In the chaotic and terrifying 40 minutes it took for a powerful tornado to tear through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, ordinary people reacted to the horror with extraordinary acts of heroism.
Plaza Towers Elementary sixth-grade teacher Rhonda Crosswhite never thought of her own life, she told NBC News, even as the twister decimated the building around her. Crosswhite huddled with several students in a bathroom stall, later covering them with her own body as debris began to fly.
One of the terrified students cried out, "I love you, I love you. Please don't die with me," recounted Crosswhite on NBC's Today, as the storm that sounded like a "freight train" rained down around them.
"The whole time, I just kept screaming to them, 'We're fine, we're fine,'" said Crosswhite. "It felt like someone was beating me up from behind."
Watch Crosswhite's emotional reunion with a student she protected:
Elsewhere in the school, Becky Jo Evans, a first grade teacher, jumped on top of students as the walls began to crumble, said her friend, Edie Cordray, to the Los Angeles Times. After the storm had passed, Evans helped to pull children from the rubble, but she didn't know how many of her own students had survived.
Plaza Towers Elementary took a direct hit from the EF4 tornado--the second-strongest type--with winds registering up to 200 mph. There were 19 Moore residents confirmed dead, according to the local police department, but officials have warned that the total number of fatalities could rise. Seven Plaza Towers students were among those killed, said Sgt. Jeremy Lewis of the Moore police department.
Five minutes away, teachers at another school also helped to save dozens of lives. First-grade teacher Sherri Bittle instructed her class at Briarwood Elementary to cover their heads with their backpacks, she told ABC News. While across the building, teacher Cindy Lowe jumped into action once she saw the monster funnel clouds approaching.
"I actually saw the tornado coming, and knew how serious it was, and was just trying to calm the children down," said Lowe on ABC's Good Morning America. "[I laid] my body on top of as many kids as I could to help out."
Similar tales of heroism and hope continue to emerge as rescue workers pull hundreds of victims from the devastation. So far, more than 100 people have been found alive, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
One man described to KFOR-TV how he and others had to pull a car off a teacher, who had shielded three children with her body. "Good job, teach," said the man, breaking into tears.
Storm chasers also emerged from the tragedy with heroic tales to accompany their frightening footage. 22-year-old Brandon Morgan pulled two women out of the wreckage of a Dollar General as he tried to get to a home that was on fire, reported Time magazine. "You hear screams, you go help," said Morgan.
Chris McBee of Central Oklahoma Storm Chasers also tweeted out warnings as the storm approached, and messages to victims after it cleared.
Just watched a very large #tornado cross Western in Moore. Get to shelter immediately! #okwx— Chris McBee (@centralokstorms) May 20, 2013
We have a 15-passenger van and are heading into Moore. We can take injured to hospitals and assist EMTs. Let us know where we are needed.— Chris McBee (@centralokstorms) May 20, 2013