WASHINGTON (AFP) - Americans who survived the massive tornado that barrelled through an Oklahoma City suburb described racing for shelter only to emerge scarred and bloodied on a moon-like landscape of debris.
Alarms had sounded as the black funnel bore down on the suburb of Moore in the middle of the afternoon on Monday, but no one anticipated the massive destruction that left dozens of people dead, including at least 20 children.
A woman with red scrapes on her face, identified only as Elizabeth, described to local television station KFOR-TV how she sped down a highway to try to get home to save her dog Ginger.
Once there, she jumped into a bathtub with the dog and an armful of pillows as the tornado shattered her windows. The twister lifted everything up and the next thing she knew, she had come to in the ruins of her home.
"I cannot believe we actually survived this thing," she said as she held the leash of her dog, which was apparently unharmed.
Stable worker Lando Hyde also thought of his animals first, racing to release several horses before diving into the stable to seek shelter. The storm tore down the stalls and dropped a pickup truck on top of them, he told KFOR.
"It was just unbearably loud and you could see stuff flying everywhere," he said.
Even seasoned weather forecasters were shocked at the 3-km wide swath of vicious winds, which packed more force than a maximum-strength category five hurricane.
The tornado destroyed at least two schools, including the Plaza Towers elementary school, where at least seven children were killed, according to CNN.
A sixth-grader identified only as Brady told CNN how he and other children were led into the bathrooms by teachers as the storm bore down only to be hastily evacuated later because of reports of a gas leak.
Rescue efforts began almost immediately, as concerned residents ran up and down the blocks of flattened houses calling out for survivors.
The search continued late into the night as first responders dug through the rubble, with the toll expected to rise.
The Midwestern state of Oklahoma lies in the so-called "Tornado Alley," a vast area from South Dakota to Texas that is prone to twisters, and a tornado carved a similar path through the Oklahoma suburbs in 1999, killing 44 people.
But residents were shocked at the extent of Monday's destruction, as helicopters captured pictures of block after block of destroyed homes.
"When I got home I realized that there's nothing left of my house," an unidentified woman told CNN.
"The front is still standing but the back is gone. My bathroom honestly is untouched. We've lost animals. We've lost everything," she said. "I and my family's OK and we'll make it ... But everything's gone."
Mr Steve Wilkerson also lost his home, but said he was grateful that his family had survived. "I'll get it together again. I'll get it going. I just want to break down and cry but you've got to be strong and keep going," he told CNN.