SANFORD, N.C. -- Lowe's store manager Michael Hollowell had heard the tornado warnings but his first clue that the danger was outside his front door came when he saw his staff running toward the back of the home improvement store.
More than 100 employees and customers screamed in near unison when the steel roof curled off overhead Saturday. The store was becoming part of the wreckage left by a ferocious storm system bristling with killer twisters that ripped through the South.
"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 45 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.
Survivors were left to recall miraculous escapes.
In the Bladen County community of Ammon, about 70 miles south of Raleigh, Audrey McKoy and her husband Milton saw a tornado bearing down on them over the tops of the pine trees that surround the seven or eight mobile homes that make up their neighborhood. He glanced at a nearby farm and saw the winds lifting pigs and other animals in the sky.
"It looked just like 'The Wizard of Oz,"' Audrey said.
They took shelter in their laundry room, and after emerging once the storm had passed, were disoriented for a moment. The twister had turned their mobile home around and they were standing in their backyard.
Milton found three bodies in their neighborhood, including 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony, who died in adjacent mobile homes. He stopped his wife from coming over to see.
"You don't want to look at this," he told her.
The storms crushed trailer parks and brought life in the center of the state's second-largest city to a virtual standstill. It was the worst outbreak in the state since 22 twisters in 1984 killed 42 people.
Gov. Beverly Perdue planned to tour hard-hit areas in three counties Monday. The devastation she saw Sunday left her near tears, she said. The storm pummeled bustling cities and remote rural communities. One of Perdue's stops was downtown Raleigh, where fallen trees blocked major thoroughfares and damage to the Shaw University campus forced it to cancel the remainder of its spring semester.
Perdue said she'd been in contact with President Barack Obama, who pledged his support, and that federal emergency management workers were already on the ground.
"We have in North Carolina a tremendous relationship with our federal partners, and have been through this so many times," she said. "That's not a good thing. That's a bad thing."
One place Perdue was scheduled to visit was Bertie County, where storms were deadliest. At least 11 residents died, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said, including three members of the same family.
Jean Burkett lived near Roy and Barbara Lafferty and Barbara's mother, Helen White, in Colerain. Burkett and Barbara Lafferty graduated from high school together in 1964 and had always been neighbors. On Sunday, at her relatively untouched home, Burkett pointed out a row of four or five about 400 yards away that had been demolished. The Laffertys and Helen White died in their home.
"The neighborhood has lost some mighty fine neighbors," Burkett said. "It's the worst thing we've ever seen."
The violent weather began Thursday in Oklahoma, where two people died, before cutting across the Deep South on Friday and hitting North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday. Authorities said seven people died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; seven in Virginia; and one in Mississippi.
More than 240 tornadoes were reported from the storm system, including 62 in North Carolina, but the National Weather Service's final numbers could be lower because some tornadoes may have been reported more than once.
The state emergency management agency said it had reports of 23 fatalities from Saturday's storms, but local officials confirmed only 21 deaths to The Associated Press.
The conditions that allowed for the storm occur She crawled out the truck's shattered back window and ran around the parking lot calling for help, because her cell phone wouldn't work. Both Rossers are recovering from their injuries.
While the death toll may climb and while it will be weeks before final damage assessments are completed, residents and officials alike are looking to make repairs and start building what was lost.
Aleta Tootle and four other people sheltered in a closet in her Bertie County home, emerging with only a few scratches after the rest of the building was ripped to shreds. Surveying the wreckage Sunday, she said there was only one thing left to do.
"All we can do is start over," she said. "We don't have a choice."