05/21/2013 09:04 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Moore Residents Take Stock Of Deadly Tornado's Full Horror

MOORE, Okla. -- Mary Higgins never made it to shelter. And so she survived.

The shelter was the elementary school across the street, one of two that would be destroyed by the devastating tornado that tore through this Oklahoma City suburb Monday, killing at least 24 and injuring hundreds more.

Just before the storm hit, Mary's husband, Brian, called to tell her to flee their home, which lacked an emergency shelter, and take refuge at the school.

But when she opened her front door, she was confronted by a rushing wall of black noise. She turned and sprinted back inside the house and took cover in an interior room.

Moments later, the blackness engulfed her. The tornado ripped away the roof and flattened the walls like they were made of wrapping paper. Despite the damage, the core of the house was left intact, and Mary escaped without harm. The school across the street, Plaza Towers Elementary, was reduced to rubble.

For an hour after he returned home, Brian helped firefighters dig through the ruins, pulling out survivors and identifying the remains of those who died.

“If I had made it to the school, he would have been pulling me out, too,” Mary said.

She told her story Tuesday while huddled under a small Oklahoma Sooners tent pitched by volunteers on the outskirts of her neighborhood. Unable to get past the police checkpoint and retrieve her cat from what remained of her house, Mary and her husband had been waiting in their truck, parked nearby, as a cold, driving rain scoured the already battered landscape.

Tuesday was a miserable day in Moore by practically every standard. It was the day the search for survivors turned to a search for the remains of the undiscovered dead, victims of what the National Weather Service determined was a rare EF5 tornado, the most powerful ranking on the scale, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour. Damage assessment teams determined that the twister left a trail of destruction measuring about 17 miles long by 1.3 miles wide.

Tuesday was also the day that survivors returned to what was left of their homes, many for the first time. Those who were able to convince police to let them pass returned a few hours later, clutching wet garbage bags stuffed with sodden personal belongings, all that remained for some of their former lives.

One woman retrieved the American flag that had been draped over her father’s coffin at his funeral, years earlier. Others pulled rolling suitcases through the debris and muck, as if they were headed to the airport on vacation, rather than to a shelter or to stay with a family member until they could pick up their lives again. One man emerged carrying nothing but a mud-spattered laptop computer and a nine-iron golf club.

By early afternoon, what had started as spritz of rain had turned into a steady, cold downpour. At the Moore Medical Center, where the storm had sent cars slamming into the building, ribbons of leaking motor oil from the dozens of wrecked vehicles colored pools of water iridescent purple.

Across the street, on a circular block once lined with modest homes, it was difficult in some instances to even tell what one was looking at. Was a pile of wreckage formerly a house or had it been a business? Or was it simply a pile of debris blown here from somewhere else?

Near a stand of small trees stripped naked of their leaves and bark, a contingent of rescue workers from Lincoln, Neb., gathered for final orders before heading to search nearby homes for remains. Most of those homes were tagged with spray paint to indicate they had already been searched, but presumably it wouldn't hurt to look again.

Deeper into the neighborhood, residents and rescue workers mingled with the curious and the good-hearted. A group of four high school students marched past splintered homes, with rakes and shovels in hands, ready to pitch in where needed. A police officer, blocking access to a road that led even deeper into the devastation, gently suggested they go home. There was nothing they could do today, he said.

Not long after, the sun came out.



May 2013 Central U.S. Tornadoes (GRAPHIC IMAGES)