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Survivors of Southern tornadoes react: 'My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?'

A powerful storm system was menacing a large swath of the South early Tuesday, killing more than two dozen people from Arkansas to Alabama over more than two days of destruction. Here are the some stories from people in Mississippi and Alabama that made it through the frightening chaos.

Mark Wade and his family heard the dire warnings on TV and the tornado sirens, and were prepared to ride out the storm in their closet when a neighbor across the street on Vilonia's Aspen Creek Drive in Arkansas, yelled out: "Come over! We're going in the storm cellar!"

So Wade, his wife and 3-year-old son joined 10 other people and seven dogs in a cramped underground shelter Sunday evening. When they emerged, their homes were gone. All gone. Stripped to the foundation.

"If we hadn't gone to that cellar I don't know if we would be here," Wade, 28, said Monday, picking through the debris of what was once his home.

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Pam Montgomery walked with her gray Scottish terrier Ava on Tuesday morning in the parking lot of St. Luke's United Methodist church in the Joyner neighborhood. She was working at the city newspaper when the tornado hit. She was moved into a storm shelter and was safe, but her husband, who has health problems, was home with the dog.

Montgomery and her colleagues emerged from the shelter after the storm and checked Facebook, which had postings saying the Joyner neighborhood was especially hard hit.

"Everybody was stunned," she said.

Minutes passed and she could not reach her husband. Those minutes turned into an hour, then longer.

"He does not have a cellphone and all the power lines were down," said Montgomery, 54, of her husband.

Finally, she was able to get a neighbor to walk over to her house to check if he was OK. He was.

"I couldn't come home and I had no way of contacting him. It was just nerve wracking and scary yesterday."

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After the tornado pounced on Tupelo, Miss., one gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant. Francis Gonzalez owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to that station. Gonzalez, her three children and two employees ducked for cover in the store's cooler shortly after a cellphone blared a tornado warning.

In the nick of time. Within seconds, the wind picked up and glass shattered. The roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards. A nearby SUV had its windows blown out. The storefront window had a large hole in it. Debris lay everywhere.

"It took us by surprise," Gonzalez said in Spanish. Stunned by the destruction all around, she added: "My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?"

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At the Highlands, a sprawling mobile home park that's about five miles from Jackson-Evers International Airport people spent Tuesday picking through the rubble of more than a dozen homes that were obliterated or heavily damaged.

Emergency officials said no one was killed in the Highlands, but several were injured.

Dagmar Almenares, a 33-year-old native of Cuba, said he considers himself lucky. He and his 62-year-old mother were in their rented mobile home when a tornado picked it up and blew it apart.

"It's hard to explain," Almenares said Tuesday. "I was rolling around inside the trailer, then it landed."

The black metal beams that were the base of his home landed across the street, about 50 yards away. The rest of the home landed on top of a neighbor's mobile home, making a twisted heap of metal, lumber, furniture, appliances and yellow insulation. Several men helped him pick through the debris under blue skies Tuesday.

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The University of Alabama confirms that a 21-year-old member of its swim team, John Servati of Tupelo, Miss., was killed Monday night when storms swept through the city.

Tuscaloosa city spokeswoman Deidre Stalnaker says Servati was taking shelter in the basement of a home when a retaining wall collapsed. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital. She says the accident happened at a home on 22nd Avenue about 10:30 p.m. when the city was under a tornado warning.

Servati competed in three events at the Southeastern Conference championships last year. He was a dean's list student and was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

"John Servati was an extraordinary young man of great character and warmth who had a tremendously giving spirit," UA head coach Dennis Pursley said. "During this incredibly difficult time, our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and to all who had the good fortune to know him. He will forever be in our hearts and a part of the Crimson Tide legacy."

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Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her day care center, as a tornado wiped her business off its foundation, strewing it into the backyard of a neighboring home.

Bennett's niece, Tanisha Lockett, said all but the one child had been picked up from Ruth's Child Care Center before the storm hit. She said the 4-year-old had been coming to the center since she was a baby. The child, who has not been identified, was transported to a Jackson hospital. Her condition was not known.

Lockett said Bennett had been running her own child care center for seven years.

"She just wants to help children and run her own business," Lockett said. "I left her (Bennett) her and I wish I had stayed because she asked me to stay with her."

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NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on severe weather about 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was coming close enough that maybe he and his staff should abandon the TV studio.

"This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly," he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.

Moments later he adds, "A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now." The video then showed Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he was still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.

"Basement, now!" he yelled, before disappearing off camera himself.

Later, the station tweeted, "We are safe here."

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Associated Press writers Adrian Sainz in Tupelo, Miss., Jeff Amy in Louisville, Miss., Jack Elliott Jr. and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., Jim Salter and Andrew DeMillo in Vilonia, Ark., contributed to this story.

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