LAFAYETTE, Tenn. 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 dormitories.
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 were injured Tuesday and yesterday 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.
Thirty-one 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 on May 31, 1985.
We had a beautiful neighborhood, said Bonnie Brawner, 80, who lives in Hartsville, Tenn., 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 neighborhoods, 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 cars. Cattle wandered through the debris near hard-hit Lafayette. 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.
Loss of life, loss of property; prayers can help, and so can the government, Mr. Bush said. I do want the people in those states to know the American people are standing with them.
In Jackson, Tenn., students took cover in dormitory bathrooms as the storms closed in on Union University. 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 90 minutes until rescuers dug him out 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.
Although 80 percent of the residential section of the campus was demolished or severely damaged, there were no fatalities, for which officials credited the college s disaster plan.
With five minutes of 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 is a 30-minute drive to the hospital took more than two hours because the roads were clogged with debris. Mr. Clark died on the way.
He never had a chance, Ms. Story said.
Most communities had ample warning that the storms were coming. Forecasters had warned for days that severe weather was possible. The National Weather Service issued more than 1,000 tornado warnings from 3 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. yesterday 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 advance.
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.
Much of the havoc was wreaked by rare long-track tornadoes, which stay on the ground for distances of 30 to 50 miles. One tornado in Arkansas seems to have torn through five counties, said Renee Preslar, the public education coordinator for the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management.
Normally, tornadoes touch down and they re on the ground for twenty minutes and they pop back up, Ms. Preslar said. There s no signs yet of this having ever come off the ground.
Tornado experts said there was no evidence that the deadly outbreak was related to global warming or anything other than the clash of contrasting cold and warm air masses that usually precedes such events.
There were 67 eyewitness accounts of tornadoes, but some of those were probably 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.
Some residents found reason to be thankful.
In Castalian Springs, Tenn., where at least six people died, 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 signs of trauma, said Ken Weidner, Sumner County emergency management director.
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 home. The family s new white pickup truck was upside-down, about 150 yards from where it was parked before the storm.
You know, it s just material things, Ms. Dixon said. We can replace them. We were just lucky to survive.