PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. – Dozens of tornadoes ripped through the South, flattening homes and businesses and killing at least 214 people in six states in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years.
As day broke Thursday, people in hard-hit Alabama surveyed flattened, debris-strewn neighborhoods and told of pulling bodies from rubble after the storms passed Wednesday afternoon and evening.
"It happened so fast it was unbelievable," said Jerry Stewart, a 63-year-old retired firefighter who was picking through the remains of his son's wrecked home in Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham. "They said the storm was in Tuscaloosa and it would be here in 15 minutes. And before I knew it, it was here."
He and his wife, along with their daughter and two grandchildren, survived by hiding under their front porch. Friends down the street who did the same weren't so lucky — Stewart said he pulled out the bodies of two neighbors whose home was ripped off its foundation.
Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 131 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 29 in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports into Wednesday night.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. Neighborhoods there were leveled by a massive tornado caught on video by a tower-mounted news camera that barreled through late Wednesday afternoon.
"When I looked back, I just saw trees and stuff coming by," said Mike Whitt, a resident at DCH Regional Medical Center who ran from the hospital's parking deck when the wind started swirling and he heard a roar.
On Thursday morning, he walked through the neighborhood next to the hospital, home to a mix of students and townspeople, looking at dozens of homes without roofs. Household items were scattered on the ground — a drum, running shoes, insulation, towels, and a shampoo bottle. Streets were impassable, the pavement strewn with trees, pieces of houses and cars with their windows blown out.
Dr. David Hinson was working at the hospital when the tornado hit. He and his wife had to walk several blocks to get to their house, which was destroyed. Several houses down, he helped pull three students from the rubble. One was dead and two were badly injured. He and others used pieces of debris as makeshift stretchers to carry them to an ambulance.
"We just did the best we could to get them out and get them stabilized and get them to help," he said. "I don't know what happened to them."
University officials said there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, and dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out. The governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
Dave Imy, a meteorologist with the prediction service, said the deaths were the most in a tornado outbreak killed 315 people in 1974.
In Alabama, where as many as a million people were without power, Gov. Robert Bentley said 2,000 national guard troops had been activated and were helping to search devastated areas for people still missing. He said the National Weather Service and forecasters did a good job of alerting people, but there is only so much that can be done to deal with powerful tornadoes a mile wide.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance.
"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster," Obama said in a statement.
The storms came on the heels of another system that killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi earlier this week. Less than two weeks earlier, a smaller batch of twisters raced through Alabama, touching off warning sirens, damaging businesses and downing power lines in Tuscaloosa, but there were no deaths there then.
In Kemper County, Miss., in the east-central part of the state, sisters Florrie Green and Maxine McDonald, and their sister-in-law Johnnie Green, all died in a mobile home that was destroyed by a storm.
"They were thrown into those pines over there," Mary Green, Johnnie Green's daughter-in-law, said, pointing to a wooded area. "They had to go look for their bodies."
And in Pleasant Grove, Samantha Nail surveyed the damage in the blue-collar subdivision where hers was the only home still intact. The storm slammed heavy pickup trucks into ditches and obliterated tidy brick houses, leaving behind a mess of mattresses, electronics and children's toys scattered across a grassy plain where dozens used to live.
"We were in the bathroom holding on to each other and holding on to dear life," Nail said. "If it wasn't for our concrete walls, our home would be gone like the rest of them."