HENRYVILLE, Ind. — Emergency crews desperately search for survivors Saturday after a violent wave of Midwest and Southern storms flattened some rural communities and left behind a trail of destruction: shredded homes, downed power lines and streets littered with tossed cars.
Amid the destruction, startling stories of survival began to emerge, including that of a baby found alive in a field 10 miles from her Indiana home and a couple who were hiding in a restaurant basement when a school bus crashed through the building's wall.
The tornado outbreak, predicted by forecasters for days, killed at least 37 people in four states — Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio — but the death toll was expected to rise as state troopers, the National Guard and rescue teams made their way through counties cutoff by debris-littered roads and knocked down cellphone towers.
The landscape was littered with everything from sheet metal and insulation to crushed cars and, in one place, a fire hydrant, making travel difficult.
An overturned car sat on top of a pile of wood planks and rumpled metal outside City Hall in West Liberty, Ky. The storm had tossed two white police cruisers into the brick building. At least five people died in Morgan County, where the town is located, and authorities were only letting people who lived or owned property in the town to enter.
The Rev. Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled how he and five others huddled together in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed in the storm.
"We're thankful to God," he said. "It was a miracle that the five of us survived."
A baby was found alone in a field in Salem, Ind., about 10 miles north of where her family lives in New Pekin, said Melissa Richardson, spokeswoman at St. Vincent Salem Hospital, where the little girl was initially taken. The child was in critical condition Saturday at a hospital in Louisville, Ky., and authorities were still trying to figure out how she ended up in the field, Richardson said.
A tornado hit the New Pekin area Friday, but it wasn't clear whether it had picked up the child. Authorities have not identified the baby or her parents.
About 20 miles east, a twister demolished Henryville, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. The second story of the elementary school was torn off, and wind blew out the windows and gutted the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church. Few recognizable buildings remained.
A secretary at the school said a bus left Friday afternoon with 11 children, but the driver turned back after realizing they were driving straight into the storm. The children were ushered into the nurse's station and were hiding under tables and desks when the tornado struck. None were hurt.
The school bus, which was parked in front of the school, was tossed several hundred yards into the side of a nearby restaurant.
Todd and Julie Money were hiding there, having fled their Scottsburg home, which has no basement. They were in the basement of their friend's restaurant when the tornado struck.
"Unreal. The pressure on your body, your ears pop, trees snap," Todd Money said. "When that bus hit the building, we thought it exploded."
"It was petrifying," Julie Money added. "God put us here for a reason."
Friday's tornado outbreak came two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and forecasters at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level. The weather service issued 297 tornado warnings and 388 severe thunderstorm warnings from Friday through early Saturday. In March, a storm of its magnitude happens once a decade, meteorologists said
More severe storms were expected Saturday across parts of southern Georgia and northern Florida.
Friday's storms covered a larger area but appeared to be less deadly than the tornadoes that killed more than 240 people in Alabama last spring.
"I think the concentration of more intense tornados was higher in the April 27 event," said Corey Mead, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "It was a very much more focused corridor."
The storm system that swept across the Mississippi River Valley into Ohio, Tennessee and the Gulf Coast featured strong winds that changed direction and increased in speed as they rose in the atmosphere, creating a spin, Mead said. Tornadoes developed when the cold air in the storm system hit warm air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
Fourteen people died in Indiana, and 19 were killed in Kentucky, where National Guard troops, state troopers and rescue workers searched counties east and south of Lexington on Saturday. Three deaths were reported in Ohio, and one in Alabama.
In Washington County, Ind., residents described seeing a massive tornado come over a hill and plow through a grove of trees, which looked almost like a line of bulldozers eight wide had rolled through, crushing the land.
When Gene Lewellyn, his son and his son's 7-year-old daughter saw the tornado come over the hill, they rushed to the basement of his one-story brick home and covered themselves with a carpet. Lewellyn's son laid over his daughter to protect her, and then a black cloud enveloped the house.Comment on this story
"It just shook once, and it (the house) was gone," said Lewellyn, 62, a retired press operator.
His family was safe, but their home was reduced to a pile of bricks with sheet metal wrapped around splintered trees. Pieces of insulation coated the ground, and across the street a large trailer picked up by the storm had landed on top of a boat. Lewellyn spent Saturday picking through the debris in 38-degree cold.
"Right now, we are not sure what we are going to do," he said. "We will get out what we can get out. Hopefully, we won't have to argue from the insurance company very much."
Associated Press writers Beth Campbell in Louisville, Ky.; Amanda Iacone in Charleston, W.Va.; Dylan T. Lovan and Bruce Schreiner in Henryville; and Randy Patrick in West Liberty, Ky., contributed to this report.