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Rescuers search for more Okla. tornado victims

Rescuers sorted through bricks and shattered plywood Wednesday in search of more victims of a deadly tornado that blasted through a small Oklahoma town.
Tornados moved through the state of Oklahoma killing at least 8 people in the small town of Lone Grove.
Dennis Parker (behind) hugs his sister Barbie Vaughn (R) and family member Dondria Hickman (L) while she holds her son Bryce Hickman while looking through what used to by Dennis Parker's trailer in the trailer park that was destroyed after a tornado hit the small town of Lone Grove, Oklahoma, 11 February 2009.Larry W. Smith / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

The luckiest ones packed like sardines into a cellar as the tornado approached. For the least fortunate, at a mobile home park, there was no close place to seek refuge.

And then there was Lana Hartman's family, who did what they were supposed to do Tuesday evening when the twister hit the small southern Oklahoma town of Lone Grove: She, her two daughters, three grandchildren and two friends hid in a closet.

The storm that killed at least eight people nearly claimed a ninth when it blew part of the roof off Hartman's house and lifted one of her daughters into the air.

"The suction was so unreal," Hartman said.

'Did a lot of praying'
Everyone grabbed the woman to prevent her from being sucked out of the house and blown away.

"We held onto each other and did a lot of praying," Hartman's friend Carole McFarland said.

After the storm passed, they walked out of what was left of the house and saw debris everywhere. Around town Wednesday, trees were uprooted, cars had been flung around like toys and all that was visible of some mobile homes Wednesday were the cinder blocks they had sat on.

"I was in shock, I think I still am," Hartman said. "We're alive, that's all that matters."

Some people were killed by flying debris. One man died when a pickup truck fell on him. Another woman was found injured but alive beneath an overturned mobile home.

Residents of Lone Grove, a town of 4,600 about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, awoke Wednesday to find much of their community in ruins. The National Weather Service assigned a preliminary EF-4 rating to the Lone Grove storm, with winds estimated at 170 mph.

"The devastation literally takes your breath away," said Gov. Brad Henry, who arrived in the area by helicopter Wednesday and declared a state of emergency in 17 counties.

'Looks like a war zone'
"It literally looks like a war zone. But on the flip side of that, it's amazing how many survived. In some way, this area was blessed by God," Henry said.

Shirley Mose was not at home when the tornado struck, but she returned to find the house destroyed and her pickup truck wrecked.

"I had a little Chihuahua that stayed in there," Mose said. "We found her bed, but not her. I guess she's gone."

The Lone Grove twister was among a cluster of unusual February tornadoes that touched down Tuesday in Oklahoma. A half-dozen homes and several businesses were also damaged in Oklahoma City and suburban Edmond, but no serious injuries were reported there.

'A lot of people just didn't leave'
Lone Grove firefighters searched each damaged or destroyed structure, spray-painting a large "X" on homes after inspection. Residents were then allowed to check for belongings.

Authorities gave as much as 35 minutes of warning that a twister was approaching.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, meaning a twister was imminent and residents should take shelter. Another warning was issued at 7:15 p.m. when the actual tornado was spotted. It hit Lone Grove at 7:25 p.m.

"A lot of people just didn't leave," Carter County Sheriff Ken Grace said.

Joe Hornback, 42, said the roof was blown off a post office a few blocks from his home.

"We were very fortunate," he said. "We went into the only cellar on our block. There were 30 of us in a 6-by-6 underground cellar."

Twisters rare in winter
Tornadoes are relatively rare in the winter. Since 1950, Oklahoma has been struck by 44 in February, most recently on Feb. 25, 2000, when a twister damaged a barn and power lines in the western part of the state.

Most of the bodies were found in the mobile home wreckage. A trucker driving through town was also killed when winds slammed into his rig. Fourteen other people were seriously injured.

Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office, said some of the victims appeared to have been inside their homes when the tornado hit. Others had fled outdoors.

Most died from blows to the head.

"One victim was found underneath a pickup truck the tornado had lifted and dropped on him," Ballard said.

There was no shelter near the mobile home park for the residents to seek refuge.

Surveying the wreckage, Wade Talieferro pointed to a section of the park where six mobile homes had once stood.

"They're all gone," said Talieferro, whose uncle lives in the area. "I found a dead body in the pasture last night."

National Guard helping provide security
Thirty National Guard troops helped police provide security.

"We know we have lost many lives in Lone Grove, and we pray the losses do not rise any higher," Henry said.

The governor said he received a call from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offering "any and all support" to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the storm, as well as support to those who lost their homes.

President Barack Obama spoke to Henry and Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and "passed along his condolences and best wishes to the victims," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Along the main road in Lone Grove, homes and businesses were destroyed. Trees were splintered. Roofs were missing. Power lines were on the ground, and electricity was out.

Trina Quinton stood next to a pile of rubble that used to be John's Furniture, which was owned by her cousin.

"This is where I was raised," Quinton said as tears rolled down her cheek. "This is where I grew up."

She was grateful that the business was closed at the time of the twister, but she doubted the family would be able to rebuild.

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