The students at Briarwood Elementary School in Moore, Okla., were just preparing to go home for the day Monday when the tornado that killed at least 24 people in their town made what authorities call a "direct hit" on their school.
"We had already prepared our backpacks and they had their bear binders and homework folders in their backpacks," first-grade teacher Sheri Bittle said today on " Good Morning America. "I had them take their backpacks and put them over their heads."
In another first-grade classroom at the school, which had its roof and walls blown off in the storm, teacher Cindy Lowe laid her body on top of her students to protect them.
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"I actually saw the tornado coming and knew how serious it was," Lowe said on "GMA." [I was] just laying my body on top of as many kids as I could to help out."
Both Lowe and Bittle said a main focus of their heroic actions as the tornado blew over was to calm their students, who, living in a tornado zone, had been through countless tornado drills before.
"We practiced tornado drills and things like this and I had to tell them this is not a drill and we need to be safe," said Lowe. "I was just trying to calm the children down."
Moore, a community of 41,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, saw homes wiped away and businesses left in ruins after the tornado whipped through with wind speeds of up to 200 mph. The medical examiner's office's current death toll of 24 includes seven children, some of whom were from Plaza Towers Elementary School, the other elementary school directly in the tornado's path.
Bittle said the trauma for Briarwood's students and their parents alike continued long after the tornado had passed as frantic parents, blocked by debris and recovery efforts, tried to reach their children.
"I had a student that stayed with me until 8 p.m. last night because his parents could not get to the location there by the school where we were at," she said. "Parents walked for miles just to get to their children. They were out of breath and crying but so happy to see them and just know that they were safe."
"It was just heartbreaking to see the tears of joy, how happy they were that their child was safe and that they could finally get to them," Bittle said of the reunions.
Moore resident Andrew Wheeler credits a Briarwood teacher with keeping his son safe as the tornado wreaked havoc on the building as students were preparing for their final days in school before summer vacation.
"The teacher held their heads, and bricks and everything were falling all over the kids. She got her arm injured. One of the other boys on her other side got a big gash in his head, but he's OK," Wheeler said.