20 Dead After Tornadoes Rip Through Missouri, Alabama, Georgia

Nearly 24 hours after a line of violent tornadoes ripped across the Southeast and Midwest killing 20 people nationwide, family and friends of eight students killed by a twister gathered at an Alabama high school to mourn their losses and survey the severity of the damage.

"It was in a split second that we sat down and started to cover ourselves before the storm hit," said 17-year-old Kira Simpson, who lost four friends to the storm. "Glass was breaking. It was loud."

"It's like a bad dream. I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened," she said.

Eight Enterprise High School students were killed when a tornado tore into the building, knocking down walls and collapsing a roof onto them as they sought safety in a hallway.

Two others died elsewhere in Alabama, a 7-year-old girl died in Missouri and nine were reported dead in Georgia.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley was at Enterprise High School where eight students died.

"There are certain things that are going to happen that will result in loss of life that we can’t control. And that’s what happened yesterday," Riley said at the site of destruction.

Riley offered his condolences to the families of students who were killed.

"There is something about losing the life of a child that is distinctly different than losing an adult. I want them to know today that this country is praying for them. They have them in their thoughts. We've had calls from all over the United States. And we can't bring back that child," Riley said.

President Bush planned to visit two of the storm-damaged areas on Saturday, the White House said. The destinations were still being worked out Friday with governors in the affected states.

He says he would visit stricken areas Saturday, "with a heavy heart."

Bush told reporters at the White House that he had called the governors of Alabama and Georgia earlier today.

"I go down knowing full well that I'll be seeing people whose lives were turned upside down by the tornadoes. I'll do my very best to comfort them," the president said

As the massive storm system swept into Georgia, another tornado apparently touched down near the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, 117 miles south of Atlanta, blowing out the windows, tossing cars into trees and killing at least two people, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers had worked into the night to evacuate dozens of patients.

"It was controlled chaos," said Dr. Tim Powell, an anesthesiologist.

Six more people were killed in the town of Newton, Ga., including a child, and several homes were destroyed, Fire Chief Andy Belinc said early Friday. "We're still tying to assess everything," Belinc said. Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency.

The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed tornadoes for the deaths of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, 10 people in Alabama and nine in Georgia, and twisters also damaged homes in Kansas.

As the storm swept out to sea off South Carolina on Friday, the Coast Guard searched for six people on a small boat who had sent a distress call overnight saying they were taking on water.

In all, the National Weather Service received 31 reports of tornadoes Thursday from Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus a report Friday of a waterspout near Cartaret, N.C.

The normal peak tornado season is April and May, but weather service meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said tornadoes can occur at any time.

At Enterprise High School, officials had been watching the storm Thursday as it swept through southern Missouri and headed into Alabama. The students were preparing to leave for the day when the sirens started up and the lights went out.

Teacher Grannison Wagstaff was with them.

"I said 'Here it comes. Hit the deck," he told CBS's "The Early Show" Friday. "I turned around and I could actually see the tornado coming toward me."

As the students scrambled for shelter, a section of roof and a wall near 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia collapsed on her classmates.

"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," Erin said. "It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building.

"I kept seeing people with blood on their faces."

Outside, debris from the school was strewn around the neighborhood, where cars were flipped or tossed atop each other. Searchers pulled the final body, a boy, from the high school's wreckage around 1:30 a.m. Friday, assistant superintendent Bob Phares said.

The mayor said officials had yet to determine where the school's students would attend classes for the rest of the year. He appeared drained as his staff and National Guard crews tried to assess the damage at dawn and search the torn-up neighborhoods for more victims.

"You take it methodically," Boswell said. "You prioritize, and you move on."

At least one other person was killed in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.

In Sumter County, Ga., home of former President Jimmy Carter, Sumter Regional Hospital was in shambles Friday morning. Officials weren't sure whether the people injured and the two reported dead in town were inside the hospital when the storm struck, Weiss said.

Near Newton, about 50 miles to the south, Marvin Hurst was home with his wife and 31-year-old son when the storm hit and the house "exploded." Only a few sections of rear wall were left standing.

"It's just by the grace of God that we got out," Hurst said.

Between 40 and 60 homes were also damaged in nearby Clay County, on the Alabama line, Weiss said. Another tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, north of Americus, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue flew by helicopter to damaged areas Friday and issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Baker, Clay, McDuffie, Stewart, Sumter and Taylor counties, clearing the way for state aid.

"The state will do everything we can to help the communities affected by the storms," Perdue said.

Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed. At Cheek Memorial Church, the wooden steeple had toppled.

Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.

"It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in," she said. "All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.