Nightly News   |  May 21, 2013

Teacher to students: ‘We are not dying today’

Plaza Towers Elementary School was destroyed by the giant tornado that hit Moore, Okla., but thanks to the heroic efforts of teachers such as Rhonda Crosswhite, many of the children survived. NBC’s Kate Snow reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> if you were watching our special coverage yesterday in the immediate aftermath of this tornado, then you know it took only an hour or two for a kind of sick feeling to arrive in this neighborhood. what about the elementary school ? there was that dire first report that upwards of 75 students and faculty might be trapped, might be unaccounted for. luckily those dire numbers did not materialize, but sadly there is well been more than enough bad news to go around at that school . kate snow has been there for us today. good evening.

>> reporter: brian, good evening to you. there were two schools that were actually in the direct path of this tornado. one of them, luckily had no fatalities that we know of so far. but the other at least seven fatalities that we know of. and this was a week that was supposed to be filled with celebration. last week at school , graduations, tomorrow was superkids day at the school . instead they're mourning their classmates. inside the walls of the plaza towers elementary school , 500 students were counting down the days in their final week in class. but in minutes their campus went from looking like this to this. classrooms completely obliterated, an auditorium caved in. parents of other students tell nbc news children were in that auditorium.

>> we've seen from it the air. this is it right here behind me as i step out of the way and let joe zoom in. this is the front of plaza towers elementary school . this school is basically gone.

>> reporter: in the hours after the tornado, dramatic image, young children were rescued, and with darkness, the search for survivors continued. some children had escaped from harm. their parents had picked them up just before the school went on lockdown monday, but the majority stayed inside as they practiced in drills many times. math teacher rhonda crosswhite was helping her sixth graders with an end of school game when the principal came over the loudspeaker and told them to go to the hallway. damian kline is a fourth grader.

>> she told us all to get your math book or your bag. i already had my bag. then we went in the hall.

>> reporter: why did she tell you to get a math book or a bag?

>> we could put it over our head.

>> reporter: a fifth grade teacher saw the funnel cloud approaching and yelled for everyone to leave the hallway and get into closets or bathrooms.

>> he said you've got to get them in there. i said i'll stay out here. he said, you're getting in there, too.

>> reporter: she was in a bath roomt stall and crouched over children. and she did what teachers do.

>> i remember the little boy saying i love you, miss crosswhite. please don't let me die with you. we are not dying today. quit saying that. and i did the teacher thing that we're probably not supposed to do -- i prayed and i prayed out loud. i said, god, please blue don't take these kids today.

>> reporter: the ceiling crashed down on them, but the walls still stood. when it was quiet again, she sent a small boy to climb up the bathroom wall and look out.

>> he got up there and he looked down at me, and he said, there's nothing left.

>> reporter: damian was in the same bathroom crouched under a sink. how loud was it?

>> it was pretty loud.

>> reporter: were you scared?

>> mm-hmm. there were a bunch of people screaming.

>> reporter: his mom spent an anxious hour wondering if her little boy was still alive, and now she wonders why the school didn't have a better shelter plan.

>> i think every school in oklahoma should have an underground shelter. it shouldn't take a tornado this size and this many kids hurt, missing and lost their lives to realize that they need underground shelters.

>> reporter: it's actually remarkable how many children did get out of this school . brian, miss crosswhite was telling us that they had sort of a firemen's brigade going with the adults helping kids out of the school . walking over a bookcase, using it as stairs and pass them along from one adult to the next to get them to safety. but we've been told how horrible the scene was with children lying everywhere, injured children, a lot of parents could barely take it.

>> two issues emerged, the bravery of the teachers and second this issue of why there wasn't a shelter there. we'll actually take that on later in the broadcast. kate, thanks for your reporting here today on the ground.