Joplin Survivor Tells OK Parents: 'Have to Try to Be Strong'

PHOTO: Shante Marie Caton and Trentan Caton, seen here in these undated handout photos, were killed in 2011 when a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri.
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Crystal Whitely lay in a hospital bed not knowing the whereabouts of two of her three children, Shante, 10, and Trentan, 6, both of whom were torn out of her arms by the fierce tornado that demolished her Joplin, Mo., home in 2011.

"She got them all in the bathtub and was holding them down, but the tornado was so strong," said her mother, Aleta Whitely. "She had to hold on to three kids. Crystal was so upset. She couldn't find Shante and she couldn't find Trentan. She never did see the kids again."

Aleta Whitely, who doted on her grandchildren twice a week, knows first hand how the families in Moore, Okla., are reeling from the horror of a tornado today, a force of nature that can quite literally rip a baby from its mother's arms.

MORE on the Oklahoma Tornado

"It's been a rough two years," said Whitely, 55, sobbing sporadically throughout the interview with ABCNews.com. "It's not something you get over."

In Moore earlier today, parents stood outside a local church, listening carefully to hear whether their children were on a list of survivors of the two-mile wide tornado that tore through this suburban town, killing at least 24, including nine children.

READ: Children Among Victims of Oklahoma Tornado

For many the news was happy as they reunited with children who had been at school when the storm hit Monday, but for others, fear escalated.

Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools were in the direct path of Monday's tornado, which the National Weather Service gave a preliminary rating of at least EF-4, meaning churning wind speeds of up to 200 mph.

Oklahoma City police spokesman Sgt. Gary Knight said seven of the young victims were from Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis and National Guard members told ABC News the search-and-rescue operation at the school is now a body-recovery effort.

"You have to try to be strong," said Whitely, offering advice to those who have lost loved ones in Moore. "We went to counseling and it really helped.

"Some people say it gets easier when people lose a child, but it never gets easier," she said. "It never goes away. You have to just learn to live with it."

In an eery coincidence, the two-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado -- the deadliest in U.S. history since the 1947 Texas-Oklahoma tornado -- is May 22. An EF5 multiple-vortex tornado, it was the third to strike the town since 1971, killing a staggering 158, 13 of them children, and injuring 1,110.

SEE: Search for Survivors in Joplin Tornado

Crystal Whitely, who had recently divorced, was clinging to her three children in the bathroom when the tornado hit her Joplin neighborhood. The children's father had called to warn them of the approaching storm.

She learned later that Shante, who was found under a door, had died instantly. Trentan, 6, managed to survive but was "beaten up badly," said Aleta Whitely, works for a boat manufacturing company.

Trentan was taken to Childrens Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where family members eventually decided to take him off life support. Only her youngest daughter, Keana, now 6, survived.

PHOTOS: Terrifying Tornadoes

A good Samaritan whose name the family never learned found Crystal Whitely and Keana and helped get them to separate hospitals. Power was out and only texts worked on the cell phones.

Crystal Whitely finally got through to her mother on an old cell phone number, something Aleta Whitely said was as "an act of God."

"They thought Keana's neck was broken and she was in traction, but six hours later a nurse let Crystal use the phone and she actually got through to me," her mother said. "The first thing Crystal asked me was where are Shante and Trentan? I had to tell her Shante had died and Trentan was somewhere and we didn't know the details."

Aleta Whitely said that it seemed like "hundreds of miles" she and her husband walked to see if the family had survived.

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