Steve McDonald, 36, and Xavier Delgado, 9, run into each other in their neighborhood. McDonald, previously a stranger to Delgado, pulled him from the wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday. (Melissa Bell/The Washington Post)

Steve McDonald pulled 50 people from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School Monday after a tornado whipped through his neighborhood of Moore, Okla.

The child that haunts him the most is the one he couldn’t save.

“He was face down; his arms were out; I couldn’t see his face,” McDonald says. He knew the child was dead.

McDonald had rushed to the school, “just barely” outrunning the tornado. “I knew it was the first place I needed to go.”

A father of four, all of whom escaped injury from the storm, McDonald was among the first to arrive and immediately started pulling children from the wreckage.

In Moore, Okla., residents, officials and volunteer workers come to grips with the aftermath of the EF-5 level tornado that levelled hundreds of homes in the town. (A.J. Chavar/The Washington Post)

“They were terrified,” he said. “They wanted help. They wanted to be free.”

An AP photographer arrived on the scene and started taking pictures. One captures McDonald as he grips a boy’s arm, pulling him to safety. McDonald, a burly industrial pipe worker, tears up when recalling the moment.

“I had to pull him out over the body of that boy,” McDonald says, referring to the earlier child whom he couldn’t save.

The photograph appeared in paper’s nationwide and McDonald showed it off to friends on his phone while at a police barricade near his home Wednesday.

As he was talking, McDonald noticed a small boy beside a red wagon. “Xavier?” he asked. “Did I pull you out of the school?” Xavier Delgado, 9, looked up at the large-chested McDonald and nodded. The two embraced, McDonald choking up.

Delgado’s parents, Simon and Athena, cried out and surrounded the man and boy. They wrapped their arms around the pair and the group held each other for a moment. “We didn’t know who pulled him out,” Athena Delgado said, crying.

“How’s your back, buddy?” McDonald asked Xavier, who pulled up his shirt to show a row of stitches -- eight on the outside, six on the inside. “Yeah, I figured he would cause when I pulled him out I said, ‘Be careful with his back.’” McDonald patted the boy’s close-cropped hair, “It’s nice to see you, brother”

Strangers before the storm, Simon Delgado and McDonald walked through their neighborhood together and spoke about what Xavier had gone through. “He was buried,” McDonald says. “I’m glad to see he’s doing okay.”

“A lot hasn’t sunk in,” Delgado said. “Classmates weren’t moving. He tried to get them to talk. He knew, though. He knew they had died.

The two men stood across a field from the wrecked school. Small blue chairs were tumbled under wrought iron bars. Cinder blocks were strewn about like toys. They talked for a moment longer and then shook hands goodbye. Only the foundation of the Delgado home remained. And McDonald needs to put up plywood at his aunt’s home. The backside of the home was ripped off in the storm.

“Thank you, man, thank you,” Delgado said, his eyes welling up.

“Love you guys,” McDonald replied.

The Delgados’ younger daughter Haley had also been at Plaza Towers and was knocked unconscious during the storm. By Wednesday, she was tailing her dad as he spoke to McDonald.

When they walked past the ruins of the school, the 7-year-old paused for a minute. “It’s kind of sad. It was the first school I ever went to,” she said. Then she ran off to catch up with her big brother.