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In Joplin, Leaders Hold Tight To Rescue Hopes

Rescue crews refused to be deterred Wednesday as officials in Joplin, Mo., said no new survivors were pulled from the rubble left by the single deadliest tornado in decades.

City Manager Mark Rohr told an evening news conference the death toll had risen to at least 125. More than 900 people were injured. Officials in the southwest Missouri city of 50,000 people said they're holding out hope for more rescues.

"We never give up. We're not going to give up," Rohr said. "We'll continue to search as we develop the next phase in the process."

Roughly 100 people were reviewing information about people reported missing in the storm's wake. Rohr declined to say how many people remain "unaccounted for."

He said officials plan to release the names of the 125 people killed "as soon as we can."

The Joplin tornado was the deadliest single twister since the weather service began keeping official records in 1950 and the eighth-deadliest in U.S. history. Scientists said it appeared to be a rare "multivortex" tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.

Bill Davis, the lead forecaster on a National Weather Service survey team, said he would need to look at video to try to confirm that. But he said the strength of the tornado was evident from the many stout buildings that were damaged: St. John's Regional Medical Center, Franklin Technology Center, a bank gone except for its vault, a Pepsi bottling plant and "numerous, and I underscore numerous, well-built residential homes that were basically leveled."

Davis' first thought on arriving in town to do the survey, he said, was: "Where do you start?"

Locating The Missing

As Joplin limped forward, a violent storm system had residents ducking for cover overnight Tuesday. The storm passed through without serious problems, but it spawned tornadoes and fierce winds that killed more than a dozen people as it raked Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas.

The rescue work in Joplin, a city of 50,000 people, was shadowed by uncertainty over just how many people remain to be found. News reports have claimed that hundreds of people remain missing, but local authorities hesitated to say how many are unaccounted for and said many people may have fled to safety and been unable to contact loved ones.

"We were buried alive, but we came out OK," Vicky Senrud said Wednesday. She and her husband, Ben, were among hundreds rushed — unidentified — to hospitals in four states. Wednesday they made contact with their landlord for the first time.

"She said that I've been unaccounted for since the storm, since the tornado Sunday," Senrud said.

"We lost everything. We didn't have no identification, nothing. And it was a while before we finally got here, and these people let us use the phone," Ben Senrud said.

Social networks are the tool of choice for many people trying to track the missing or let friends and family know they're OK.

Several online efforts have focused on Will Norton, a teenager who vanished on his way home from his high school graduation ceremony. He was driving with his father when the storm hit their Hummer H3, which flipped several times. Will was thrown from the vehicle, likely through the sunroof.

His sister, Sara, was on the phone with her father and brother as the two were trying to drive home.

"I could hear him saying, 'Will, pull over, pull over,' " she said.

Mark Norton tried to grab his son, but the storm was too strong. He was hospitalized Tuesday, seriously hurt but still able to talk to his family about what happened.

Sara and other relatives drove to hospitals throughout Missouri to search for Will. More than 19,000 people supported the "Help Find Will Norton" community page on Facebook, and Twitter users were tweeting heavily about the missing teen.

"I just want to find him, that's all," Sara said Tuesday, on her way home from a hospital in Springfield, Mo. "I'm just determined. I have to find him."

Joplin schools were ravaged by the twister, and classes have been canceled for the rest of the school year, but district officials are trying to locate both faculty and many of the school's 2,200 students. The effort has been crippled by downed phone lines. Some students have been located using Facebook.

"We just want to be able to find who we can find and then, as confirmation happens, offer support to the families if we find out that a kid didn't make it," Joplin High Principal Kerry Sachetta said.

"When a tragedy happens for a kid or a family, everybody tries to come together," Sanchetta said. "That's what we are trying to do a little piece at a time."

'A Lot Of Pain'

Meanwhile, structural engineers entered the battered Joplin hospital where the tornado killed five to see if the nine-story facility could be salvaged.

"It truly was like a bomb went off almost on every floor," said Gary Pulsipher, chief executive at St. John's Regional Medical Center.

Lynn Britton, president and chief executive of Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, praised the "heroic" efforts by staff and others who helped in the storm's aftermath and said a temporary hospital would be running near the site by Sunday. Patient information was safe after the hospital moved from paper to electronic records in May.

Elsewhere in town, Michel Story stood in a pile of debris that was her grandmother's home, gazing at desolation stretching to the horizon.

"There's a lot of pain," she told NPR. "How can one thing do so much damage to one little town?"

In an old church converted into a community theater, there was nothing left but a basement, battered by crumpled cars, full of sharp debris. Tiffany Story, clearly shaken, pointed to a door hanging ajar.

"This was the cast entrance," she said.

Motioning to her son, who was standing nearby, she said he was among the cast members who hid in a stairwell. The play had just ended. "It took everything I could do to hold him down," Story said as her voice quavered. "I almost lost him."

Two members of the cast died in the tornado. Others were badly hurt.

With reporting from NPR's Cheryl Corley and Frank Morris of member station KCUR. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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NPR Staff and Wires