I'm doing great.

I'm 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 the kids walked out alive of that building.

COOPER: Teachers do an incredible job every day of the year all around this country, but what happened here yesterday, the heroism shown, so many teachers. Explain what you did when you knew this storm was coming.

WAYNEL MAYES, TEACHER: Well, a friend of my friend showed on her iPad what -- that she thought it was coming, so I just got all the desks and I told the kids that we were going to play worms. And so I made tunnels and I put all the desks on the wall. And I said OK, we're going to get our musical instruments and we're going to play worms, and so 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, so I wanted -- didn't want them to hear the roar.

COOPER: So, that's why you wanted the musical instruments, to kind of drown out the sound of the...

MAYES: And I didn't want them to know what was going to happen.

And so we got under the desk two by two. And my aide on the other side, Ms. Salinksi (ph), she got on one side and put her body in half and I put my body on the other half. And we started playing the instruments. And as we started singing "Jesus Loves Me."

And we started playing really loud and singing "Jesus Loves Me" and I told them to sing as loud as they could, and if they got scared they could scream, but sing as loud as they could. And so that's what we did. And I said, when you get scared, you can scream, but keep playing, keep playing, keep playing. And we did it.

And when it was all over, the kids told me that they thought the water fountain was leaking.

COOPER: That's what they thought, the water fountain was leaking?

MAYES: Yes.

And I said, that might be rain. And then they were so brave. And this little boy didn't cry at all. He just goes, what are we going to -- he goes -- and I said there might be heroes coming. One of them goes -- I forget which one. Do you know which one said, what kind of heroes? Do you remember?

COOPER: Were you scared a little bit?

KAMDEN PURCELL, STUDENT: Mm-hmm.

COOPER: Could you hear the storm, above the sound of the music?

MAYES: We could hear. It was so loud.

But the kids just kept on -- they were so brave. And this little one, he didn't cry at all. He was just playing his music. And he was the bravest little boy ever, ever. And then, after it came, I said, guys, you're going to have to start playing your music loud so they hear us.

And so they just kept playing their little instruments that I had, and then, finally, these people off the street just came and rescued us.

COOPER: And what was the condition of the classroom afterward?

MAYES: Well, we didn't know because we were underneath the desks.

COOPER: OK.

MAYES: And then the people came.

These men off the streets came, and they pulled us out. And Kamden and them got out first, and then we were -- I was stuck, and then we got out, and they went one way from the classroom and I went another.

COOPER: You had a head injury.

MAYES: Yes. But I didn't -- I just remember I got hit when I got out of the -- when I was getting out. And...

COOPER: And the video of you, you had actually been going to a couple locations to try to find Kamden.

T. PURCELL: I had. I had.

I had walked a mile, maybe. I was told he was at one location. I went there. He wasn't there. So then I had to go to another location and then that's when I found him. And praise God that he was alive.

(CROSSTALK)

MAYES: You don't know. All our teachers were so brave. It wasn't just -- it was our kids following directions. They were the bravest. They were the heroes, because they listened to all the teachers.

COOPER: Had you done drills like this before?

MAYES: We practice every month and all the teachers...

COOPER: You practice the worm or you just...

(LAUGHTER)

MAYES: No, we practice fire drills.

COOPER: OK. So you just came up with the idea of doing the worm?

MAYES: Yes.

We practice fire drills every month because that's a guideline. And we practice safety procedures. That's our -- that's in the rules of the school. But the kids, we always tell them how important it is to follow safety procedures, like -- and the kids were so good.

COOPER: Kamden, could you hear the storm or were you just hearing your music?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The storm.

COOPER: Yes? And what was it like afterward? Were the desks all on top of you?

K. PURCELL: No. The desk was in front of us. And the roof was on top of the desk.

COOPER: And everybody in the school was OK? And that's just such an incredible blessing.

And that must have been the most incredible hug when you saw Kamden for the first time.

T. PURCELL: It was. It was, but not only was I so happy just to see him. I was praising her because I just feel that she helped keep him safe.

COOPER: Yes.

Well, there's no doubt about it. Thank you so much for talking to us.

T. PURCELL: Thank you.

COOPER: I'm just so glad things worked out for you.

T. PURCELL: Thank you.

COOPER: Stay strong. I hope your head's OK.

MAYES: Yes. And thank you for all the teachers that -- and for all the kids that just followed directions.

COOPER: Yes. Well, that's great. Thank you so much.

(CROSSTALK)

T. PURCELL: Thank you.

COOPER: So glad you're here.

T. PURCELL: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, there's a lot of teachers who have done remarkable things here over the last 36 hours or so.

You're going to next meet a woman whose house collapsed with her inside, how she was pined in the rubble. And we will tell how she survived, also, Chad Myers on what made this such a powerful and destructive storm.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We're looking at the size of that funnel cloud and seeing the wreckage on this block and for miles around.

It's not hard to believe that this was a major tornado. The experts, though, they can look deeper, see that it was more than just that. As we have said, it was, in fact, at the very top of the scale for tornadoes, an EF-5. Just quickly to explain what that means and talk more about the storm measured up, I want to check with our Chad Myers in the Weather Center.

Chad, explain the ranking system.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: When you get an EF-5, Anderson, that means some building doesn't exist anymore. It is completely gone.

A well-built structure is off its foundation and you can't fine it. All the walls are gone. EF-0, the shingles are gone. Two, you lose a couple of the plywood sheets on the roof. By the 3, you lose an outside wall, four, you lose a lot of walls and, five, you lose everything. That's where we are now, 200 to 210 miles per hour. When that tornado was on the ground as an EF-4, this is what it looked like.

Notice kind of the purple ball looking thing above the word powerful. That is where the debris was flying around. We saw so many pictures of that debris flying around. Well, now we can look inside the storm and see how high that debris was actually picked up, sucked up and pushed up into the atmosphere.

In fact, we know now that parts of Moore, some pieces of papers, checks, photographs were found in Tulsa, almost 100 miles away. That little part that you see there, that three-dimensionality, that's the debris that was picked up in the tornado and thrown around.

The destructive part of this storm was that it went from an EF-0, about 100 miles per hour or so, maybe a little bit less, all the way up to an EF-4 in 10 minutes. In four miles, it went from nothing to 167 or greater miles per hour and then it got even stronger. It got up to that 200 to 210 mile-per-hour storm as you see it right there, that destructive storm right there.

And there are many homes that you just can't find anything. The fact that we only lost 24 people is actually a blessing, considering how many homes you see with nothing left -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, it is incredible.

Chad, appreciate it.

The evidence, as Chad said, it's all around me, from what Chad said about EF-5, houses simply not -- they didn't survive the contact with the tornado like this.

Barbara Jarrell's house, sadly, was no exception. It collapsed all around her, pinning her beneath debris until first-responders managed to pull her out. She joins me now, along with her daughter, Tiffany.

It's great to have you both here.

When the storm was coming, how much warning did you have? BARBARA JARRELL, SURVIVOR: I'm not quite sure, because I was working.

COOPER: Right.

And then I got the word that the severe thunderstorms were coming. And then, as soon as that happened, it turned into a watch. Then the watch turned into a warning. And then the next thing I know, I don't know what to do, because my son is in high school, South Moore High School, and I didn't get my alert because my phone had quit working.

COOPER: Right.

JARRELL: They were holding in school. And so I stayed in the house.

COOPER: Where in the house did you go?

JARRELL: I went in my living room, hallway area. I had a hall closet, coat closet.

COOPER: Right.

JARRELL: So, I went in there, sat on the floor, grabbed a pillow and put it over my head.

And it got so loud, I knew it was hitting. And then the glasses all start breaking, popping out. My ears started popping. I felt the suction. And, about that time, I heard my house just flying apart. But the rafters came down...

COOPER: Oh, my goodness.

JARRELL: ... and pinned me. But it was a good thing because then the tornado didn't suck me away.

COOPER: So the rafters kind of kept you down.

JARRELL: Yes.

COOPER: That's incredible.

How did you get through it?

JARRELL: I almost didn't. I got through the tornado, but then I didn't think anybody was going to find me, because I was screaming at the top of the my lungs, but nobody could hear me. They kept going to other people, I guess because I was buried...

COOPER: Sure. So your house was really buried -- you were buried under your house?

JARRELL: Mm-hmm. Just that one area is all that was left. Everything else was gone, but God made me a little...

COOPER: How did you get rescued?

JARRELL: Well, some guys -- it wasn't the first -- it wasn't first-responders. It was just people out walking, helping.

COOPER: Right.

JARRELL: He said something just made him stop. And he says he could hear -- then, after he stopped, he listened and he thought he heard something. And that's when he found me.

(CROSSTALK)

JARRELL: And he took -- he went and found a big rafter to take some of the pressure off my side. And...

COOPER: How long were you in there for?

JARRELL: It seemed like 40 minutes, 45 minutes.

COOPER: Tiffany, how about you?

TIFFANY THRONESBERRY, SURVIVOR: I wasn't with her.

COOPER: Yes.

THRONESBERRY: I was -- she was somehow able to get a call through to me while I was at work. And I just heard her say, help me. I'm buried. I can't breathe.

COOPER: So, you actually were able to call from beneath the wreckage?

JARRELL: I mean, it was a hit-and-miss thing.

Sometimes -- everybody was trying to call me. And every now and then, a call would come through. Like, my brother got through. So he beat the first-responders out there, I think, basically. But I had already gotten pulled out. It took six people.

COOPER: Six people.

JARRELL: Six people, one of them prying it up with the rafter and five others trying to lift, just so they could just get it up enough for one of them to grab my legs and slide me out.

So, that man, finally, that just stopped, because he didn't really hear me. And I was screaming at the top of my lungs. And I have the bull -- I know how you are about the apps on your phone.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Yes. I'm not good without them.

JARRELL: Yes, I had the bullhorn app on my phone. And I was using it. They couldn't even hear that, so...

COOPER: Is that right, really?

JARRELL: Yes. So...

COOPER: Tiffany, what was it like to get that call from your mom?

THRONESBERRY: It was the most helpless feeling.

My heart stopped. And I don't ever want to get another call like that again.

COOPER: She's right here next to you, so that's good.

THRONESBERRY: Yes, she is.

COOPER: How long before you were able to be reunited?

THRONESBERRY: It took me about an hour to get to her.

COOPER: Get to her.

THRONESBERRY: After the call, yes.

COOPER: Yes.

THRONESBERRY: I had to walk quite -- I had to park my car about (INAUDIBLE) I finally gave up and parked and just started walking.

COOPER: That must have been a nightmare walk.

THRONESBERRY: Yes. I have done it before, so...

COOPER: Well, I'm so glad you're doing OK. And how do you feel now?

JARRELL: I'm sore. I feel like I got beat up with a baseball bat. But I don't care.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: You also got some good news, I just heard. You were missing two of your cats.

JARRELL: Two of my cats were missing. We just found them.

COOPER: Where did you find them?

JARRELL: They were buried in all the rubble.

COOPER: And they're OK?

JARRELL: They're OK.

COOPER: Oh, my gosh. Those are your cats? What are their names?

(CROSSTALK)

JARRELL: Oh, that's Ralphie (ph) and J.J.

They were the two we couldn't find. We find Peppy (ph) yesterday. Or I didn't. They did. Some other people found him. And that's Ralphie and J.J. We found them.

COOPER: So, they're all together now. That's so great.

(CROSSTALK)

THRONESBERRY: We found them right before we came up here.

COOPER: That is so amazing. So you just went back to the house and just were looking around and they were there?

JARRELL: No, we had -- we had been there about an hour.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And they were inside the -- wow. Incredible that they survived. That's so great. I'm so happy for you.

JARRELL: Thank you.

THRONESBERRY: Thank you.

COOPER: That's really so great. Thank you. Thanks for being with us.

JARRELL: Thank you.

COOPER: Incredible story, Barbara and Tiffany.

We certainly wish not only you the best, but everybody in this community the best.

And so many people, you know, rolled up their sleeves and just did whatever they could in those moments after the storm to try to help their neighbors.

And coming up, you're going to meet a heroic teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary School. She knew exactly how to give her kids the best chance possible to stay safe. There is heartache of course as well. We're going to hear from the family of 9-year-old Ja'Nae Hornsby, a third grader at the same school who did not survive the tornado.

Her family wanted to talk about her today, about their little girl. They wanted you to know about what she was like.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: One of the families in mourning here tonight is the Hornsby -- a 9-year-old little girl name Ja'Nae Hornsby was a third grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School. She didn't survive the storm.

I want to show you how energetic Ja'Nae was just a short time ago, how full of life. This is home video the family gave to us today. They wanted you to see their little girl, Ja'Nae happy, and laughing and big, beautiful smile. Her dad, Joshua, is a veteran of the Iraq war. And I had a chance to speak with him earlier today at Mount Trinity Baptist Church, along with Ja'Nae's aunt, Angels Hornsby.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: When you first saw her, what did you think?

JOSHUA HORNSBY, FATHER OF VICTIM: My heart just sank, and I started worrying and panicking. I just needed to find my baby. I just kept waiting and hoping that I would find her. I was looking through the other kids that had already gotten out and just waiting.

COOPER: When did you get word about her?

J. HORNSBY: This morning.

COOPER: Where were you? What happened?

J. HORNSBY: I was at First Baptist Church. They had opened the shelter for parents that haven't found their kids.

COOPER: What do you want people to know about your daughter?

J. HORNSBY: Just she -- she was the best kid anybody could have. She was Ja'Nae. She was, you know, a ball of energy, a ball of love.

COOPER: Your face lights up when you were saying her name.

J. HORNSBY: Yes, that's -- that's my baby.

COOPER: You're nodding your head at that.

ANGELA HORNSBY, AUNT OF VICTIM: Because there -- I mean, there is no other kid like her.

We're a unique bunch. And she is all of our uniqueness balled up into one. And she's the sweetest thing, the bossiest thing, the most fun, always trying to make us laugh and a sweet baby, a sweet baby.

COOPER: Does it seem real yet?

J. HORNSBY: No, it still ain't sunk in. I'm still hoping for that call to say, we made a mistake. I just pray that that's what it is. That's all I can hope for. But I just got to take it as it is.

COOPER: How do you face something like this? I mean, this is...

J. HORNSBY: Just got to face it minute by minute, day by day.

There's no way to face it. Just got to be strong and carry on. COOPER: Does it seem real to you?

A. HORNSBY: At moments. You know, when it hurts, it feels real.

But then, when I can laugh and talk, it's not real anymore. And then something will happen, and it hurts. And that's -- the pain is real. The pain is real. Our daughter was 14.

COOPER: How did you tell your daughter?

A. HORNSBY: I broke down, and she was nearby. And I don't think she knew whether it was a relief sob or a pained sob. And then she asked me, am I OK. And then I told her she didn't make it.

JOSHUA HORNSBY, JANAE'S FATHER: Life, it's not fair. You've just got to take what life gives you, you know what I mean? I can sit and dwell on it and, you know, let it ruin me or I can, you know, make my baby proud and keep pushing on, like I know she'd want me to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: He wants to make his baby proud. The Hornsby family and all the families who are suffering tonight are in our thoughts and in our prayers, not just tonight, but also the difficult days, and months and years ahead.

There was, of course, heartache at Plaza Towers, and there were heroes, as well, without whom this tragedy would have been even deeper. For days, teacher Janice Brim has been telling her sixth graders to finish strong this year. That was their motto: Finish strong. Yesterday, they and she certainly did just that. With the tornado coming, she found a shelter. Now, she knew from her husband, who works in construction, that a hallway wouldn't cut it, so they hunkered down in a closet; also other students in a bathroom, and they all made it.

Earlier, I spoke with Janice Brim and her husband, Mark, who rushed the scene and helped rescue people at the school.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: It's great to see you both here. So when you knew this storm was coming, tell me what happened.

JANICE BRIM, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I knew it was coming, because Mark was sending me texts. And he said, "You need to get out of the hallways and into smaller places."

We actually knew it was getting ready to hit when the lights started flashing. And that's when we all -- we all didn't just stay in the hallway, but went into the bathroom.

COOPER: You were watching it on TV.

MARK BRIM, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I was at home watching it on television. COOPER: And you knew it was going to come toward the school?

M. BRIM: And the weather -- the weather guys were saying, "Hey, this is going to develop." And the traditional hook that was on there was huge. And I go in the bedroom and I come back, I send her a text, and it's developing. And by the time I get back in the house, I mean in the front room, it's already -- it's already huge.

And then the reporter, the weatherman was saying, "This thing is going to develop. It's going to drop. It's going to be a monster. People, if you're in the New Castle, South Oklahoma City area, you need to get out right now." And it was directly northeast of us, and that's the way they travel. So I was getting in the truck to leave. And as I was leaving my residence, I looked over to New Castle, which was 25 miles, and there it was. It was just a pencil. And as I was trying to drive away, down the road, it just got thicker and thicker and thicker.

COOPER: And you decided to go toward the school?

M. BRIM: Well, the radio was then saying, "Hey, this thing isn't going northeast. It's going directly east." And it was between the streets that the school was at. And I'm like, the school.

So I turned around. I think it passed me then. And started chasing it down 134th Street. And it was probably half a mile wide. And passing cop cars and -- and people were -- the lights were out, and I got to the edge of the school street where you go into the school, and there were houses were. And I thought, "This is a good sign."

And the tornado was just right there. And so I went another block, and then there was a little more damage. And another block, and more damage. Very soon, I got close to the school. Houses -- you've seen them -- were just tore up. And I saw the school; it was leveled.

And I had to use the four-wheel drive to get around the poles and the wires to get into the parking lot. And I was the first vehicle that I saw there. I couldn't see other people. And I'm thinking, she's gone. I've lost her.

COOPER: That was your thought?

M. BRIM: Yes. There's no way that anybody could walk away from this.

COOPER: And you had been previously told to be in the hallways, but your husband said, "No, go into a closet. That's the safest place.

J. BRIM: yes. And we've rehearsed this a lot of times. And I've been at Plaza for five years. And we were going right by our procedures, everybody did. And our principal, Amy Simpson, was wonderful. Her husband was a firefighter. He was there about the same time Mark was. And we got into the closet, and I pulled the door.

COOPER: How many kids do you have in that closet?

J. BRIM: We have five.

COOPER: And you were actually holding onto the door?

J. BRIM: Yes. And everybody else, we sent into the bathroom. Sent four kids in, sixth grade.

COOPER: What was it like trying to hold onto that door?

J. BRIM: Well, this is the only injury I have.

COOPER: And that's from holding onto the door?

J. BRIM: Yes. We were all underneath that path, so we could...

COOPER: And so you literally felt the door being -- being -- trying to get sucked open?

J. BRIM: Yes. Sometimes it was pulled that way, and sometimes it was under. I told the kids we may get rained on if it lifts the roof off. We are hanging tight. We're going to stay strong right here.

And eventually, it seemed like it lasted forever. I think it actually hovered there for a while. It lasted. It was loud. You could hear the windows crashing first. Of course, the lights went out, but then it got light again, because the ceiling was gone. But we were safe. All four walls of that little closet were safe.

COOPER: Did you know she had made it into the closet?

M. BRIM: Well, we -- the last text -- the one phone call we had, she asked me, she said, "Do you think the printer closet is safe?"

And I knew where it was, right across from her room, and I said, "Absolutely. You're safe from the storm." And then from what I understand, she got in there and then the other teachers took the other kids into the bathroom, which was right next to it.

COOPER: So you go in there. You see the hallways destroyed.

M. BRIM: I'm going down the hallway. There's knee deep of stuff. All the roof now, all the ceiling stuff, everything is down on the floor. There's shingles from houses all around or down on the floor. And I pull them through, and I could see the printer closet. And it was three quarters of the way covered from the outside.

And I'm banging on the door with a piece of metal, yelling. And I could hear them in there. And pretty soon, a guy comes up on top of the wall and he says, "Hey, I can see them through the top. I'm going to try to lift them out."

And about this time, the teachers that were in the bathrooms, they come out, and the kids were just screaming and crying. And the teacher was -- some of them were -- one of them was barefoot and the kids were trying to get out. And there was still some electricity. But I saw some lights. And I said, "Walk down the hall here. Keep your hands on the wall and don't touch any wires." And they sort of begin to filter out, one at a time. I said, "Just help the one in front of you, OK?" They were just crying so hard, and the teachers were helping them out.

About that time, the other men began to come from other areas, two or three in the halls. So they started helping them out. Some more guys were showing up. To me, it was amazing to watch, over the 5-minute period that I was there, the number of men and women that were coming from the neighborhoods that had been destroyed...

COOPER: Yes.

M. BRIM: ... to come and help try to pull out the kids. We worked our way around back to where the rescue area was, where the walls had fallen down.

COOPER: And you saw her again?

M. BRIM: And Janice, when they brought her off -- out of the -- out of the room, we saw each other. I threw her her jacket, and she knew she needed to go find some people. I went with some other guys to see if we could clear some other rooms.

COOPER: You went on to try to help.

M. BRIM: I was just glad that -- that she was OK.

COOPER: Thank you so much.

J. BRIM: Thank you.

COOPER: I'm so glad you're all right. Staying strong all throughout that. Finishing strong.

J. BRIM: Finish strong. Yes, finish strong. And my kids are the ones that reminded me, "That's our motto. We did that today."

COOPER: You certainly did. Janice and Mark, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: When the twister hit, homes that stood for generations were reduced to rubble, in a matter of seconds sometimes. For residents, sometimes the safest place to be was underground, inside a storm shelter. One of them captured this amazing video. We showed it to you at the top of the program, the tornado spinning above the shelter. You'll hear from him about what it was like to be inside there.

And we'll take you inside another shelter just to show you what they're like and how they saved so many lives. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: It's an incredible video, recorded by Charles Gafford. It captured the tornado's fury while hunkered down inside a storm shelter. We're going to hear from him in just a moment.

For people that to ride out the twister, reaching a shelter often meant the difference between life and death. So many homes proved to be no match for this tornado. You can see that entire neighborhood is reduced to rubble there.

Gary Tuchman is also here in Moore, and he's at one of those -- those personal storm shelters outside somebody's home. Gary, show us what it looks like.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, I can tell you, the people who lived in this destroyed home survived because they were at work. But if they were at home when it happened, they also would have survived because of this heavy steel, personal storm shelter. I want to show you how it works.

It slides open. That's important that it slides open, because if there's rubble on it afterward, you couldn't lift it up. It slides open, you kick it open. I'm going to take you down there. It only fits one person, so I'm going to take the camera from our photographer, Eppie Nita (ph), and I'm going to become the cameraman for a second and show you what happens when you go down the steps and what it looks like.

I almost tripped when I went down. But you carefully walk down. And if you get claustrophobic, I can tell you that it's not a big problem because you know you're saving your life. This could fit about five or six people.

Right now, this particular storage unit is like a closet that you would bring down important papers, valuables, things like that. Now I'm sitting down here on a seat. I could be with five or six people. I could wait it out. What I do is I close the door. You bring down a light, you bring down refreshments and you wait for the tornado to pass over you.

Once it passes over you, you open up the door. And in this case, the house was destroyed, but you are perfectly safe. You walk up the steps, and you see the rubble and you see what's going on. I give the camera back to Eppie (ph), and I tell you one important thing, that if you decide to get a shelter like this, it costs several thousand dollars. Good investment, but one thing you have to do is, if rubble, a car, a tree falls on top of it, and you're not able to slide this open, you've got to make sure the fire department, friends or family know you have a shelter so they know to look for you.

One other thing I can tell you, Anderson, a lot of people are asking questions, parents, students. Why don't all schools have shelters like this or basements? And the reason is that it's not required. It's not a law. And, for many school districts, it's not economically feasible. But to have a shelter like this or a basement, the absolute safest place you can be in a tornado -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. The question is, will that be revisited now in the wake of all this? We'll see.

Gary, appreciate it.

As we mentioned, Charles Gafford was one of the lucky ones to reach a storm shelter just like that one. When the twister hit, he grabbed his camera and he recorded some pretty amazing video, giving us a ground-level view of the tornado from the vantage point of the shelter. He captured the scene as the twister threw debris, branches right past the shelter door. I spoke to him earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: So, first of all, how are you doing, Charles?

CHARLES GAFFORD, TORNADO SURVIVOR (via phone): I'm doing all right and still a little bit shaken up after everything, of course, but myself and my family and all my friends are -- made it out all right.

COOPER: And as you're -- we're watching the video now. You're seeing all this debris passing right over the storm shelter. What was going through your mind? What did it feel like?

GAFFORD: It was so intense. I couldn't even begin to describe the feeling that I was feeling myself. But I was more worried about where -- where it was really hitting, which was the school that was directly in front of us. It was basically just waiting for it to get by so that we could try and help as much as we could.

Right after we got out of the shelter, we raced over to the Briarwood Elementary to try and help some kids. And we got there, and immediately, there were just kids screaming, not knowing what to do, not knowing where their parents are at. And there were even some people that were trapped under rubble and we were trying to help them get out. But it -- it's just crazy, because there's not a whole lot you can do when you don't have equipment right after it's happened.

COOPER: Yes. And thankfully, everyone at Briarwood was OK. How much warning did you have personally that the storm was about to hit?

GAFFORD: I'd say we had about 20 minutes. There had been rumors all day that there was going to be a tornado. But we knew that it was headed our direction. We could pretty much already see it on the horizon. We had the storm shelter ready.

COOPER: We can see a house kind of peeking out, part of the shelter. Did that house make it?

GAFFORD: The house made it pretty well. I mean, there's a lot of damage to the roof. The windows were busted out. But further down the left side of the street, there were some that were completely wiped out, and once you go on the back side of their fence, everything is just completely flat. COOPER: And once -- one the tornado passed, you came out of the shelter, what was that moment like? What do you see all around you?

GAFFORD: It's like a war zone. It's ridiculous. I mean, it's just hard to believe that something like that could just happen. I mean, that was the first tornado I'd ever seen in person, and I've been in Oklahoma for over 10 years.

COOPER: Well, Charles, I'm glad you guys are doing OK and -- and that the house is OK and you had the presence of mind to seek shelter. Appreciate you talking to us. Thank you, Charles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: It's just incredible.

Up next, Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going to talk about the kinds of injuries that more than 200 people in this community have sustained. We also spoke to the doctor in charge of the emergency room at Moore Medical Center when it took a direct hit from the tornado. No one inside that devastated hospital was hurt. You'll hear from her ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had to pull a car out of the front hallway off a teacher. And she -- I don't know what that lady's name is, but she had three little kids underneath her. Good job, Teach.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Incredible. As we've seen in the past day and a half, teachers acted heroically to save their students. We now know that many others displayed heroism, as well.

Take a look at Moore Medical Center, which was in the path of the tornado. And the staff, they acted quickly when they got the warning that a twister could hit the building. But take a look at all that remains of it. I mean, just sheared off the front of it. They moved everyone who was inside to a safe place.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta caught up with the doctor who was in charge of the emergency room when the disaster struck. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You were the E.R. doc on call in a hospital that was in the middle of one of the biggest tornadoes in U.S. history. And everybody did well inside your hospital. How do you -- how are you feeling about that today?

DR. STEPHANIE BARNHART, MOORE MEDICAL CENTER: I don't think it's hit me, really. And I don't -- I still just can't feel like I can take any credit for that. Like I said, I was just doing my job and knew what I had to do. But I can't even imagine. You know, it is. It's very emotional, because I'm like, "Wow." That anybody did get out. But -- yes, again, words can't even describe how I feel and -- but I do -- keep getting a lot of thank yous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: It's amazing that they were able to get everybody out OK. Sanjay joins me now.

You know, we've been to a lot of disasters like this together in a lot of places, and we've seen how long people can survive in wreckage, in rubble.

I talked to the mayor and the governor earlier tonight. They say they think the death toll is not going to change from what it is now. Most of the areas have been searched multiple times. But somebody can stay alive underneath debris for quite a while?

GUPTA: Yes, the basic supply here. Obviously, you need air, so some -- some sort of air pocket, that would obviously be the crucial point. But it's been raining, so there might be enough water. There's going to be food around.

We heard recently of people surviving 17, 18 days. Again, I heard the same reports that you did, they don't think that that's likely (ph). They've accounted for everyone, but that is a possibility. And I think that's part of what keeps the hope and optimism alive.

COOPER: And a lot of these, a wide variety of kinds of injuries to people have been sustained.

GUPTA: You know, when you have -- you sort of have three waves of injuries when something like this occurs. You've got the primary blast and from the wind itself, and then the secondary wave of injuries, which anybody behind us here could be potentially shrapnel, cause impalements, and they saw a few of those types of injuries at the big trauma center. Crushed bones, that type of thing.

One thing they didn't see that much of, which was a little bit surprising to the doctors I spoke to, were very many brain or head injuries. The doctor you just saw there, Dr. Barnhart, she said when she got the patients, for example, in that corridor in the middle of the hospital, as this thing was sort of coming down on them, they threw mattresses and blankets over them to try and protect their heads. And she was saying it's just part of the way that they're ingrained since they were kids here. She lived in Oklahoma her whole life. It's one thing they were taught, and she thinks that may be part of the reason there weren't, thankfully, that many brain or head injuries.

COOPER: Yes. And they were able to get the patients who needed help to other centers nearby?

GUPTA: Yes, and so in the midst of this, there might be more storms coming. They're setting up a triage in a parking lot across the street to try and take care of people, because the hospital is gone. And they're also trying to evacuate patients.

I'm always struck by this, as I'm sure you are in place around the world. They are trying to, you know, save lives and prevent injury while they, themselves, could potentially be putting themselves in harm's way. So it's quite extraordinary, I think, what she did. She's only 34 years old. I expected this hardened sort of trauma surgeon. She sort of came up and said, "I'm the woman who was in charge last night."

COOPER: And last night, when I talked to the state medical examiner, they -- she had said they had confirmed 51 fatalities, as many as 20 of them were children. They've downgraded that, thankfully, today to 24 fatalities. What do you think happened? Just a mix up?

GUPTA: Yes. I think it's something that I've seen before. You know, and a certified medical examiner's is always going to be giving a count. And they're sort of the authority on this. But sometimes, there may be another organization, as well, which is also counting. What happens is you sometimes get a double count.

This is almost twice, exactly twice, from 24 to 51. They may have just counted twice, many of those same people. Oftentimes, the mistake goes the other way, and they under count. So thankfully, it was less.

COOPER: A little bit of good news today. Sanjay, appreciate it. Thanks for the reporting.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Just got some new information on the scope of this disaster. Oklahoma state emergency management now putting the number of homes damaged at 2,400; 2,400 homes, many as you've seen, utterly torn apart. Ten thousand people directly affected by this tornado. We certainly wish them all the best on the long road ahead.

That does it for us tonight. Thanks for watching. We'll be back here in Moore, Oklahoma, tomorrow night at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern Time. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.