By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Hundreds of people gathered in stormy weather on Thursday to mourn a 9-year-old girl who loved to sing, dance and paint, as funerals began for 24 victims of a massive tornado that obliterated whole sections of Moore, Oklahoma.
Antonia Lee "Tonie" Candelaria was one of seven students killed at Plaza Towers Elementary when a tornado packing winds of 200 miles per hour slammed into the building on Monday afternoon just before school was to have let out.
Plaza Towers and another elementary school in the path of the tornado did not have storm shelters.
"It's a very sad day for all of us," said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett as he arrived for the funeral.
The tornado was the strongest in the United States in nearly two years and cut a path of destruction 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide. Storm experts said it was remarkable that only 24 people were killed, as tornadoes of this strength can blow away a well constructed brick or wood house.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin's office said on Thursday that the death toll remained at 24 but that 377 people had reported injuries, up sharply from a figure of less than 300 on Wednesday.
Her spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the injury tally was a "moving target" because it relied on people coming forward to report them.
The cleanup effort in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, was hampered on Thursday by thunderstorms pelting the area, and the town was threatened by the possibility of tornadoes later on Thursday, according to AccuWeather.com.
Flash flooding, hail and a wind gust of up to 65 miles per hour were reported in towns around Moore on Thursday morning, AccuWeather said.
Rain was falling as mourners filed in for the funeral of Candelaria, who loved to sing, draw, paint and dance, and had recently auditioned for the school's talent show, according to her obituary.
Mourners each were given a length of pink yarn to symbolize the girl's life. Framed billboards showed picture collages of a happy third grader.
Many of her classmates and their parents, as well as friends in the community, attended the funeral at a chapel in Oklahoma City.
"We are showing our love and support for the people who have lost everything, who lost their children," said Kylie Alvis, 29, a local resident who attended the service.
(Reporting By Heide Brandes; Editing by Greg McCune and Doina Chiacu)
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