At Least 19 Dead, Including 8 at High School, as Tornados Rip Through South

A violent storm system that ripped apart an Alabama high school as students took refuge inside later tore through Georgia, hitting a hospital and raising the death toll to at least 19 across the Midwest and Southeast.

Eight teenagers died when a tornado struck Enterprise High School in Alabama, blowing out the walls and collapsing part of the roof, Mayor Kenneth Boswell said Friday.

In parts of Enterprise, Alabama, "it looks like ground zero, where there's just nothing left," Boswell told NBC's "Today" show. Another person was killed elsewhere in the city.

More than 50 people were hospitalized across the state, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the system of powerful tornadoes passed from Alabama into southwest Georgia, hitting a hospital and causing at least nine deaths, a state official said.

A fire chief reported six deaths caused by the storm in Baker County in southwest Georgia, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

In Sumter County, two people were reported killed and an undetermined number injured by the storm, which damaged the county's main hospital, Weiss said late Thursday.

Sumter County deputy sheriff Eric Brown said he could not confirm the fatalities but that the storms had knocked out power to the entire city and part of the rest of the county. He said there were injuries but he did not know how many.

Weiss said it appeared that a tornado hit Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, but that officials there were unsure whether the injured and the dead were inside the building at the time.

Hospital spokesman Ed Farr said by telephone that the building was struck by a tornado but that there was no time to discuss details.

"We're trying to move patients and trying to stabilize things for our patients," Farr said. "Call back in the morning."

Weiss said the information on the deaths came from state emergency management field coordinators working with the Sumter County emergency management agency. He said he was not sure if the deaths were at the hospital but "they were associated with the tornado that struck the hospital."

Weiss said that farther north in Taylor County, there was one death reported and four injuries, but he had no details on exactly how the injuries occurred — just that they were storm-related.

"We also have reports of injuries in Muscogee County. We have no details on nature of injuries or the number," he said. A Taylor County sheriff's dispatcher said there was extensive storm damage in the county but the number of deaths or injuries was unknown.

Weiss said between 40 and 60 homes were damaged in Clay County, south of Muscogee along the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama line.

In Muscogee County, the National Weather Service said a twister struck about 6 p.m.

The storm knocked out power to 15,000 homes in Columbus and another 3,200 across the Chattahoochee in Phenix City, Ala., damaged some buildings and toppled trees into streets.

In Alabama, State Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said it wasn't clear whether the deaths at the high school were all students or a mix of students and teachers.

Enterprise Police Chief T.D. Jones said students remain trapped inside the school and workers are attempting to move a wall that is acting as a barrier between the workers and the students, according to a report in the Enterprise Ledger newspaper.

"The number could very well increase as the search effort continues through the night," state emergency management spokeswoman Yasamie Richardson said.

Gov. Bob Riley ordered more than 100 National Guard troops sent to Enterprise, with additional troops standing by.

There are also representatives from the Alabama Department of Emergency Management on the scene, along with a search and rescue team from nearby Dothan, Ala. Rescue squads from around the Wiregrass, Ala, have also responded.

FOX News confirmed that President Bush has offered federal assistance to Riley and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and is "deeply saddened by the loss of life," according to Whtie House aides.

Lights and generators are being taken to the high school to continue the search and recovery effort into the evening.

A staging area has been set up in front of Enterprise City Hall. A heavy equipment staging area is set up at the Enterprise Big Lots on Boll Weevil Circle.

Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending 14 regional preliminary disaster assessment teams to survey the tornado damage, Fox News confirmed.

FEMA will also send a mobile emergency response team to stream live video of the disaster area back to the FEMA headquarters and other state and federal officials.

Erin Garcia, 17, said she and fellow students had gathered in hallways around 11 a.m. as a precaution. School officials wanted to send them home around 1 p.m., she said, but the weather turned bad and sirens wailed.

Then, she said, the lights went out.

"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," she said.

After the storm passed, she found the hallway she was in was spared, but a roof and wall collapsed on students in another hallway.

"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," Garcia said.

Martha Rodriquez, a 15-year-old sophomore at the high school, said she had left the school about five minutes before the storm hit. When she returned, she said that "a hall at the school collapsed, and there were kids inside."

The school "appears to have been right in the path," said Paul Duval, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Fla., which monitors southeast Alabama.

Duval said more severe thunderstorms were expected to hit early Thursday night, some carrying winds of more than 60 miles per hour.

Two died elsewhere in Enterprise and one in rural Millers Ferry, where a separate storm wrecked mobile homes, she said.

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Alabama, Missouri and Kansas all reported damage and injuries from tornados, and additional tornado watches remain in effect for South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida, according to the Weather Channel.

In southern Missouri, another tornado struck, killing a 7-year-old girl and damaging homes and businesses.

Howell County Sheriff Robbie Crites identified the young victim as Elizabeth Croney. Her mother, father and two brothers were injured when a tornado hit their mobile home in a rural wooded area near West Plains, Crites said.

In Caulfield, Rick Jarvis heard the storm ripping through his gas station around dawn. His home next door suffered just minor damage, but the twister shredded the business, ripping down its roof and back wall.

"It sounded like a herd of horses tearing up stuff. When I came out, it was done," said Jarvis, 48.

At least four mobile homes, two houses and two service stations in Caulfield were damaged when the twisters hit around 6:30 a.m., and a tornado also touched down near an elementary school in Caulfield. Two more tornadoes were also reported in the area, said Mike Wade, a dispatcher at the Howell County Sheriff's Office.

In Kansas' Linn County, along the Missouri state line, a tornado Wednesday night destroyed a power substation, and roofs and siding were torn from buildings, Linn County Emergency Management Director David Yates said. He said some minor injuries were reported.

The storm also ripped out poles and electric lines, but power was expected to be restored by the end of the day, said Paul Norris, operations manager for Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative.

The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorm and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to Louisiana.

In Nebraska, strong wind and heavy snow caused whiteout conditions in eastern Nebraska that forced the shutdown of 121 miles of a major interstate highway.

The storm was blamed for the death of at least two people — a North Dakota couple who were killed when their car overturned as snow and freezing drizzle covered the road.

The Associated Press and the Enterprise Ledger contributed to this report.