(LINDA STELTER ~ Birmingham News)
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 54 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 flames up to 400 feet high.
The storms flattened entire streets, smashed warehouses and sent tractor-trailers flying. Some houses were reduced to splintered piles of lumber, while others had 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 town.
"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.
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."
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.
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 conditions.
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 Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. 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 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 parents.
"He had debris all over him, but there were no obvious sings of trauma," said Ken Weidner, Sumner County emergency management director.