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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Search and Rescue Efforts Under Way in Oklahoma

Aired May 20, 2013 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

The crews at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, now working under floodlights. They have just brought in heavy earth- moving machinery. They're searching for children and school staff who may still be buried underneath the rubble, children who took shelter in a hallway that likely no longer exists.

Many of the classmates survived. That's the good news. Some didn't, however, seven fatalities confirmed so far at the school, seven children, in all, at least 51 people across the area now confirmed dead.

We have got some new video, what the tornado looked and sounded like from closer than most people would care to get. You see the debris flying around that. A wider view now shows just how enormous the tornado, one of several today, actually was, about two miles wide, estimated winds at least 166 miles an hour, possibly much higher than that.

Storms like this one rarely -- they rarely leave anything standing. This one, sadly, was true to form. It stayed on the ground minute after agonizing minute, leaving mile after mile of wreckage like this, hundreds and hundreds of homes, buildings believed to be destroyed, a hospital damaged, evacuated, Plaza Towers Elementary School devastated.

360's Gary Tuchman is there, joins us now by phone.

Gary, what's the scene?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I'm truly sorry that I don't have good news to report here. I'm standing a hundred feet away from the Plaza Towers school, the wreckage of what was the school. And the search has entered a new phase.

As you mentioned, heavy equipment has been moved in, front- loaders, drills. They're doing it gingerly, but they are starting to move away the rubble. And then 30 to 40 men and women who are standing there are then going into the rubble to see if they possibly could find any survivors.

But I have now been here for two hours. They have not found any survivors. And several medical personnel are talking me they are still looking for 24 children who are missing. Now, that doesn't mean -- and we certainly hope not -- that doesn't mean they have all perished. Some may be in hospitals. There may be some confusion of some who weren't in school today. But there are definitely 24 children who are still not accounted for.

So while we have been here the two hours, they also haven't brought up any bodies. There are little stretchers that are lying here for injured children. They haven't been used. There are doctors with stethoscopes, lots of medical equipment here. None of it has been used.

They're hoping to use it, but it hasn't been. The search continues frantically. People are standing around, hoping they find survivors. Helicopters are flying overhead. The lights have been brought in. This will go on as long as it takes.

But I will tell you, Anderson, this neighborhood, this may be the hardest-hit part of Moore. There's nothing left here. It looks like another planet. There's no buildings for blocks at a time. I walked for two miles to get here. And when I started the two-mile walk, there was some damage. Then there was utter devastation and here complete devastation, just rubble everywhere you go.

But the worst of it is here at this school, where still 24 children are unaccounted for and the search continues frantically -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Gary, from our vantage point, from this overhead shot, it is a sickening scene, a haunting scene, the images in those floodlights of the searchers in yellow and firemen searching through the rubble.

Gary, when we talked about two hours ago, you were actually standing near a father who was seated crying, waiting to hear word of his child. Are there many parents actually there on site?

TUCHMAN: There's only a couple, Anderson.

The parents have been advised to stay away and they're being comforted at other locations. But this one man I started talking to since we last talked, and a very nice man. I just can't believe how calm he is. He's sitting on a chair, tears streaming down his eyes. And he tells me his son is 9 years old, the third grade. He doesn't know where he is. He's being comforted by the firemen.

At one point, a doctor came over and the doctor said -- and he was very blunt with him -- he says, "I don't know if we're going to find him. At this point, you're going to have to come to terms with it. I'm so sorry to tell you that."

And the guy, this father just looked so forlorn. It was just painful to watch. But this is what happens when we cover stories like this. We encounter this a lot in these tragic stories. And this is just another one. You never get used to it, Anderson. It's really just painful to watch a man like that suffer so much, such a dire situation. COOPER: Well, there's a lot of families waiting right now for word of their loved ones, not just the children in that elementary school, but people all throughout this area.

Gary, we're going to continue to check in with you.

I want to also bring in George Howell, who is also in another vantage point also near that school.

And, George, you have been there for hours as well. Darkness has come. What are you seeing and hearing from people around you?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, you know, you obviously see the lights over there where Gary was talking about, where you see that overhead scene of these rescuers doing their best, their due diligence to go through the rubble, to find victims, to find people who survived.

But, again, what we have seen right here on this side of the school, we have seen one after another, sheriff's deputies. We have seen investigators. We have seen a line of people going over into that school. In fact, look at this. Let's pass over. Look at this.

This is an example of what we're talking about. They're coming in, they're going out, they're doing their very best to find people in that school. We have seen scenes like this all night. This has been happening all night.

These are the people who are doing everything they can to help these parents who are looking for their children. I just went over there a minute ago. And, first of all, trying to get over there is difficult. Gary probably ran into this. Parents are running into this, but you walk around, there are some unpleasant surprises here as you walk through, especially at night.

When I got over there to the scene, you see these cars that have been twisted and mangles. You see that the walls have been torn down. It is total devastation over there. And we spoke to one parent who's looking for her niece. You see that out here.

But we also spoke to three parents who found their children. We spoke to them and we learned that the children, they were told during the storm, when the tornado came through, you know, to do duck and cover, to do this sort of thing. And that's what kids are thought here in the Tornado Alley, when these storms came through. This mother said that's how she found her son just like that waiting to be found -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, George, so many people who have not lived through a storm like this don't realize just all the things that become airborne, that become projectiles, that can injure you, and now, as you said, all the things on the ground, nails sticking up, boards, sharp glass, everything out there.

It's still a very dangerous scene for those who have survived the initial storm. I also want to bring in Nick Valencia, who is in Moore as well, for us.

And, Nick, you have been talking to people all evening long.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson.

Many of the residents have come and gone trying to sift through the debris to find what little, if anything, they have left. If you can see behind me, there's still first-responders going through homes, canvassing, making sure that no one is unaccounted for.

There's also stories of survival and residents that weathered the storm.

Steve Wilkerson is one of those residents. He has been here in the community for about five or six years. And he has everything that he was able to get from his house right here in this basket.

How are you feeling right now? How are you doing?

STEVE WILKERSON, TORNADO VICTIM: I don't know how I'm doing, still in shock, just can't believe it happened, not in the community. I mean, everybody lost everything here today, pretty much.

VALENCIA: There were severe weather warnings. There was a chance -- meteorologists were saying there was a chance for another spate of severe weather. When did you realize it was serious?

WILKERSON: When they came on and said you had about 30 minutes to get out.

VALENCIA: So, you knew that you had a chance to -- you had about 30 minutes to get out?

WILKERSON: Yes, with the warning today they give us. It kind of like happened real fast. It started over at Newcastle and just tracked northeast.

VALENCIA: Did you see the -- you see the tornado as it was coming towards you?

WILKERSON: No. I was behind it when I -- I was coming in from work when it went to Newcastle. I was coming in behind it.

VALENCIA: Now, Steve, take our viewers through just the emotion of showing up at your residence. This is your home and it's all -- it's all gone.

WILKERSON: There's no explaining it. Unless it happens to you, you don't know really how to feel. You're just in shock still there. Still can't believe this is happening. You work 20 years and then it's gone in 15 minutes. It's just -- it's unreal. Just, I don't know. I don't know what to say, other than I'm in shock still.

VALENCIA: Steve, you don't have to say anything more. I think you explained it yourself. This is just an example and indicative of what a lot of residents here, Anderson, are going through. I talked to Steve and he said he's going to -- Steve, where are you going to stay tonight?

WILKERSON: My sister lives about a half-mile from here and I'm going to go stay with her tonight, then decide what to do after that and where to go and what to do after reality sets in.

VALENCIA: What about your neighbors? Do you know anything about your neighbors? We...

WILKERSON: Most of my neighbors were OK, too. They made it out. They got out before it hit.

So, I haven't talked to any of them since then. But I'm pretty sure they're OK. I haven't heard any different. None of them has called me. They got my number, so maybe they're still in shock, too, because they lost everything.

VALENCIA: What did you find when you were going through everything in your house? What did you find?

WILKERSON: A lot of debris, dirt, grass, mud, insulation, boards sticking through the house, top of the roof missing.

VALENCIA: And what do you have here in the basket. What were you able to recover?

WILKERSON: A few clothes, a pair of shoes and a few clothes. So, that's basically going to be about it. We think we can salvage a little bit more. But I'm not sure because all the -- the way the insulation blew in on my clothes and stuff, I just don't think there's any saving them.

VALENCIA: This is your life right here. This is your life right here.

WILKERSON: For a minute, it will -- yes, for a minute. I will get it together again and get it going.

VALENCIA: Were you able to recover any pictures, any mementos, anything that was really sentimental to you, Steve?

WILKERSON: Not yet. I'm hoping to tomorrow, because I had -- we had them in little plastic containers. So I haven't got to go through them yet to see if they're even there or if they're destroyed or what. I'm hoping they're not, because you can't replace pictures of family, kids' pictures when they're younger.

It's just -- I don't know, man. It's just hard to explain. It's just un -- surreal.

VALENCIA: You're in shock?

WILKERSON: Yes, badly, I guess. I just want to break down and cry. But you know how that's -- how it goes. You have got to be strong to keep going.

VALENCIA: Well, I don't think anyone would blame you if you did. You have been a resident of Oklahoma all your life. You have been through tornadoes before.

WILKERSON: Nothing like this one, nothing like this one.

Even May 3 of, what, 2009 wasn't this bad, not in my opinion. This one is pretty bad.

VALENCIA: And there was also...

WILKERSON: It destroyed a whole -- destroyed the school up there with the five -- I think they found five kids up there dead so far. I think they drowned. Not sure yet, just hearsay.

So, I feel sorry for the parents that had to go through that. I still got my family. So, I can go on. But they're going to have to deal with some bad -- I feel sorry for them.

VALENCIA: A lot of these residents are having to deal with a lot of the same emotion that Steve is going through right now, Anderson.

COOPER: Nick, thank you.

And thanks, Steve, very much.

We wish him and everybody there in harm's way the best right now.

To get a better picture of what happened and the magnitude of this storm, because it is hard to get a picture, kind of the overview, I want to bring in our Chad Myers in the Weather Center.

Chad, can you do that for us, just kind of give us a big picture of this?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes.

About 3:30 this afternoon, Eastern time, 2:30 their time, there was very little on radar. And, literally 30, 40 minutes later, we had an EF-2, EF-3, and then finally growing to an EF-4 tornado on the ground, really just unheard-of type of explosive. Just the devastation that you see here, how the pieces are getting thrown around, this is called debris.

I mean, that was a house. That was somebody's shingles. That was somebody's siding. And then all of the sudden now you have got 1,000 of those houses in the way, and, of course, the schools that got in the way as well. This was a big supercell tornado.

We talk about them where there's just one cell out by itself. It can rotate, especially on a day like today. Otherwise, if there's a line weather, it's usually a wind event, maybe some small hail.

But when there's one big cell, it's the big dog. It becomes the master rotation. It becomes the big tornado, and that's what we had here, that EF-4 tornado. Things have calmed down significantly now. Kind of lined things up. Storms are going to be just kind of wind makers for a while.

There's your Newcastle pictures right there, brand-new. This is called a wedge tornado, probably a mile-wide at the base at this time, maybe even larger. We had something called a debris ball today. That was over two-and-a-half-miles wide. That means that the debris that the radar was seeing in the air was two-and-a-half miles around.

Now, we haven't talked about this a lot, but the debris ball is something new. It's something where our new Doppler radar cannot only see in this direction, but it can also see horizontally. And so it can tell that those things, those pieces it's seeing in the air, seeing, the things that it's seeing in the air are not raindrops. They're shingles. They're bigger. They're leaves. They're insulation.

And this debris ball was so big as it moved right into Moore. It was a very large tornado. And it continues to be a large tornado tonight off to the east. This thing has now died off, this cell. Obviously this cell has died off. But there are still many more tornado watches in effect all the way from Saint Louis all the way down even into Arkansas.

This is the storm as it was with Oklahoma City, about 60 miles from one side to the other, and then this backside here, this part right here that we were so concerned about near Moore earlier today. Let me take you back to '99, 2003 and now 2013 for an ironic look at what happened here.

This yellow line is our track today. This red line is the track for 1999, and the blue line the track for 2003. Let me fly you in and show you how this lines up. Everybody is talking about this 1999 tornado, EF-5 troops moving right through Moore.

Here's our tornado today. It's probably a 2, 3, turning into the EF-4 right through here. And there's 2003, all basically in the same position. This storm today turned to the right, right toward this Briarwood Elementary and Plaza Towers and then continued across the Turner Turnpike, I-35, finally into the Lake, Lake Stanley Draper there.

But I can't imagine a town anywhere in the world that has seen three storms, two F-4s and an F-5. And the storm today could be upgraded to an F-5. Right now, the Weather Service is saying at least F-4, 166-200 miles per hour. They will be out tomorrow looking at the real damage, not just aerials, and they may find this storm was a 200- mile-per-hour tornado at one point.

COOPER: Chad, did you say this -- that the debris around this thing was as wide as two-and-a-half miles at one point?

MYERS: That's right.

COOPER: That's incredible. MYERS: So, when the suction picks stuff up off the ground, it throws it into the tornado itself, into the funnel, into the condensation funnel. Then everything gets thrown out.

And the radar actually sees all that debris and thinks it's rain, thinks it's something. It's bouncing off of that debris. And that debris bounce-off field was two-and-a-half miles in diameter from one side of -- you can see how much larger the debris field is than the tornado itself, two-and-a-half miles across. Everything you see there is probably a manmade something, a shingle, a window, a door. Houses were blown apart, obviously.

Even some of these pickup trucks were blown tens and 20 feet in the air and then thrown back down on their top. This was a devastatingly large tornado.

COOPER: That makes it like a two-and-a-half-mile killing zone, because those things, those projectiles being whipped around by that high speed, that could be easily -- I mean, I know we see a lot of puncture wounds from people who actually get hit. But you could easily be killed by that debris.

MYERS: So many times, we talk about that it's not going to be probably the funnel that kills you, because the funnel is small compared to something moving at 150 miles per hour, like a shingle.

And there you see all of that stuff in the air. This is Ben Holcomb's new video. We just bought this new video. These are some spectacular things. They will use this video in schools, in -- at OSU, at O.U. They will look at this video and they will break it down piece by piece by piece and this will be a scientific paper at sometime.

COOPER: It's extraordinary to watch. You also called it a wedge tornado; what is that?

MYERS: It's a part where you -- if you take a -- think about a tornado, a small tornado, just the tip would touch the ground. This tornado actually has the bottom cut off, almost like -- almost like a pyramid. And the pyramid would touch the ground. Think about it upside-down.

And then you talk about a pyramid that might be cut off at the top. Well, this tornado could actually still keep going father to the ground if the ground was farther away. And that's how you get such a wide footprint, as this tornado could have been at least another 300 feet, 400 feet down while the width of it then is on the ground that entire time, scouring trees.

They took the grass off the ground, Anderson. It sucked the grass right out of the dirt in some of these spots. And that's just stuff going around and scouring the ground and sucking it up and throwing it out. And when we saw this on the ground, we did this live, we were on live about 3:50. We were on live all the way through "SIT ROOM," all the way through Jake Tapper's -- just -- it was an amazing thing to watch. But we knew that this was going to be a very devastating story as soon as this stopped.

COOPER: Yes. And the full implications of it, we're still learning.

Chad, I appreciate it.

Whenever something like this happens, obviously, people try to rise to the occasion, ban together. About a half-dozen area churches have opened their doors to anyone seeking shelter. Saint Andrew United Methodist at 2727 Southwest 119th Street in Oklahoma City, they're offering shelter, as well as a place for families to reunite.

CNN affiliate KFOR reporting that all children who have not connected with their parents are being taken there. So, if you're seeking information about a missing loved one or you would like to help out, you can call the American Red Cross Oklahoma City office at 405-228-9500, again the number, 405-228-9500.

But if you just want to donate, you can go to www.redcross.org, and that way you won't be tying up a phone line. You can also text, even more importantly, Red Cross to 90999 or call 1-800-RED-CROSS, 1- 800-RED-CROSS.

We're live throughout the hour, obviously throughout the night as well, as the search for as many as two dozen children goes on in that school. We will keep you updated on that and more.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a big, big tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going straight for Wal-Mart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope those people are OK.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's going to head straight for the Wal-Mart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, sadly, it was striking a direct hit, killing at least 51 people and more.

And across the area, the search tonight still under way at Plaza Elementary School in Moore. Seven children are known to have died there; 24 remain unaccounted for. But, again, that doesn't mean they were all there. It could just be that they're missing, that they're elsewhere and they simply haven't -- they're not organized yet enough to actually find out their locations.

I want to go to George Howell, who is near the school -- George.

HOWELL: Anderson, so we have been following people talking to them as they're searching for relatives. Some are not having luck.

But I wanted to bring in here Janna (ph) and Chelsea Deeten (ph).

Because you did have some luck. Tell our viewers what just happened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely.

My daughter and I drove in from Tulsa. I was talking to my mom at 3:30. My mom lives right here at 13th Street, where nothing's left. I couldn't get a hold of her. I couldn't get a hold of her. So, we hit the highway and came in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And she backed up to Plaza Towers. And we saw that on the news. And I was just like, there's no way she's in there still. So, because it was just flat. So...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My son -- we drove all the way here and we got a text.

HOWELL: OK. And read -- would you read the text?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From my son.

HOWELL: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My son Cody (ph) is a hero.

He said: "Grandma is fine. She's at my house. Mom, everything is gone. There's nothing left anywhere. All the pictures, all grandma's stuff, all of my pictures, my letter jacket, my college degree from O.U., there's nothing left."

So my son Cody came in on 19th Street, threw his car in park and saw that nothing was left, and just ran down 13th Street, where my mom was, and just found her. She was just wandering with her little dog. She has a Yorkie. And so he scooped her up and got her out. And we got this text, and it was awesome.

HOWELL: So, your mom, your grandma has been found.

And you went to school here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was actually pretty tall. Like, I'm trying to figure out where the playground was. It's just heartbreaking. It's really sad.

HOWELL: I know it's hard to look back there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

HOWELL: Guys, thank you. I know you have got to go. You have got someone... UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have got to go get my mom.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

HOWELL: Thank you for chatting with us and thank you for sharing with us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

HOWELL: You know, Anderson, that's what we're finding.

Some people are having luck out here. Others are not. And there are still families. There are mothers and fathers who are looking for their children right now. The search and rescue continues at the school across from me and will continue through the night.

And we're starting to get rain, so really nasty conditions out here, but the search continues.

COOPER: It certainly does. It's nice to see one person, two people smiling there. They got some goods news, that family, because there's a lot of people still waiting for news.

I want to go to Gary Tuchman, who is also at the school. He's joining us now on the phone.

Gary, just talk about the scene there now.

TUCHMAN: Well, Anderson, as George just said, it's starting to rain quite hard right now, which is making everything much more difficult.

We don't want to get ahead of ourselves here, but I have just talked to two doctors who are from the scene and they're now leaving (AUDIO GAP) out of here.

They are telling me there's not an overly optimistic expectation that they're going to find any survivors in this school. That doesn't mean they're not trying as hard as possible right now. And there are still 30 to 40 men or women in the rain in the floodlights looking for the possibility of any survivors. But the expectation is being lowered here.

There are still 24 children who are unaccounted for, believe there's a possibility, a possibility, I emphasize, that all 24 (AUDIO GAP) and they have perished, but they don't know for sure at this point. But it's raining. They're still searching.

I'm standing 100 feet from the school. I can tell you it absolutely looks like a huge bombed building. It is not recognizable as a school. The scene reminds of some of the neighborhoods we saw in northern Japan during the tsunami. There are cars that are flung into the side of the school. There's one truck that's upside-down on top of the school.

There's no possibility of recognizing where houses, businesses and this school, what they looked like. There's no way of knowing, because this neighborhood here in Moore, Oklahoma, it has been so decimated. It is absolutely amazing that anyone could have survived inside this school. It is just tons of rubble on top of each other. And it is really one of the most devastating scenes I have ever seen during any of the tornadoes I have covered.

But, right now, they're still searching for 24 children unaccounted for. They have accounted for seven who perished inside this school -- Anderson.

COOPER: And search-and-rescue crews, they have microphones and the like that they can actually drop down inside that debris, Gary, and kind of they quiet down the area just to hear if there may be anybody, anybody down there. So they have a lot of things at their disposal.

TUCHMAN: They absolutely do. And they also have dogs who are on the scene also, so they (AUDIO GAP) personnel. They have these microphone. They have (AUDIO GAP) flooding scene in the south end of the school, but so far, just sad to say really there's no good news to report from here.

COOPER: All right, Gary, we're going to come back to you for any late information as our coverage from Moore continues throughout the evening.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were coming. They was like, "Well, what do we do? Do we have time to get in the vehicle and run it? We have pets. Or do we just hunker down?" So we grabbed our motorcycle helmets and hid in the closet. And prayed like hell. And luckily, the only room that was spared was the room we were in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Incredible. Stories of survival tonight, but also the terribly grim work at Plaza Tower Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma.

Joining me now by phone is Amy Elliott. She's the chief administrative officer for the medical examiner's office.

Thank you for joining us. What can you tell us?

AMY ELLIOTT, CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICER, MEDICAL EXAMINER'S OFFICE (via phone): I can tell you at this point that we have confirmed 51 fatalities. Twenty -- 20, actually, in excess of 20 of those being children. Don't have the exact numbers at this point. But I have been told that there are still a multitude of calls that are bringing more decedents in.

COOPER: So this is the first we're hearing these numbers, and they're sickening to hear. Fifty-one fatalities, you're saying; at least 20 of those 51 are children?

ELLIOTT: That's correct.

COOPER: Are you aware if those are all children from the school? From that one school that they're still searching?

ELLIOTT: I can't confirm or deny that at this point, because you know, there's still more children coming in, and we're just right now trying to handle the situation as best we can. But I should have a break down on everything in the morning.

COOPER: And you're saying you are receiving more calls, so you know that there are people out there who are going to be brought in?

ELLIOTT: Yes, unfortunately.

COOPER: This is obviously the worst possible -- possible scenario. How are you equipped? I mean, do you have enough people to deal with all this?

ELLIOTT: We do. We have a national DMART (ph) team that's coming in and helping us with families that are trying to find their lost loved ones to see if they're here. We have investigators that are -- have been deployed to the scenes, as well as we have investigators here in the office. Once this staff tires out, we have a full replacement staff coming in to relieve the staff, so we will keep going until this is completed.

COOPER: Do you have family members who are calling you? Is that the proper protocol for people to try to find out information of who may be there?

ELLIOTT: Yes, we've had actually quite a few calls. We have a team set up right now for people would to call in and say someone matches this description and/or has this name. And we're trying to help families as rapidly as we can. Because closure is important for them, as well.

COOPER: Do you want to give out that number just as it would help people?

ELLIOT: Sure, it's 405-239-7141.

COOPER: OK. That's the numbers for family members looking for their loved ones. That is Amy Elliott. And again, if you are not directly involved in this or not a direct relative of a family member, please do not waste their time and call.

Amy, if you could just repeat that number so I can have it for future reference, so we can give it out later.

ELLIOTT: It's 405-239-7141.

COOPER: 405-239-7141. Amy Elliott, I appreciate your time. And, again, my best to your staff on all the hard work that you are doing.

Again, the news of Amy bringing us, confirmation of 51 fatalities. At least 20 of them, she says, are children. Possibly more. And they have calls of more people who will be coming in, more deceased people.

Joining me now, storm chaser Brenton Leete. He's joining us now on the phone.

Brenton, no doubt you heard that from Amy, just sickening news that the huge number of children so far killed in this. What did you see?

BRENTON LEETE, STORM CHASER (via phone): Well, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) southwest of the tornado. Actually saw it touch down. It was one of the quickest tornadoes that I've ever seen. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) warnings. I had about 15 minutes before some even touched down. But it was just devastating to watch. Quite rapidly.

COOPER: And we're looking at the images that you took now. About how far away from it were you?

LEETE: From the initial funnel, we were around 200, 300 yards southeast of the funnel itself.

COOPER: What does it -- what does it feel like and sound like? I've heard so many descriptions of it from people. What did it sound like to you?

LEETE: You know, it sounds surreal. It's something you never heard before, but it does sound like a -- the explanation, a freight train. It was incredible. This was shot on my iPhone. The inflow in from the tornado was probably 50 to 75-miles-per-hour from where we were filming this. It was basically trying to yank the iPhone out of my hand as I filmed this.

COOPER: You could actually feel that? You could actually feel it kind of sucking the iPhone out of your hand?

LEETE: Absolutely. I mean, at this point, the video you're showing right now, it was -- you could see it coming out of my hand. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

COOPER: That is unbelievable. And just the -- the width of the funnel on the ground, what Chad Myers was calling a wedge tornado before, that it -- you know, usually you see kind of just a -- a smaller funnel point in the ground, but this is actually a very wide one.

LEETE: Absolutely. I mean, it was incredible. It was the most rapid tornado growth that I've seen in a tornado. From a small EF-1 initially to, you know, an EF-3 or EF-4 in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes. It was incredible. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

COOPER: Chad Myers was reporting at one point, the debris field, the kind of -- the width of the debris circling around the funnel was as much as 2 1/2 miles around. Just extraordinary. Could you see a lot of that -- a lot of that debris from your vantage point?

LEETE: We could see a lot of it. And you know, with all of these videos, on and off, you don't really have a zoom on your eye phone for the video. So this is the actual distance we were away. There was debris landing right in front of our vehicle on the road as this tornado was actually moving more. So it was incredible that it was, you know, that far away, and the debris was hitting right in front of us.

COOPER: Brenton, I want to bring in our Chad Myers down at the severe weather center in Atlanta. Chad, again, these are new pictures we have been seeing. Again, it just gives you a sense of the power of this thing.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It gives you the sense of the power of what happened. You saw it gives you a sense that, you know, you just can't go out there and be a storm chaser. A pick-up truck and a NOAA weather radio does not qualify you to go out there and chase. These men and women that do this for a living or do this to save lives and get warnings to the weather service are very, very much involved in the whole process of keeping people alive.

Brenton, let's just talk about this. What was the scariest part of this chase for you today?

LEETE: It was definitely (UNINTELLIGIBLE) where the closest point. You know, starting out, you never know what the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go to. But, you know, at this point right here, you could see the rotation not very far off; once the funnel hit the ground. In a matter of minutes it was probably an EF-2, or you know, maybe an EF-3. It was just incredible that quickly, and the in-flow of the storm was trying to take the iPhone out of my hands as I did the video taking. It was incredible. It was something I've never had or never felt before.

MYERS: Anderson...

COOPER: Yes.

MYERS: ... this storm went from 27,000 feet to over 54,000 feet in about 10-20 minutes. And what he's saying is absolutely true. This went from a non-tornadic funnel cloud event to an EF-2, 3 and then 4 within -- with less than 20 minutes' notice.

COOPER: And in terms of the terms of warning that people on the ground had, Chad, about how much? I've heard as much as 60 minutes. Is that right? Because that's about average.

MYERS: It depends on where you were. If you were in Newcastle, this thing really blew up almost right on top of you. There was already an appendage on the bottom of the storm. It was there. It was easy to see.

The warning went out at 20 minutes till the hour, which would have been 3 p.m. The tornado was on the ground on scene and live at 16 minutes later, at 56 minutes past the hour. We had it on the air live. So we know that it was between 15 and 16 minutes' notice for this tornado to get on the ground.

Then, it took another probably 30 minutes to get to these Moore locations, especially around the elementary schools. So there really was plenty of time.

COOPER: And the officials have talked about this, actually happened when school was still in session, so parents had to make the decision, do you stay at home? Do you try to go and pick up your child at the school? Obviously, the schools have systems in place. But it's just a nightmare scenario, to have this happen when kids are still in the school.

Brenton Leete, I appreciate you and what you do.

And Chad, thanks again.

Our live coverage continues throughout this hour and obviously throughout the night. The latest, we have the terrible word at least 20 of the 51 fatalities right now that we know about are children. A number of them, at least seven, perhaps more from Plaza Towers Elementary, where the search for survivors is going on right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've lost animals. We've lost everything. We don't have anything left. And my parents, I can't get ahold of them. We have no -- we have no cells. We -- you know, so if they're out there and they're watching, please let them know that I'm and my family is OK. And we'll make it. We'll be OK. But everything is gone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So many people lost so much. They parents of 20 children lost sons or daughters. There's so much heartache tonight in Moore, Oklahoma.

Country music superstar Toby Keith is a native of Moore. Today he tweeted, "Hometown got hit a gazillionth time. Rise again, Moore, Oklahoma. Godspeed."

He joins us on the phone tonight from Nashville, where he's recording an album. Toby, your thoughts upon seeing these images that we've all been watching? You know these streets; you know these people. TOBY KEITH, COUNTRY MUSIC SUPERSTAR (via phone): Well, it's devastating. We rode one out yesterday. My house is obviously down in southeast of town. I grew up in those neighborhoods that got hit today. And Plaza Tower School was, like, the next school over from our school I went to was. Shocked and Plaza Towers was the next one over. And we lived in the middle there. And it's in those streets, definitely in the studio, I want to say about noon. There's been so many tornadoes that have come through there. But nothing -- I don't ever remember one hitting the elementary school right square on the button like this one did. Devastating.

COOPER: Do you -- just watching the images, I'm sure as you said you have done, do you recognize the streets? Because it just seems like blocks are just gone.

KEITH: Oh, my sister's house got hit. I mean, it's a mile north of my mother's house and the farm where I was raised. It come a mile north of there.

One yesterday, people forget that yesterday on devastated Shawnee (ph), 40 miles from -- it came down over Thunderbird Lake. The one today finished up out of Draper. They're 80 miles apart. I live kind of in between them.

But we were fortunate. Yesterday, I left today and I knew when we flew out of there, I could see it building back in the southwest. And it was just, man, it's going to be here for two or three days. You just got to hope that everybody takes cover.

Oklahoma's really good. Great meteorologists. They have great weather centers, and they prepare you for this. And the numbers could be much, much higher, really. It's just devastating to see this count. It just usually isn't this high.

COOPER: That's one of the things the governor was saying today. She was thanking the local media and the media for -- for reporting and giving the advanced warning. People in a lot of areas had at least 16 minutes. Some folks had more.

There's a lot of people who don't -- don't have basements in this part of Oklahoma. And so they've got out to, you know, either go into a bathtub and try to figure out if they should get in their vehicle and kind of drive away or go over to friends' houses.

KEITH: Well, and that's the thing with the school. You know, everybody -- you know, I leave at noon today, fly to One-LS, and I got out here in Nashville today, and we just spent the time at the studio, just watching this at home. And everybody here was going, "How do you live there? How did they leave those kids in school?"

You never know, I mean, it could have hit 50 different schools on its path, depending which path it's heading in. And those -- those people said, "Hey, you know, it's coming right at us here. You can't call the parents to come get them now." I mean, I guess you could evacuate every school in a tornado. But Oklahoma people are just so resilient and used to dealing with this in the springtime. They -- they did the best they could do, I'm sure. And everybody in the end just got caught in the bull's-eye.

COOPER: Yes, it's just as easy to run into something as to run from something. You've got to make the decision at that time and you've got to decide whatever you think is best at the time, with the time that you have.

Toby, I appreciate you calling in. Thank you.

KEITH: Yes.

COOPER: I know your thoughts and prayers are with everyone in there tonight.

KEITH: Yes, God bless them. And they'll rise again. It's awful, the numbers, the tragedy. It's a tragedy, tragic numbers (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I wish everybody in Moore and Shawnee recovery from this and Godspeed.

COOPER: Toby, thank you very much.

And again, the death toll, we know confirmed 51 fatalities, at least 20 of them children. That's what we learned just a short time ago from the state's medical examiner's office, when she said those numbers expected to rise.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back. We've had some new video of the tornado as it hit Moore, the images taken near a local high school. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my gosh. Hold on. Wait, just hold on. It's going to our north.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: You can hear the siren warning. You can see that debris field.

Chad Myers joins us now, taking a look at this new video.

Again, Chad, I mean, I'm just amazed. And you mentioned it earlier, that 2-1/2-mile field of debris swirling around that funnel.

MYERS: That's right. You know, and even today I was watching the slide. And we were doing it live on TV with "THE SITUATION ROOM" and with Jake Tapper. And all of a sudden, I thought to myself, this is going to lift. This must lift. This can't be more. This is an impossibility that this size of a tornado could actually go through a city, even though of course, we know that it can. And Moore's been hit by now three storms of this size or bigger. But it was -- it was -- you couldn't put it in your mind that this was going to go through a populated area like it did. And it stayed on the ground for, it seemed like an hour. It may have been longer than that. But it's the debris. It's those shingles. It's the siding. It's the glass. It's the cars that are flying around that probably hurt so many people. We heard so many people had lacerations. That's where the lacerations come from.

COOPER: And again, 51 fatalities. Fifty-one confirmed dead, according to the medical examiner's office. At least 20 of them children. At least 20 of those 51 are children. And when I talked to the spokesperson of the medical examiner's office a short time ago, she said they had been receiving more calls about more fatalities that had yet to actually come to -- to the medical examiner's office. So that number expected to rise in the hours ahead.

MYERS: One thing, Anderson.

COOPER: Sorry. Got to take a quick break, Chad.

MYERS: OK.

COOPER: We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, the sun has set on a devastating day in Oklahoma. A tornado is one point -- at one point, at least two miles wide, wiping out whole neighborhoods, killing, that we know, 51 people, including 20 children. The search for survivors at that elementary school in north Oklahoma is still going on in the darkness. It's been an especially tough day. This is how we got here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Breaking news, a tornado just touched down in New Castle, Oklahoma.

MYERS: If you are in the Moore area, from H.E. Bailey (ph) to Moore, please take cover now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my goodness. It's almost -- it's three quarters of a mile wide. And it's moving into the western side of Moore. It is coming into a highly, highly populated area. This type of tornado will just level towns. Honestly, this is getting very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This thing is so big, it's so big it doesn't really look like a tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not something to play around with. Just get into that storm shelter and just stay in there until you hear that this storm has finally passed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're looking at one -- the result of one of the most destructive tornadoes in this memory. It just shredded parts of the Oklahoma City area.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Almost unbelievable. What we're seeing right now, block after block after block of homes destroyed, shocked residents hugging each other in the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're probably 200 yards away. He said he's probably pulling out children. Third graders. It is -- I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was just unbearably loud. And you could see -- see stuff flying everywhere. Just about like on the movie "Twister."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could walk over here. You were telling me that this, right here, is basically where you lived. So you not only worked here, this is where you lived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was here. And as you can see, my belongings. I mean, a couple fans for in the shed. You know, it's just -- I lost, lost everything.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Lost everything. A lot of people can say that tonight.

That does it for us. CNN will be live all night long. Make sure you continue to watch for all the latest on the devastating storm. Our coverage continues now with Erin Burnett.