MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Lines of thunderstorms hammered the South on Wednesday, turning a skating rink into a hulk of twisted metal soon after 31 preschoolers and four adults fled to the only part of the building that turned out to be safe.
One child suffered a broken bone and another a cut to the head, but everyone else emerged unharmed from the crumpled wreck of the Fun Zone Skate Center, which doubled as a day-care facility.
"I'm amazed that anyone got out of there," said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright.
Several states were battered by the storms, which unleashed tornadoes and straight-line winds that overturned mobile homes and tractor-trailers, uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. At least one person was killed and several injured.
Authorities were unsure whether it was a tornado that hit the skate center about 10:15 a.m.
Jon Slaughter, who owns two nearby businesses, arrived at the skating center with two employees about five minutes after the building was ripped apart.
"What I saw was just utter destruction," said Slaughter. "The children were scared, they were cold and dirty. They were crying and upset, but really they were calmer than I thought they would be."
The manager of the day-care center operating inside the building had made everyone get into the section of the building that survived the high winds.
"She may have saved many of these children's lives," the mayor said.
Two people crawled under the beams and wreckage looking for kids, apparently in disbelief that everyone inside could have walked out.
"I wasn't panicked until I saw the building," said Russell Grant, who showed up to take home his 5-year-old son, Justin, after hearing what had happened.
Dozens of buildings were damaged in four southwestern Mississippi counties and across the state line in three Louisiana parishes.
At least one tornado cut a path about two miles wide and three or four miles long in Greensburg, La., north of New Orleans, toppling trees and damaging buildings and power lines, said Maj. Michael Martin of the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office. A 43-year-old man was killed when the trailer he was in was destroyed, he said.
"That home just exploded," said Gordon Burgess, president of neighboring Tangipahoa Parish.
In Mississippi's Lamar County, emergency operations center director James Smith said a possible tornado struck a subdivision outside Sumrall around 2:50 a.m., damaging or destroying 11 homes.
Smith said six people were taken to hospitals from the Sumrall area, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said two other people were injured in Greene County.
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, devastated last year by Hurricane Katrina, rain flooded streets and closed some schools. City Hall in Biloxi suffered roof and water damage, and Mayor A.J. Holloway told The Sun Herald it appeared that a small tornado had touched down in the area.
As much as 4 inches of rain fell in southern Alabama, flooding some homes, authorities reported. A tornado in rural Pike County destroyed a volunteer fire department and knocked down a water tower, flooding the area, a sheriff's official said.
A possible tornado tore through a community south of Montgomery, toppling trees, overturning a mobile home and knocking out power at a school. Storms overturned trailers in the southeast Alabama town of Elba, injuring several people, police investigator Tony Harrison said.
In Arkansas, the thunderstorms toppled tractor-trailer rigs along Interstate 40 in Arkansas, and police said at least four people were hospitalized. Authorities said a hotel near Wheatley had structural damage.
The storms caused flash flooding in Arkansas, including the Little Rock area, where police said they rescued two people who escaped high water by climbing trees.
More than 3.5 inches of rain fell at Little Rock, including more than an inch in 20 minutes at the city's airport, the weather service said. Hail the diameter of quarters pounded areas west of the city.