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Tornado-stricken towns sift through rubble

Reporting from Henryville, Ind., and Durham, N.C. --

“See, they told us yesterday morning to get out,” Beverly Evans said Saturday, stifling sobs as she gazed at the crumpled modular home she had lived in before Friday afternoon.

Evans did leave. But her husband, Lloyd, did not, she said, because you can’t tell him anything. He regretted it. “I told my wife, if another one comes, I’ll beat her to the truck,” he said.

The retired forklift driver, 69, rode out the tornado that blasted through Henryville, a town of about 1,900 people north of Louisville, Ky. It was one of more than 90 that tore through the Midwest and South on Friday, well before the expected peak of tornado season.

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Photos: Tornadoes in Midwest and South

From Indiana and Kentucky, through Ohio and Alabama and Georgia, homes and businesses were crushed, cars and buses were tossed about, and roads were left clogged by downed trees and power lines. The line of storms that produced them then roared east Saturday, triggering tornado watches and warnings for parts of the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and South Carolina, but leaving nowhere near the destruction of the previous day.

At least 39 people in five states died, and hundreds were injured. Kentucky suffered the most deaths — 20, followed by Indiana with 14 and Ohio with three, authorities said. Georgia and Alabama each reported one weather-related death.

The storms followed a spate of tornadoes that killed 13 people earlier in the week.

On Saturday, in Henryville and other towns and rural communities devastated by the powerful storms, rescue crews combed through wreckage in search of survivors amid fears that the death toll would rise.

“It tore through so fast. It had at least a three-mile radius,” said Jefferson County, Ind., Emergency Management Director Dave Bell, describing a tornado that plowed through the tiny community of Chelsea. Four people died there, including a 4-year-old boy.

The tornado in Henryville ripped apart houses, stores and the school complex. It tossed cars, trucks and school buses hundreds of feet; shredded and toppled thousands of trees; and killed a man who was crushed by his refrigerator.

Evans hid in a closet and clung to the door frame. He heard cupboard doors slamming and dishes crashing. He heard a wind so loud he almost couldn’t find the words to describe it.

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“It was roaring. I never heard that noise before,” he said. “It was so loud it’d make your ears hurt.”

He felt the house shake, rise up and slam down, then slide off its foundation — by eight feet, he later learned. “I said, ‘Well, here we go,’” he recalled. “I thought I was a goner.”

After the storm churned by, hail the size of baseballs pummeled the area, pockmarking vehicles and smashing their windshields. Evans pointed out the deep holes in his yard and broken siding on his house where they had landed. “They were bouncing like rubber balls,” he said.

The tornado drove right through the crossroads at the town’s center. It hardly touched St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, but across the street, it sheared the roof off the sanctuary of Henryville Community Presbyterian Church.

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The school complex, with 1,400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, was in the bull’s-eye, but the principals had sent the students home early.

“We just knew it was time. We just knew it was time. I say it was God,” marveled Glenn Riggs, the elementary school principal. “It was really a miracle to have all those children out of here.”

As the tornado bore down, a bus with 11 children pulled into the parking lot. Troy Albert, the high school principal, yelled: “Get in here! Get in here!”

They did. Five minutes later, the empty bus rocketed across the road and, wrenched from its chassis, smashed into a cafe.

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The tornado ravaged the brick building, wrecking the hallway where students gather during tornado drills. “It just collapsed around us,” Riggs said. “It sounded like explosions, trains, gunshots.”

In nearby Marysville, a hamlet of 40 or 50 homes, nearly every residence was damaged. Some were obliterated. One was lifted off its foundation and deposited in the backyard.

Marysville’s old brick community center lost its roof, and the 1891 Marysville Christian Church was shoved off its foundation by about four feet. Most of its stained-glass windows survived, however, as did the one over the front door, which says: “In Memory of the Willing Workers.”

No one from the tiny village was killed, despite the spectacular destruction. Helen Hunt, whose home was largely unscathed, thinks most people were at work. “If it had been an hour later, it’d be a different story,” she said.

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Hunt wondered how many of her neighbors would return. “Don’t know what’s going to happen to our little town. Nobody ever heard of us, and now they have and nobody’s here,” she said.

In many homes, lives were saved by special radios that emit a squawking alarm whenever the National Weather Service issues tornado watches or warnings. The radios, coupled with highly-publicized alerts and warnings from the National Weather Service, gave people time to take cover.

“One death is too many,” Indiana State Police Sgt. Tony Slocum said in Indianapolis. “But if people hadn’t taken these warnings so seriously, we could’ve had a lot more.”

He added: “With a storm this devastating, unfortunately, you can get casualties, even with the most careful precautions.”

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john.hoeffel@latimes.com

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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