ENTERPRISE, Ala. Tornadoes ripped through Alabama and killed at least seven people today, including five at a high school where students became pinned under debris when a roof collapsed, state officials said.
As night fell, crews dug through piles of rubble beneath portable lights at Enterprise High School, looking for other victims.
The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night, state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said.
The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed a tornado for the death of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, and twisters also were reported in Kansas.
In the chaotic hours after the storm, reports about the death toll varied widely. At one point, state officials said as many as 18 people were dead. Richardson later said that miscommunication at the scene was to blame.
The storm struck at the high school around 1:15 p.m., and Richardson said some students were still trapped three hours later.
Erin Garcia, a 17-year-old senior, said students had gathered in hallways around 11 a.m. as a precaution. School officials wanted to send them home around 1 p.m., she said, but the weather turned bad and sirens wailed.
Then, she said, the lights went out.
I was just sitting there praying the whole time, she said.
After the storm passed, she found the hallway she was in was spared, but a roof and wall collapsed on students in another hallway.
People didn t know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building. I kept seeing people with blood on their faces, Garcia said.
More than 50 people were hospitalized as the violent storm front crossed the state.
Two died elsewhere in Enterprise and one in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate storm wrecked mobile homes, Richardson said.
Officials opened shelters for those whose homes were damaged. The state sent in about 100 National Guardsmen, along with emergency personnel, lights and generators.
The high school, about 75 miles south of Montgomery, appears to have been right in the path, said Paul Duval, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., which monitors southeast Alabama. The force of the storm blew the windows out of cars and buses in the parking lot.
Martha Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, a hall at the school had collapsed, she said.
The stadium was destroyed and there were cars tipped over in the parking lot and trees were ripped out. There were trees and wood everywhere. It was just horrible, she said.
At Millers Ferry, 66 miles west of Montgomery, trailer homes were flipped over and trees downed, said Bernadine Williams in the Wilcox County emergency management office.
The clouds were so dark that all the lights out here came on, said Walter Thornton, who works at the airport in Enterprise, 75 miles south of Montgomery.
President Bush was briefed on the tornadoes by senior staff and called Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with officials in both states, she said.
In Caulfield, Mo., resident Rick Jarvis heard the storm ripping through his gas station around dawn. His home next door suffered just minor damage, but the twister, described by witnesses as a fat black column, shredded the business, ripping down its roof and back wall.
It sounded like a herd of horses tearing up stuff. When I came out, it was done, said Jarvis, 48.
As the system pushed eastward tonight, tornado watches remained in effect in eastern Alabama and also were posted in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
The tornadoes were the second to devastate a portion of the South this year. In early February, tornadoes ripped through a 30-mile path in central Florida, killing 21 and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
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