compiled by Dee Finney

Violent Tornado Kills at Least 8 in Oklahoma, More Than a Dozen Injured

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

At least eight people are confirmed dead and more than a dozen injured in Oklahoma after a violent tornado ripped through a town in the southern part of the state. Rescuers dug through the rubble left in the twister's wake Wednesday to search for survivors.

"We will do everything we can to get Oklahomans the assistance they need," Gov. Brad Henry said. He declared a state of emergency for 17 Oklahoma counties on Wednesday.

Firefighters were trying to make sure there were no additional victims in Lone Grove, where all of the victims died Tuesday and 14 people were seriously injured, said Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten.

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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.

The twister tore a half-mile swath through the town of Lone Grove shortly before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, state officials said.

Rescue crews were searching for victims in the debris of collapsed buildings that were destroyed or damaged by the tornado in Lone Grove, said Chester Agan, assistant emergency manager for Carter County.

"They just got one lady out from under a trailer ... but she was just injured," Agan said.

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The tornado in Lone Grove, about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, was one of several unusual February twisters that touched down in the state.

Others struck the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, where homes and businesses were damaged but only three minor injuries were reported. Six homes were destroyed near the suburb of Edmond, where a car mechanic shop and the vehicles inside were twisted into a ball of metal.

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"It's just surreal," said shop manager Michael Jerry, who had waited out the storm at home. "You just don't believe it. ... The steel girders are in a ball."

Part of the roof blew off the house where Lana Hartman crowded into a small clothes closet with her two daughters, three grandchildren and two friends. The twister lifted one of her daughters into the air, but everyone grabbed her, she said.

"The suction was so unreal," Hartman said.

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

Dave Smith, a paramedic who helped in the first emergency response, said much of the most severe damage appeared to center in two mobile home parks that were "pretty much wiped out."

"I transported people with puncture wounds and abdominal injuries," he said.

Ooten said the National Guard was coming to the area to assist local authorities.

Each building that had been searched was then marked with a large, spray-painted "X."

Rescuers found one woman injured but alive under an overturned mobile home.

There were unconfirmed reports the death toll go higher, but Robert Deaton, interim chief investigator for state Medical Examiner's office, said Tuesday morning that there were eight confirmed dead, seven from Lone Grove, and a truck driver from Jones, Okla., who was driving through the area at the time of the tornado.

Ed Reed, the county emergency manager, also said the official death toll stood at eight.

In northwest Oklahoma City, the twister apparently developed near Wiley Post Airport and headed northeast, damaging shopping centers, restaurants and an apartment complex. Signs were stripped, and cars were damaged.

Tornado sirens warned residents the storm was approaching, but some were still caught off guard.

"I can't believe we didn't hear it. You know how you normally hear it coming," said Traci Keil, 37.

Between downpours of rain, some residents wandered out to snap pictures of the wreckage or to clear debris blocking cars.

"My kids are still in the closet and won't come out," Keil said as a third wave of downpours approached her apartment complex, more than an hour after the twister hit.

Severe weather also caused damage and power outages in Oklahoma City and western Texas.

Power lines littered an intersection where motorists were told to stay in their cars until crews could clear the lines.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric reported about 6,500 customers without power, mostly in southern Oklahoma, according to its Web site. Just over 300 Oklahoma City area customers were still in the dark. Eighteen power poles were snapped.

The Oklahoma County Election Board was preparing to tally votes for a school board election when a large area north of the state Capitol lost power about an hour before the polls closed. Election board secretary Doug Sanderson said election materials would be locked up overnight, and workers would start tallying on Wednesday.

Besides the tornadoes, one of which was reported in north-central Oklahoma, strong winds caused damage in southern and central Oklahoma, according to state emergency management officials.

In the area of the fatal tornado, one house was damaged in the town of Wilson, officials said. In Logan County, 20 homes were damaged near Henney, east of Guthrie. No injuries were reported in either town.

Tornadoes are most numerous in Oklahoma in the spring, but can occur at any time, Smith said. The threat for twisters extended into early Wednesday, with the weather service issuing a tornado watch for southeastern Oklahoma and northeast Texas.

Winds of more than 60 mph caused dust storms in western Texas that reduced visibility so much some roads have been closed, the National Weather Service said. It said wind speeds reached 88 mph in parts of Texas, leaving downed trees and power outages Tuesday night.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.