Rescue crews frantically searched through the rubble of homes for survivors Friday after a tornado ripped through one town after another just outside Birmingham. At least 30 people were killed across the South.
Hardest hit was Alabama's Jefferson County, west of Birmingham, with at least 18 dead and devastation in several tiny communities. Gov. Fob James said 24 people died across the state. At least five others died in Georgia, including a soldier at sprawling Fort Stewart, and one in Mississippi.Leon Hyche lost his niece, Deb Helms, and her two sons, Colby, 8, and Carson, 4, in Wednesday night's storm. They were killed as they hid in their basement just down the street from him in Rock Creek.
"It's supposed to be the safest place," he said. "The whole wall collapsed on them."
Hyche said his niece's husband, Dave Helms, was not home at the time.
"He's crushed," Hyche said. "He's lost everything."
James, at a news briefing Thursday morning, said the death count had risen to 24 and that 104 people were injured. At least 40 people were still hospitalized Thursday, several in critical condition. James said 150 homes were destroyed and 300 more had major damage from the tornado, which packed winds up to the 200-250 mph range.
The powerful storm system sparked warnings an hour before sunset and then began a twisted, random trail of destruction across Alabama two hours later, at 8 p.m.
Homes of wood and brick in Rock Creek were reduced to their foundations, with household appliances scattered across yards, limbs and power lines across streets. Ambulances had difficulty reaching the dead.
In the glare of spotlights, bodies lying along the road could be seen in the early-morning dark in Rock Creek. Chain saws buzzed as searchers desperately tried to get to homes cut off by felled trees, overturned cars and the bricks and timber of ruined homes.
The Rock Creek Church of God was turned into a trauma center.
By morning, the air crisp and skies sunny and calm, trees snapped in half were visible as far as the eye could see. The smell of pine and oak trees filled the air.
The roadside, cluttered with debris and overturned cars, was littered also with the silent testimony from the feverish rescues of the long night - empty intravenous bottles and latex gloves of paramedics.
One car, upright, rested atop the remnants of a gas station. An old school bus, converted into a camper, was upside down.
Gary McGowan was among the for-tunate. As word of an approaching tornado spread, he ran from church to his trailer, only to find that his wife and 3-year-old daughter had gone to her parents' home nearby. He found them, and they all sought shelter in a central hall.
"I lay over my wife and baby, and God lay over me," said McGowan.
Mayor Wallace Thompson of nearby Sylvan Springs said the storm dealt a devastating blow to a small town that had grown and prospered.
"You work like the devil, and you lose it in three seconds," said Thompson, who was trapped in his home. "I'm blocked in. There are cables, power lines, trees across the street."
Some of the injured had been in church meetings that turned into prayer vigils as violent winds packing baseball-size hail roared outside.
At the Open Door Church in Birmingport, west of Birmingham, more than a dozen people were injured. Witnesses said church members sang hymns and prayed as the storm pounded the structure.
In northern Mississippi, where the storms struck around 6:45 p.m., a 16-year-old boy died in Pontotoc County when the mobile home he was in was shattered. His sister and another girl had fled the home a short time earlier.
The storm system roared into Georgia early Thursday, with high winds and heavy rain and hail. Two people died in the Dun-woody area northeast of Atlanta, one when a tree fell on a house. Two hundred miles to the southeast, one death was reported at Fort Stewart, a soldier working in the administration building, and a woman and a 13-year-old girl were killed in a mobile home community just south of the base.
Rich Olson, a Fort Stewart spokesman, couldn't confirm an earlier report that 17 National Guardsmen from Tennessee were injured. He said five people were injured on the base.
"The way the reporting sounds, it appears the tornado kind of hop-scotched across the post," Olson said. "I haven't talked to anybody that saw a funnel or anything like that, but indications are that that's what it was."
Because of downed power lines and ruptured gas lines, Fort Stewart officials closed the post to all but essential personnel, he said. Worried residents of nearby Hinesville tried frantically to find out about relatives living or working on the post.