JOPLIN, Missouri (AFP) – Officials Thursday said 232 people were still missing four days after a tornado tore through a Missouri town, and had only managed to identify one of the 125 bodies found in the storm's wake.
Some of the missing from Sunday's disaster in Joplin may be among the unidentified remains being stored in a hastily constructed mass morgue.
But officials pleaded with anxious family members for patience while they undertake a lengthy identification process involving DNA testing and fingerprinting.
|AFP - Lola Elbert helps look for items to salvage from her grandmother's house in Joplin, Missouri.|
"The 232, we can't presume that all of those are deceased," Andrea Spiller, Missouri's deputy director of public safety, told reporters.
Some may simply have failed to contact anxious friends and family. There may also still be people trapped in the rubble who have not been officially reported missing, Spiller cautioned.
Asked why families were not being allowed into the morgue to visually identify their loved ones, she replied: "It is not 100 percent accurate, and 100 percent accurate is our goal."
In what is one of the worst tornado seasons on record after a series of twisters killed hundreds in southern US states last month, Sunday's was the deadliest single tornado to strike America in six decades.
The monster funnel cloud tore apart everything it touched along a path four miles (six kilometers) long and three quarters of a mile (over a kilometer) wide in this city of 50,000.
Crews continue to search through the tangled piles of debris in hope of finding survivors, but hopes were fading after rescuers found no one in the rubble Wednesday -- dead or alive.
Anguished families have kept up a desperate hunt for their missing loved ones. But poor and patchy communications plus the complete devastation of some areas have hampered the search.
Officials said they hoped that by publishing the list of 232 names they could locate the missing and ease the frayed nerves of their families.
"Our goal is to get that number to zero," Spillers said. "We will dedicate as much state resources as needed, around the clock, to make sure that all the family members who have loved ones they cannot find are connected."
The heartbreaking pleas for help and information have been replayed constantly on the local radio and on social networking sites.
But for some the long vigil has already ended in sorrow.
Baby Skyular Logsdon was ripped from his mother's arms by the powerful winds, and his desperate family took to the social networking site Facebook for help find the 16-month-old.
After several false leads, and three days of waning hopes, his body was found in a morgue late Wednesday.
"We all love you so much and you will be missed by everyone," his aunt posted on the Facebook page which has been inundated with outpourings of support and condolences.
Still missing is Will Norton, the 18-year-old who was sucked out of his father's Hummer as they were driving home from his high school graduation.
Teams of volunteers helped his family perform their own search Thursday in what his aunt Tracey wrote was a day "mixed with nervousness and deep hope."
And in a further sign of tragedy, some whole families were listed as missing, along with at least 15 people from area nursing homes.
There was the Merritt family, missing from South Day Road, ages two, five, eight, 26, and 28.
Also unaccounted for were the Reyes family, with parents Maria and Fredy, and their two girls, aged 3 and 4.
Even more heartbreaking were the names of individual missing children like Isadora Hines, 3, Hannah Hull, 13, Adam Swepston, 11, and Zachary Williams, 12.
More than 8,000 structures in this town bordering the heartland states of Kansas and Oklahoma were damaged or destroyed when the twister packing winds over 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour came roaring through with just a 24-minute warning.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has announced plans for a community memorial service Sunday, the same day that US President Barack Obama is set to visit the city.