Families pay tribute to loved ones

By Philip Sherwell in Moore

Names and stories of the dead emerge including the best friends who died as their school disintegrated.

James Pitts uses a sledge hammer to try to force open a friend's trunk in a tornado-ravaged car as residents sort through their tornado-ravaged homes. Photo / AP
James Pitts uses a sledge hammer to try to force open a friend's trunk in a tornado-ravaged car as residents sort through their tornado-ravaged homes. Photo / AP

Kyle Davis, a blond-haired ball of 8-year-old energy who loved to sing in his church choir and play football, was killed when a roofing beam struck his neck as he sheltered in a school corridor.

Antonia Lee Candelaria and Emily Conatzer, inseparable 9-year-old best friends in life, died hand-in-hand in the rubble.

And Janae Hornsby, 9, described by her father as "sunshine on a rainy day", was also among the seven pupils killed when Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma, was flattened by Tuesday's tornado.

The number of fatalities caused by the massive storm which struck the city remained at 24 yesterday, with more than 300 injured. Most had died from suffocation and crush injuries and, contrary to earlier reports, the children at Plaza Towers did not drown in a basement but instead succumbed to the maelstrom above.

Their deaths have prompted debate and controversy about why a school in the middle of America's tornado alley did not have a storm shelter or safe room.

As the names of the dead became public, and as it was announced that President Barack Obama would visit the devastated town on Monday, loved ones paid tribute to those they had lost. Kyle's mother Mikki said she would place his football trophies around his casket for his funeral.

Josh Hornsby, an Iraq war veteran whose wife Gia died last year, said Janae "was loving, caring, fun and energetic. She was happy, always happy, always outgoing".

On her Facebook page, Emily's mother Kristen Conatzer wrote: "Today was the day that no parent wants to encounter, the words you never want to hear as a parent."

At least 10 of the dead from the Tornado tragedy were children. Sisters Karrina Vargyas, 4, and Sydney, 7 months, were killed in their home, despite their mother's attempts to protect them.

Megan Futrell, 29, a mother-of-two, was found hugging her 4-month-old son in the ruins of a 7-Eleven grocery store where they both died. He was the youngest victim.

Herman Bhonde, 65, was the oldest named so far. He was clinging to his wife Jerrie in the shower of their bathroom as they tried to ride out the storm.

"The house totally disappeared," Bhonde said from her hospital bed. "Walls were hitting me. I was knocked on the floor. I looked around for my husband. I couldn't find him."

But even as the desperately sad stories of the dead emerged, so did remarkable accounts of heroism by teachers who saved countless lives.

At Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementary schools, several teachers used their bodies as human shields to protect pupils who were crouching in the tornado drill position they had practised so often.

Jennifer Doan, 30, suffered a fractured spine and sternum and cuts across her body when she was trapped in rubble as she cradled two children in her arms at Plaza Towers.

From her hospital bed, Doan, who is pregnant, recalled how she reassured a boy in her arms as rescuers made their way to them.

"I was just telling him to keep calm and that they would come, and he just kept telling me that he couldn't breathe and he didn't want to die," she said.

The boy survived his injuries, as has Doan's unborn child. But it was only yesterday that she learned that seven of the third-graders she taught had died nearby.

At Briarwood, Waynel Mayes, a first-grade teacher, told CNN that she 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 said, referring to a children's game.

The roof was peeled away above them. If they had glanced up, they would have seen a debris-filled maelstrom, with cars and even horses from a nearby farm, tossed around like toys above their heads. All, however, lived.


Tornado cost

• 24 dead, 6 adults remain unaccounted for
• 13,000 homes destroyed
• US$2b of damage, State Insurance Commissioner John Doak said
• US$1.5-$2b estimate by Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City
• 33,000 affected citizens, he said

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