NEWBERN, Tenn. – The death toll from a swarm of tornadoes that devastated communities across eight states rose to 28 overnight with the discovery of the last unaccounted for resident in Tennessee, the governor said Tuesday.
"We're in a tornado alley here, we get tornadoes in the spring and the summer, but this one was amazing," Gov. Phil Bredesen told CBS' "The Early Show" as he prepared to tour the destruction.
He said Tennessee was up to 24 deaths and 1,000 homes destroyed. Emergency crews were still out searching for possible victims, but no one else was known to be missing, he said.
"Your heart just has to go out to these communities that have been hit in this way. It's been awful," the governor said.
Joshua Medley remembers vividly how he and his mother clung to each other in a closet as a tornado bore down on their Newbern home. The ordeal lasted only a few minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime.
"We got lifted up in the air and the house was spinning," said Medley, whose 1,500-square foot home was moved 12 feet from its foundation. "I didn't think we were going to make it."
The storms left a trail of destroyed homes and buildings across Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas. Strong winds were blamed for at least three deaths in Missouri. A clothing store collapsed in southern Illinois, killing one man.
In Tennessee's Dyer and Gibson counties, the hardest hit areas, rescue workers were still searching in the rubble of brick buildings and toppled mobile homes. At least 75 people were injured, 17 of them critically, Bredesen said.
The Democratic governor said he had requested a federal disaster declaration for the two counties. He said hadn't heard back Tuesday morning but said he had been assured the request would be processed quickly and that the area would get some help.
The storms developed after a cold front approaching from the West slammed into a mass of warm, humid air, said Memphis meteorologist Jody Aaron. Preliminary reports indicated a swarm of 63 tornadoes touched down.
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher compared the destruction to "Sherman's march" through the South during the Civil War.
Part of K&G Fashion Superstore's roof and wall came crashing down in Fairview Heights, Ill., killing Delancey Moore, 54. His best friend, Doug Young, an off-duty police officer working security, survived in an air pocket for about 45 minutes before being freed.
"I'm so blessed," Young, 54, said Monday by telephone from his hospital bed, where he had a bruised chest, 10 stitches in a knee, and various cuts and bruises on his back and elbow.
Lingering problems forced the closure of public schools in Champaign, Ill., where power lines that had been sheared in half closed a four-lane thoroughfare on the city's south side.
The violent weather injured dozens of Arkansans and destroyed numerous homes and businesses. Gov. Mike Huckabee authorized the National Guard to help clean up the town of Marmaduke — where brick shells were all that remained of some houses. He also declared emergencies in Conway, Cross, Fulton, Greene, Hot Spring, Randolph, and White counties, which will allow residents to seek state aid.
In downtown Indianapolis, tornado-force winds shattered dozens of windows in an high-rise office building.
Back in Newbern, Larry Taylor, who owns the town's only funeral home, planned to hold services later this week for his son and daughter-in-law and the couple's two young sons.
"I have to," Taylor said of his task of preparing their bodies for burial. "I'd give everything I had for that not to have happened. Those little boys were my life."