TUSHKA, Okla. – A powerful storm system produced a tornado that tore through a tiny southeastern Oklahoma town overnight killing at least two people, and high winds killed three more in Arkansas before the storm moved into the Deep South early Friday.
The large tornado that cut through Tushka late Thursday tore up roofs, shattered windows and tossed power lines and trees, leaving dozens more people injured, authorities said. Early Friday, two people died in western Arkansas when a tree fell on a house, and a man died in central Arkansas when a tree crushed his recreational vehicle.
The twister destroyed the public school in Tushka, a town of about 350 people some 120 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, and forced many people to seek shelter with relatives, friends or churches serving as shelters. Semi-trailers and trees were scattered on the main highway, U.S. 69, and authorities closed off some roads because of downed power lines and trees.
"It felt like a bomb," said Jennifer Buffington, who fled to a storm's cellar with her husband, Tony Stiles, and their seven children when the tornado sirens sounded.
When the family emerged, they found the windows blown out of their home. The family sought shelter at First Baptist Church in nearby Atoka.
"Everything in my house looks like shambles," said Buffington, 36, whose children range in age from 1 to 20.
Easton Crow, a junior at the public school where students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend, said he was at a baseball game in nearby Hugo when the storm hit. He went by the school after returning home and saw the damage: The roof was gone, the top story of one of the school's buildings was torn off and textbooks were scattered everywhere.
"I'm heartbroken. This is where most of us grew up," Crow, 17, said. "I'm just in awe that in a few seconds memories that have been built were taken."
Principal Matt Simpson said the school won't be usable for the rest of school year and officials must figure out where students will attend class.
"I've been doing this for 10 years, but this is definitely new for me," Simpson said. "It means a lot of challenges I wasn't expecting."
After raking Oklahoma and Arkansas, the storm system moved into Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Details about those who were killed in Tushka weren't yet available early Friday. The state Medical Examiner's Office confirmed two fatalities, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said, but information about the victims and exactly how they died was not available.
Also, because the twister struck after dark, officials wouldn't know the full extent of the damage until Friday.
Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Renee Preslar said Garland County officials confirmed the two deaths there early Friday, but she had no details. According to the National Weather Service, the pair died when a tree fell on top of a mobile home.
KTHV in Little Rock reported that officials received a call around 1 a.m. of a tree down on a home in Whittington. Sheriff's Lt. James Martin told the station the victims were a 24-year-old male and an 18-month-old girl. It wasn't immediately clear if a tornado or strong winds were at fault.
In Pulaski County, central Arkansas, Lt. Carl Minden of the county sheriff's office said a man was killed when a tree crushed his recreational vehicle near the town of Scott.
"Nobody has reported seeing funnel clouds. Right now we're suspecting straight line winds," Linden said.
In Franklin County, emergency management coordinator Fred Mullen said the high winds blew a camper off of its wheels, but that two people inside the camper escaped unharmed.
In Oklahoma, Paul Reano, CEO of Atoka County Medical Center, said 25 people were treated Thursday night for injuries related to the storm, ranging from cuts and scratches to more serious injuries.
In Sulphur, police reported that softball-sized hail — 4 inches in diameter — fell for a brief time. The National Weather Service said it received similar reports from Dunbar and Tishomingo.
Some people said they were grateful for what remained after the destruction.
Kimberly Gabriel said the windows were blown out of her Tushka home, glass was strewn all over and her fence was knocked down in the tornado. But at least her home is still standing.
"I consider that we're lucky, our house is here," Gabriel said. "Some people don't have that."
She and her 15-year-old daughter, Shelbee, decided to spend the night in their SUV instead of going to a shelter, she said.
"I figure there are people who are without homes and they're going to be full," Gabriel said.
Tara Pittman, 36, was at a Walmart buying food and wasn't aware of the storm until her husband, Bill, called and told her to take cover. The couple found out later that their mobile home was heavily damaged and they couldn't stay there.
"I'm thankful because my family is OK; some people's aren't," Pittman said.