Mo. tornado death toll climbs to 15

Monday, May 12, 2008

SENECA, Mo. -- Search efforts were called off Sunday evening in southwest Missouri after a killer tornado swept through this sparsely populated countryside, leaving at least 15 people dead.

Rescue operations ended after a day of searching through demolished homes and debris-strewn fields along the 12-mile-long path of the tornado, said Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Dan Bracker.

Thirteen of the dead were in Newton County near the Oklahoma border, with one person killed in Jasper County and one in Barry County.

Between 8,000 and 9,000 people were reported without power, which is expected to take at least a week to restore.

Susan Roberts, 61, stared at the smashed remains of her classic 1985 Cadillac sitting on her living room floor -- the only thing left of her home. A woman who had apparently sought shelter in the car died there, she said.

"That is what is tearing me up," Roberts said, adding she had warned the woman -- who had stopped to change a tire -- about the nearby tornado.

The same storm system started in Oklahoma, where it killed six people before moving into southwest Missouri. On Sunday, storms in Georgia killed at least one person there.

President Bush has talked with Gov. Matt Blunt to express his condolences for the lives lost and to discuss the state's needs for recovery, said White House spokesman Blair Jones.

"The federal government will be moving hard to help," President Bush said.

Susie Stonner, spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency, said it was unclear how many homes were damaged or destroyed. But she said Newton County officials had initial estimates of 50 homes damaged or destroyed there.

Nineteen people were hospitalized in Newton County, said Keith Stammer, acting spokesman for the county emergency operations. He did not know the extent of their injuries.

The tornado was about 300 yards wide and stayed mostly on the ground for about 12 miles. It hit the rural area about eight miles north of Seneca and went east, said Keith Stammer, director of emergency management in Jasper County. The tornado stayed on the ground about 15 minutes.

Next door to Roberts, Jane Lant climbed over the splintered wood to go through the mud-caked remains of her bridal shop.

"I just feel so awful, going through this rubble when they are out looking for bodies," she said as she motioned to the search dogs wandering the field behind her. An unidentified body lay under a blue tarp nearby.

Among the dead were five family members of her neighbor who had been going to a wedding when the tornado caught their vehicle on the highway in front of her store, she said. Her neighbor, an insurance agent, had just come back from Oklahoma after checking on damage there when his son drove into their driveway to tell him that his mother, sister, brother-in-law, nephew and a daughter-in-law's grandfather had been killed.

Hours later Lant had recovered one wedding dress along with boxes of tuxedo shoes.

"This is just surreal," she said.

Next door, her husband's feed store also lay in shambles. But one bright moment came Sunday when rescuers heard chirping from underneath the mound and found a half dozen baby chicks. They had rescued about 100 the night earlier.

When a Missouri Highway patrolman came over to offer the family help, Bill Lant pointed to the intact glass coffee pot amid all the destruction and vowed he would rebuild the feed store.

Across the street at the home of Wayne Litherland, family and friends were busy carting furniture and other belongings out of the storm-damaged home and into a large trailer. Their roof was blown off. A car in their driveway was thrown 140 feet away.

"We ran to the store to get Mother's Day cards," he said. "We came home and this is what we found."

It took them a while to find the dog they had left in the house.

"Trucks are just trucks, cars are just cars, clothes are just clothes," Litherland said. "There are people who lost loved ones."

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