LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (AP) - One man pulled a couch over his head.
Bank employees rushed into the vault. A woman trembled in her
bathroom, clinging to her dogs. College students huddled in
Tornado warnings had been broadcast for hours, and when the
sirens finally announced that the twisters had arrived, many people
across the South took shelter and saved their lives. But others
simply had nowhere safe to go, or the storms proved too powerful,
too numerous, too unpredictable.
At least 55 people were killed and hundreds injured Tuesday and
Wednesday by dozens of tornadoes that plowed across Mississippi,
Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. It was the nation's
deadliest barrage of twisters in almost 23 years.
"We had a beautiful neighborhood. Now it's hell," said Bonnie
Brawner, 80, who lives in Hartsville, a community about an hour
from Nashville where a natural gas plant that was struck by a
twister erupted in spectacular flames up to 400 feet high.
The storms flattened entire streets, smashed warehouses and sent
tractor-trailers flying. Houses were reduced to splintered piles of
lumber. Some looked like life-size dollhouses, their walls sheared
away. Crews going door-to-door to search for bodies had to contend
with downed power lines, snapped trees and flipped-over cars.
Cattle wandered through the debris near hard-hit Lafayette
(pronounced luh-FAY-et). At least 12 people died in and around the
"It looks like the Lord took a Brillo pad and scrubbed the
ground," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who surveyed the
damage from a helicopter.
Hundreds of houses were damaged or destroyed. Authorities had no
immediate cost estimate of the damage.
President Bush gave assurances his administration stood ready to
help. Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were sent
to the region and activated an emergency center in Georgia.
"Loss of life, loss of property - prayers can help and so can
the government," Bush said. "I do want the people in those states
to know the American people are standing with them."
Students took cover in dormitory bathrooms as the storms closed
in on Union University in Jackson, Tenn. More than 20 students at
the Southern Baptist school were trapped behind wreckage and jammed
doors after the dormitories came down around them.
Danny Song was pinned for an hour and a half until rescuers dug
him from the rubble.
"We looked up and saw the funnel coming in. We started running
and then glass just exploded," he said. "I hit the floor and a
couch was shoved up against me, which may have saved my life
because the roof fell on top of it."
With five minutes' warning from TV news reports, Nova and Ray
Story huddled inside their home outside Lafayette and came out
unscathed. But nearby, their uncle, Bill Clark, was injured in his
toppled mobile home.
They put him in the bed of their pickup to take him to a
hospital, and neighbors with chain saws tried to clear a path. What
normally would have been a 30-minute drive to the hospital took
well more than two hours because the roads were clogged with
debris. Clark died on the way.
"He never had a chance," Nova Story said. "I looked him right
in the eye and he died right there in front of me."
Most communities had ample warning that the storms were coming.
Forecasters had warned for days severe weather was possible. The
National Weather Service issued more than 1,000 tornado warnings
from 3 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday in the 11-state area where
the weather was heading.
The conditions for bad weather had lined up so perfectly that
the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., put out an alert six
days in advances.
In Atkins, Ark., Sheriff Jay Winters said the first tornado
siren sounded at 4:34 p.m. Tuesday. Winters said one man, on
hearing the siren, went into his home and rolled a couch onto
himself for protection. Lola Sanders saw the twister approach her
back porch, then grabbed her dogs and ran for the bathroom.
Kitty Chandler had just left work at the Liberty Bank of
Arkansas but turned around and returned after hearing the tornado
sirens. "I went to the bank, into our vault. One of the safest
places to be," she said.
While the weather was unusually severe, winter tornadoes are not
uncommon. The peak tornado season is late winter through midsummer,
but the storms can happen at any time of the year with the right
"All the clues were there. It was just unfortunate that it came
out the way it did," prediction center director Joseph Schaefer
The tornadoes could be due to La Nina, a cooling of the tropical
Pacific Ocean that can cause changes in weather patterns around the
world. Recent studies have found an increase in tornadoes in parts
of the South during the winter when La Nina occurs.
There were 67 eyewitness accounts of tornadoes, but some of
those were probably twisters that were counted more than once, said
Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Oklahoma
center. The actual number is probably more like 30 or 40, he said.
Thirty people were killed in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in
Kentucky and four in Alabama, emergency officials said. It was one
of the 15 worst tornado death tolls since 1950, and the nation's
deadliest barrage of tornadoes since 76 people were killed in
Pennsylvania and Ohio in May 31, 1985.
Some residents found reason to be thankful. In Castalian
Springs, Tenn., a baby was discovered unscathed in a field across
from a demolished post office. A bystander swaddled the crying
child in his shirt. There was no word on the fate of the child's
"He had debris all over him, but there were no obvious sings of
trauma," said Ken Weidner, Sumner County emergency management
Near St. Vincent, Ark., Shannon Barnes said he, his mother and
her husband took shelter in her basement. But the wind pulled the
door open and nearly sucked them out.
"We prayed to Jesus. We prayed. That's why we're here," Barnes
said. "They're ain't much more to say than that."
Seavia Dixon, whose Atkins, Ark., home was shattered, stood in
her yard, holding muddy baby pictures of her son, who is now a
20-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only a concrete slab was left from the
The family's brand-new white pickup truck was upside-down, about
150 yards from where it was parked before the storm. Another pickup
truck the family owned sat crumpled about 50 feet from the slab.
"You know, it's just material things," Dixon said, her voice
breaking. "We can replace them. We were just lucky to survive."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jon
Gambrell in Atkins, Ark., Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., Seth
Borenstein in Washington, Murray Evans in Oklahoma City and Woody
Baird in Memphis, Tenn.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)