Rescue workers continue their efforts searching through rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 21, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma.
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Distraught mom becomes face of Oklahoma storm

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MOORE, Okla. (AP) -- A massive tornado was carving its way through town. There was no time to hesitate. LaTisha Garcia had to get to her children.

And so she raced against the storm. She had 30 miles to cover from her job in Edmond to Plaza Towers Elementary School, where her 8-year-old daughter Jazmin Rodriguez is a third grader.

She lost.

The tornado got there first, and the destruction kept her from driving the final few hundred yards. And so she got out of her car and ran, arriving to find little left of the school and almost nothing of the neighborhood.

Panic set in.

Survivors of the storm were frantic, pulling children from the twisted metal and piles of concrete rubble that remained of what was once a school. She knew her three youngest children were safe at their daycare, but Jazmin was somewhere inside the rubble.

Terror came next.

"Right when I ran up to ask if I could start pulling people out or try to help, some guy just handed her to me," Garcia said. "I only recognized her from her clothes. My mind was in so many different places, I couldn't even remember what she wore that day."

Finally, relief.

The emotion seared on her face, she scooped her daughter into her arms and set off across the now barren landscape away from the place where seven of Jazmin's schoolmates had died.

An Associated Press photographer, Sue Ogrocki, captured the moment: Mother and daughter, clutching each other, making their way to safety through a decimated neighborhood. All that stood behind them was a tree stripped of its limbs and bark, brutally wrapped in sheet metal by the storm.

"It was a long way toward the end of the parking lot," Garcia, 28, recalled. "And she's a heavy girl. There were times I didn't think I was going to make it. But I did."

The picture was published on hundreds of front pages around the world, becoming one of the enduring images from the storm.

Garcia was exhausted after carrying her daughter to the parking lot, where a paramedic placed her on a backboard and rushed her to a nearby hospital. As they pulled into the parking lot of the medical center, emotions flooded over her again as she realized that building also had been decimated by the twister.

"It was kind of overwhelming seeing the hospital was hit too," she said, her voice quivering. "It made me feel more helpless than I already felt."

She also was gripped by what her daughter shared about the frightening moments inside the school as she and her classmates took shelter in a hallway as the storm approached.

"We heard lots of banging, and then everything started flying because we felt it," Jazmin said. "I think I passed out, and when I woke up lots of bricks were on top of me, and sand and dirt ... and my friend kept on screaming.

"And then when we heard lots of voices getting closer to us, I had to push so they could see us, that we're still alive."

Firefighters and other rescuers pulled her and her friends out from under the bricks. She said her mom ran up as a man was holding her because it was hard for her to walk.

But she wasn't surprised to see her mom. "I know she's always there for me," she said.

Jazmin ended up with bumps and bruises, but no long lasting injuries from the ordeal. And although Garcia's home a few blocks from the school was reduced to a pile of rubble, she's thankful Jazmin and her three younger children all survived.

"She's just pretty banged up. The pain in her back and the soreness is just from her trying to push the bricks off of her," Garcia said. "I know she definitely had God's arms around her to walk out of there."

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Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

Copyright Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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