Memorial service honors Oklahoma tornado victims
Six days after a destructive tornado touched down in Moore, Okla., killing 24 people, injuring more than 370 and destroying as many as 13,000 houses, scores gathered inside a local church to honor victims and rescuers through prayer, song and quiet contemplation.
"Being a native Oklahoman ... I know that the source of our strength is the good faith of our people and our great God,” Pastor Kevin Clarkson told those gathered at First Baptist Church, adding that the community's motto was "Oklahoma strong."
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, multi-faith religious leaders and musicians including Dennis Jernigan were among those who participated in the memorial service, a touching tribute to a community ripped apart by a twister that rated the most powerful on the five-step scale used to measure a tornado’s might.
Earlier on Sunday, President Barack Obama toured Moore and surveyed the damage, vowing to the people of Oklahoma "we’ve got your back."
Monday’s storm ripped a gash through the city, flattening entire blocks of homes, two schools and a hospital. Less than an hour after sirens warned residents of the twister’s approach, 24 people were dead and 377 were hurt.
Fallin, who led Obama on his visit, recounted touring the husk of Plaza Towers Elementary school -- the little that was left behind after the tornado shredded everything in its 17-mile path. Seven children died in the school.
"We saw many Oklahomans doing their very best in a very difficult circumstance," Fallin said. "Teachers and school officials have truly been heroes."
A Briarwood Elementary teacher spoke of her harrowing experience, as she and her students hunkered down inside a classroom, singing "Jesus Loves Me" louder and louder to drown out the roar of the incoming tornado. Briarwood was also destroyed, but no lives were lost.
Fallin praised the first responders, the teachers and the community as a whole, who she said displayed resilience, strength, courage and compassion at a challenging time.
"We will rise," she said, adding: "In the midst of human tragedy we’ve seen the best of Oklahoma come forth."
Obama vowed Sunday the nation would be there to help Oklahoma recover.
"This is a strong community with strong character,” the president said. “There’s no doubt they’re going to bounce back. But, they need help, as anyone would need help,” calling on “every American to step up” and provide support.
"Stay strong during these challenging times," Fallin urged the community in closing. "God will give us the ability to heal our broken hearts."