One survivor said it was like a thunderstorm that "went crazy" as twisters ripped through rural North Texas overnight, reducing homes to concrete slabs and killing three people, including a boy cowering in the stairwell of his home.
At least 26 homes were destroyed. Ten people were hospitalized and dozens of others were treated at the scene for minor injuries.
A couple in their 80s were found dead in a destroyed mobile home in Westminster, about 45 miles northeast of Dallas, Collin County Fire Marshal Steve Deffibaugh said. A 14-year-old boy was killed in neighboring Grayson County when a chimney collapsed on the stairwell where he had taken shelter, authorities said.
"It sounded like a regular thunderstorm, then it went crazy," said Cathy Dotson, who huddled on the floor of her Westminster home with her grandchildren when the tornado hit Tuesday night. "I could actually feel my house move."
Christy Adame, who lives a half-mile from the home where the elderly couple died, took shelter in a closet with her husband and two sons.
When they emerged, she found her horse barn gone, one of her horses dead in a tree and the smell of propane so strong — and the risk of an explosion so high — that officials would not let a neighbor shoot his suffering cow, which had been impaled on a two-by-four.
"Now I know what an earthquake feels like," Adame said.
Collin County spokeswoman Leigh Hornsby said crews went door-to-door checking homes early Wednesday to make sure there were no more victims, and believe everyone was accounted for. The dead were identified as Paul Harris Newsom, 82; his wife, Mary Ellen, 80; and Colson Owens, 14.
Deffibaugh said the twisters took Westminster's residents "by surprise, totally unaware." The community of about 420 has no sirens, and the tornadoes hit too fast for the county's emergency telephone-notification system to respond, he said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Moller said at least two tornadoes hit. "I think it was the first tornado that killed three people," he said. "Then there was a larger tornado after that that probably did extensive damage."
The damage track was estimated at a half-mile wide and 6 to 7 miles long.
Storms also raked Arkansas early Wednesday, toppling trees, damaging roofs and downing power lines. Students at a Little Rock junior high school were evacuated to a high school next door after a tree fell near fuel tanks. A FedEx truck was blown into the median of Interstate 530.