They were “inseparable in life.” And when the devastating tornado in Oklahoma ripped through their elementary school, best friends Antonia Lee Candelaria and Emily Conatzer clung to each other for support in the last moments of their young lives.
The two nine-year old Oklahoma girls died when Monday’s tornado tore apart Plaza Towers Elementary School, killing the third graders along with five other children when it flattened the city of Moore.
“There were little marks, imprints and tiny scratches on her forearm like someone had been holding onto her, clinging to her,” Antonia’s mother, Brandie, told the UK newspaper The Daily Mail. “We take some comfort in thinking that she and Emily were holding onto each other and not alone.”
In all, the violent tornado left 24 people dead in its wake and caused what is estimated to be over $2 billion worth of damage in rural Oklahoma.
Brandie Candelaria said that when the Conatzer family moved into their neighborhood last year, Antonia and Emily were “just never apart.”
Antonia was the middle of three girls. After the storm, her big sister, 10-year old Trinity, was rescued by her father, Jimmy Rosson, who helped rescue several victims from the rubble. Her baby sister Lillian is just 4 months old.
“Jimmy brought Trinity back to me and wanted to go and carry on searching for Antonia but when he went back they stopped them digging,” Brandie said. “They stayed looking as long as they could but they couldn’t get to them – they couldn’t get to my little ladybug or Emily”
“That’s what she was ... my little ladybug,” she added.
For the first time Wednesday, authorities provided a clearer accounting of the destruction.
Between 12,000 and 13,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and 33,000 people were affected in some way by the storm, said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, speaking at a news conference. He also put the monetary damage estimate at between $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
Emergency officials were unable to put a figure on the number of people left homeless, because many people have been taken in by relatives and only a few dozen have stayed overnight at Red Cross shelters.
Six adults remain unaccounted for since the tornado, said Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood. It's possible those people had just "walked off" their properties or could still be found in the rubble, Ashwood said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.