Crews went door-to-door today searching debris for more victims of deadly tornadoes that ripped the roof off a shopping mall, pummeled mobile homes and blew apart warehouses as they tore across four states. At least 44 people were killed throughout the South.
The victims included 24 people in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, and seven in Kentucky, emergency officials said. Among those killed were Arkansas parents who died with their 11-year-old in Atkins, about 60 miles northwest of Little Rock. Hundreds more were injured.
The family died from trauma when their home "took a direct hit" from the storm, Pope County Coroner Leonard Krout said.
"Neighbors and friends who were there said, 'There used to be a home there,"' Krout said.
Ray Story tried to get his 70-year-old brother, Bill Clark, to a hospital after the storms leveled his mobile home in Macon County, about 60 miles northeast of Nashville. He died as Story and his wife tried to navigate debris-strewn roads in their pickup truck, they said.
"He never had a chance," Nova Story said. "I looked him right in the eye and he died right there in front of me."
The twisters, which also slammed Mississippi, were part of a rare spasm of winter weather that raged across the nation's midsection at the end of the Super Tuesday primaries in several states. As the extent of the damage quickly became clear, candidates including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee paused in their victory speeches to remember the victims.
Before dawn today, the system moved on to Alabama, bringing heavy rains and gusty winds, causing several injuries in counties northwest of Birmingham. An apparent tornado damaged eight homes in Walker County, and a pregnant woman suffered a broken arm when a trailer home was tossed by the winds, said county emergency management director Johnny Burnette.
Northeast of Nashville, a spectacular fire erupted at a natural gas pumping station northeast of Nashville that authorities said could have been damaged by the storms. An undetermined number of people were reported dead.
Power was knocked out and the local hospital was running on generators. Only the emergency room had lights on.
Eight students were trapped in a battered dormitory at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., until they were finally freed. Tornadoes had hit the campus in the past, and students knew the drill when they heard sirens, said Union University President David S. Dockery.
At least two dormitories were destroyed. Dockery told NBC's "Today" that the drills and planning "saved those lives."
He said about 51 students were taken to the hospital and nine stayed through the night, but added "there are positive days ahead for them."
Well after nightfall Tuesday, would-be rescuers went through shattered homes in Atkins, a town of 3,000 near the Arkansas River. Around them, power lines snaked along streets and a deep-orange pickup truck rested on its side. A navy blue Mustang with a demolished front end was marked with spray paint to show it had been searched.
Outside one damaged home, horses whinnied in the darkness, looking up only when a flashlight reached their eyes. A ranch home stood unscathed across the street from a concrete slab that had supported the house where the family of three died.
Gov. Mike Beebe planned to tour Atkins today.
In Memphis, high winds collapsed the roof of a Sears store at a mall. Debris that included bricks and air conditioning units was scattered on the parking lot, where about two dozen vehicles were damaged.
A few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but they were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes, said Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department.
In Mississippi, Desoto County Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Steve Atkinson said a twister shredded warehouses in an industrial park in the city of Southaven, just south of Memphis.
"It ripped the warehouses apart. The best way to describe it is it looks like a bomb went off," Atkinson said.
At the W.J. Matthews Civic Center in Atkins, a shelter was empty except for American Red Cross volunteers and a single touch-screen voting machine. The civic center had hosted an election precinct earlier Tuesday. Traffic was snarled on nearby Interstate 40, with tractor-trailers on their sides.
Officials do not know what started a fire at the Columbia Gulf Natural Gas pumping station near Green Grove, about 40 miles from Nashville. The blaze could be seen in the night sky for miles around, with flames shooting "400, 500 feet in the air," said Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Donnie Smith.
The couple killed with their adult daughter were in their mobile home near Greenville in western Kentucky when a tornado went through their trailer park.
On Jan. 8, tornadoes were reported in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Two died in the Missouri storms.