By Carey Gillam and Alice Mannette
MOORE, Oklahoma (Reuters) - A miniature bookcase with children's books spilling out is among the few furnishings still standing amid the tornado-torn rubble of what once was the Briarwood Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma.
Pink and green pencils and sparkling colored stickers are scattered amid twisted piles of metal, wood and bricks.
Unlike the Plaza Towers elementary school, where seven children died in a powerful 1.3 mile wide tornado on Monday, no one died at the Briarwood school.
But just as at Plaza Towers, students, parents and teachers huddled in hallways, bathrooms and closets, hiding under books and backpacks. They cried, prayed and hoped, somehow, to survive.
One third-grade teacher at Plaza Towers, only in her first year of teaching, used her body as a shield to protect as many students as she could, Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said. The teacher is still in the hospital and officials believe all the school's children are accounted for.
Others cradled children in their arms, and gently tried to warn them about what was to come.
"Safety is our main priority. We monitored the weather throughout the day and when it was time to shelter we did just that," Pierce said.
More than 600 children are enrolled at Briarwood and approximately 500 at Plaza Towers and both schools were completely destroyed by the twister, which struck about 30 minutes before the school day ended at 3:30 p.m.
PARENTS COULD NOT REACH SCHOOL ON TIME
Many parents, aware of the impending storm, picked their children up early from school. But many could not get there in time.
"The schools were full," said Oklahoma State Police Sergeant Jeremy Lewis.
Rescue workers were surprised there were not more deaths, Lewis said. "They were literally lifting walls up and kids were coming out."
Other schools in the district of 23,000 students suffered damage but only the two elementary schools were entirely demolished. Some school books, small-sized desks and chairs can still be seen amid the rubble, but most outward signs that the schools existed are gone.
Smashed cars are mixed in with sections of roofing and collapsed walls, uprooted trees and shredded glass in areas that once held classrooms.
A total of 24 people died in Moore and neighboring Oklahoma City in the tornado, and ten of those were children, the state medical examiner said.
The cause of death of several nine-year-old children among the casualties is listed officially as "mechanical asphyxia," according to the medical examiner's office, which essentially means they were unable to breathe.
The schools did not have safe rooms, which can cost $600,000 to $1 million to build, but did have a well-rehearsed plan, officials said.
State emergency officials said that they had provided funding for about 100 safe rooms at schools but Moore had not applied for funding for the two affected schools.
That plan is what helped save Rhonda Audette's two daughters, who were among the survivors of Towers Plaza Elementary. Emily, a first-grader, and Mya, a fifth-grader, were uninjured, but shaken by the events, said Rhonda Ramos, who rushed to the school after the storm and found her friend and the two girls wandering amid the debris.
Ramos took the mother and girls to her home as theirs was in shambles, she said. To calm the children, she gave them crayons and paper to color.
"They kept drawing pictures of tornados," Ramos said.
In the aftermath of the storm, some have criticized school officials for not evacuating the children before the tornado hit. Severe weather had been forecast for hours. But officials defended their decisions.
"That tornado was a mile wide," said Anna Trowbridge, a spokeswoman for the Moore public schools. "The sirens were blowing. So they put their crisis plan in place. And it saved lives."
(Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Greg McCune and Grant McCool)