Nick Valencia and Phil Gast
MOORE, Oklahoma (CNN) — The enormity of what they saw caused many to pause, raw emotion welling up as they tried to put haunting images into words.
Monday’s Oklahoma City area tornado brought tears but also stories of heroism and people helping neighbors.
Late into the evening, yellow-helmeted rescue workers frantically dug through debris as they looked for students and teachers at an elementary school that was leveled. Seven children were reported killed.
Residents, if they could get back home, saw incredible damage in their neighborhoods, including vehicles tossed on the tops of house roofs.
Others did anything they could do to help, pulling residents and pets from the rubble.
Even seasoned journalists struggled at times to maintain their composure.
A vigil at smashed school
The father sat on a stool, tears in his eyes as a firefighter comforted him.
He awaited news of his son, a third-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore.
The twister left the school a pile of rubble. Seven children died, said Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Kevin Parton.
Students who got out said they hugged and clung to walls as the tornado passed through, according to CNN affiliate KFOR.
One teacher told KFOR she lay on top of six students in the bathroom. All made it out alive.
Only a few walls remained standing. People rushed to the site, but officials kept them at a distance as they continued searching for survivors.
Norma Bautista told CNN she rushed to the school, found her child and nieces and nephews and took them away.
“I am speechless as how this happened, why it happened,” she said. “How do we explain it to the kids?”
Her son, Julio, said teachers told students to crouch and cover their heads.
As the grim search continued at the school, there was some happy news at a home nearby. Neighbors clapped as a woman was reunited with her dog found in a house.
The movie ‘Twister’ comes to life
Lando Hite was shirtless and muddy all over as he described what happened at a horse and entertainment farm in Moore.
“It was just like the movie ‘Twister,’ ” he told CNN affiliate KFOR. “There were horses and stuff flying around everywhere.”
The tornado slammed into the Orr Family Farm, which had about 80 horses. It damaged several barns; Hite was worried that most of the animals had been killed.
“I tried to let some of the horses out of their stalls so that they would have a chance,” said Hite, who said the building he was in was moved about 100 feet.
‘The Lord took care of us’
One resident of Moore put his situation into perspective. His home was gone, as were years’ worth of belongings.
But he and his wife were alive.
“The Lord took care of us,” said the man, 72. “My security is not in my hands. It is in the Lord’s.”
Monday night, Steve Wilkerson, whose home was destroyed, carried what few belongings he could find in a laundry basket.
“I still can’t believe this is happening,” he said. “You work 20 years, and then it’s gone in 15 minutes.”
A couple told CNN they lost their home but were able to help others.
“We started getting people out,” said one of them, trying to keep his emotions in check. “We saw some unfortunate things, but we helped some people.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Gary Tuchman and George Howell reported from Oklahoma. Phil Gast reported and wrote from Atlanta.