YAZOO CITY, Mississippi -- Violent weather churned through a half-dozen Southern U.S. states over the weekend, leaving at least 10 dead in a tornado in rural Misissippi and two dead in neighboring Alabama.
Dale Thrasher, 60, had been alone in Hillcrest Baptist Church when the tornado ripped away wood and metal until all that was left was rubble, Thrasher and the communion table he had climbed under as he prayed for protection.
"The whole building caved in," he said. "But me and that table were still there."
Sunday was sunny and breezy as Thrasher and about three dozen members of the Yazoo City church stood in a circle and sang "Till the Storm Passes By." Thrasher reminded the group that the church has survived tough times before. They rebuilt after their building was destroyed by arson about 10 years ago.
"The Lord brought us through the fire, and brought us back bigger and better," Thrasher said. "The Lord will bring us back bigger and better this time, if we stick together."
Hundreds of homes also were damaged in the tornado, which carved a path of devastation from the Louisiana line to east-central Mississippi, and at least three dozen people were hurt. National Weather Service meteorologist Marc McAlister said the tornado had winds of 160 miles (260 kilometers) an hour and left a path of destruction at least 50 miles long.
"This tornado was enormous," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who grew up in Yazoo County, a county of about 28,000 people known for blues, catfish and cotton. The twister wreaked "utter obliteration" among the picturesque hills rising from the flat Mississippi Delta, the governor said.
Mississippi's Choctaw County had the most confirmed deaths: five, including a baby and two other children. Sherry Fair rushed to her aunt's home in the county. She said an hour and a half after the tornado passed, a woman lay dying in a ditch along a dirt road beside the body of her husband.
"She was laying there just crying," a shaken Fair said. "She was broke up bad. It hurt me watching, but nobody could get to her. The ambulances couldn't get through because of the trees."
Grace Coker told The Associated Press that that her 78-year-old sister Stella Martin was killed when the storm hit just outside Yazoo City.
Tornadoes also were reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. The storm system tracked northeastward, downing trees in northwest Georgia early Sunday and later damaging an elementary school roof in Darlington, South Carolina.
All that remained of Sullivan's Crossroads Grocery in Choctaw County was a pile of cinderblocks and some jars of pickled eggs and pigs' feet. Owner Ron Sullivan, his wife and four other people rode out the storm, coming away with only some cuts and bruises.
Sullivan had been on the phone, describing the weather conditions to a meteorologist, when the line went dead and the twister hit, tearing the wooden roof off the store and hurling Sullivan into a cinderblock wall.
"I was levitated and flew 15 feet over there to the back wall," he said. "The only reason I wasn't killed was the wall was still there. After I hit it, it collapsed."
A steel fuel storage tank, about 10 feet (3 meters) long, was uprooted by the twister and rolled into the store, coming to rest against a freezer. Hiding on the other side of the freezer was Sullivan's wife.
In Alabama, authorities attributed two deaths to severe weather. A 50-year-old woman was killed when she slipped and hit her head as she headed to a storm shelter Saturday, and a 32-year-old man was killed when the car he was riding in struck a tree that had blown down across a road. More than 30 other injuries were reported in the state, none serious.
Gov. Barbour estimated at least 100 houses in Yazoo County alone had severe damage but said his estimate could rise.
Hundreds were without electricity while others were left homeless, sifting through what little remained of their homes and bulldozing the rest. Volunteers poured into the hardest-hit areas with four-wheelers, chain saws and heavy equipment to chop up downed trees and haul away the wreckage as the cleanup began.