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Searching through Oklahoma tornado rubble: ‘Find me babies’

Updated: 2013-05-22T16:13:57Z

By ERIC ADLER

The Kansas City Star

— While most in this tornado-ravaged city slept, Fire Chief Randy Poindexter urged his search and rescue team to keep digging, keep looking.

It was 2 a.m., nearly 11 hours after a mile-wide tornado with winds reaching more than 200 miles per hour heaved a broad swath of this town of 55,000 into a twisted and broken landscape.

The number of adults and children who have died remains a point of debate. Oklahoma’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has placed the number at 51 confirmed dead, seven of them children.

But as of 8 a.m. Tuesday, Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said the official number in Moore, as reported by the town’s fire department, is 19 — seven of them at Plaza Towers Elementary School and 12 elsewhere.

“I’ve heard 91. I’ve heard 51. There are all kinds of numbers out there,” Eddy said. “I can’t explain it except that these are the numbers we know. We don’t know where the other numbers are coming from.”

A press conference is scheduled for noon at City Hall. Eddy said that by then it is possible that some of the discrepancies can be settled.

The tornado left trees not toppled stripped naked of leaves and bark. Crushed cars lie virtually fused, one atop the other and slathered in mud. Homes, swept from their concrete slabs, have been obliterated, their wooden skeletons cracked, the material of their occupants’ lives blown across the city or tossed into mounds of paper, wood, furniture, glass and metal.

At the base of one such pile, a cadaver dog has been sniffing for close to an hour. It is the sign of a dead body, perhaps buried deep in the rubble. But it’s unclear.

The dog sniffs, turns, bays at clear moon not quite full. The rescuers, 20 or more from Dewey County as well as Poindexter’s Kingfisher County Task Force, plunge, digging away with their hands.

Not a quarter of a mile away, over Poindexter’s left shoulder, is the mountain of rubble that was the Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“They think they have three more bodies in there,” Poindexter says of the school. “They don’t know if they’re adults or children.”

In the distance, beneath massive flood lights, military personnel from nearby Tinker Air Force Base lift sledge hammers, striking at the concrete. The dull thud carries far in the darkness.

Chainsaws crack the air. Rescuers tear away tree branches, searching where the dog sniffs.

“Bring in another dog,” the chief says.

A handler arrives.

“Find me babies,” the handler, Sean Satterlee, commands his charge.

Babies, children: Already they have become the defining tragedy of this town’s devastation.

Close to midnight Police Chaplain Jack Poe, 72, had already been working for hours, standing in the parking lot of the Abundant Life Pentecostal Church, 777 S.W. 19th St., comforting frightened and frustrated parents who didn’t yet know whether their children were alive, dead or injured.

More horrible still, Poe said, is that even if he knew, he could not tell them because of hospital rules about confidentiality. Nor could he reveal that they were dead, he said, until the medical examiner had positively identified bodies.

Parents were angry, he said, shouting, “Why are we not hearing something?”

“Your heart breaks,” Poe said. “You know things, but you can’t share. In that moment, you look in their eyes. You see their pain.”

A former chaplain for the Oklahoma City Police Department, Poe came out of retirement to help the Moore Police and Cleveland County Sheriff’s Department with Monday’s tornado. In Oklahoma City, he was on duty for the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. He was also a chaplain on May 3, 1999, when Moore was hit by an F-5 tornado with winds topping 300 miles per hour.

By late Monday night, Poe said he already knew that the death toll of this tornado would rise, for both adults and children.

“I’ve been in this work for more than 30 years,” Poe said.

The Oklahoma City bombing was the worst man-made disaster the city faced, he said.

“But this is the single worst natural disaster,” he said. “You’re dealing with kids.”

Periodically, throughout the night, lightning continued to flash between the clouds in the southern sky. At least two helicopters, their search lights trained on the blackened interior of Moore, hovered in constantly overheard. The only other light came from the moon, flood lamps powered by generators and the blue and red strobes of lines of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks from dozens of counties.

Sometime after midnight, out of the darkness of a neighborhood in ruin, Joseph Hogan, 21, a Airman First Class from Indianola, Iowa, emerged with what seemed to be a chocolate Labrador retriever puppy, the second dog he had rescued that night.

At the school, U.S. Navy personnel searched and gathered everything from pictures to letters to broken iPads, to stuffed animals belonging to the children, placing them carefully in a pile.

“We’ve found a lot of backpacks,” Navy E-2 Rachel Willy, 19, of Spokane, Wash. “We’re basically going to stay until they tell us to go,” he said.

At the rubble that was a home, the second cadaver dog found nothing. The teams spread out.

“The dogs are leaving,” Satterlee told Poindexter. “There’s sounds at the school.”

It was something in the rubble, possibly someone alive.

“Go,” Poindexter said. “Run.”

But, again, it was not to be.

They had done all they could do. Later Tuesday, Poindexter said, when they brought in heavy equipment, they would be certain to find more.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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