RALEIGH, N.C. – A devastating storm system spawned dozens of tornadoes as it barreled from Oklahoma to North Carolina, decimating communities in six states and leaving at least 43 people dead in its wake.
Emergency crews searched for victims Sunday in hard-hit swaths of North Carolina, where 62 tornadoes were reported the night before from the worst spring storm in two decades to hit the state. Eleven people were confirmed dead in Bertie County, county manager Zee Lamb said.
Another four were confirmed dead in Bladen County, bringing the state's death toll to at least 21.
In the capital city of Raleigh, three family members died in a mobile home park, said Wake County spokeswoman Sarah Willamson-Baker. At that trailer park, residents lined up outside Sunday and asked police guarding the area when they might get back in.
Peggy Mosley, 54, who has lived in the park for 25 years, said she was prepared when the storm bore down on the trailer park. She gathered small pillows and other material and hunkered down in her small bathroom.
"I went and got into my small bathroom and just sat in there and cried and prayed until it was over," Mosley said.
Farther up the street, Angelina McCaizie was also among those hoping to get back to their homes. She said she had been cooking when she saw the winds and rain pick up. She grabbed her children, nephew and brother and brought them into the kitchen, where everyone ducked until the storm passed.
When the storm was over, McCaizie, her husband and her brother went outside to check on neighbors. She said she saw several people bleeding and others with broken bones. McCaizie also said one resident ran up to her shouting, "Please help me! Please help me! I need 911."
"It was horrible," McCaizie said.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Sunday that state emergency management officials told her more than 20 were killed by the storms in North Carolina. However, the far-flung damage made it difficult to confirm the total number of deaths. The emergency management agency said it had reports of 22 fatalities, and media outlets and government agency tallies did not all match. The National Weather Service said 23 died in the state, including one in Johnston County, but an emergency management chief there told The Associated Press nobody died in that area.
The storm claimed its first lives Thursday night in Oklahoma, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Authorities have said seven died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; two in Oklahoma; and one in Mississippi. At least five died in Virginia.
In North Carolina, the governor declared a state of emergency and said the 62 tornadoes reported were the most since March 1984, when a storm system spawned 22 twisters in the Carolinas that killed 57 people — 42 in North Carolina — and injured hundreds.
Daybreak brought news of a horrific death toll in Bertie County, a place of about 21,000 people about 130 miles east of Raleigh. The tornado moved through about 7 p.m. Saturday, sweeping homes from their foundations, demolishing others, and flipping cars on tiny rural roads between Askewville and Colerian, Lamb said. At least three of those who died were from the same family, he said.
One of the volunteers who scoured the rubble was an Iraq war veteran who told Lamb he was stunned by what he saw.
"He did two tours of duty in Iraq and the scene was worse than he ever saw in Iraq — that's pretty devastating," Lamb said.
As dawn broke, dozens of firefighters, volunteers and other officials were meeting in a makeshift command center to form search teams to fan out to the hardest-hit areas.
"There were several cases of houses being totally demolished except for one room, and that's where the people were," he said. "They survived. Pretty devastating."
The aftermath of the storm left the county commission chairman unable to recognize areas from the county where he grew up, graduated high school and lived most of his life.
L.C. Hoggard said the storms were another terrible blow to the county of just 21,000 people that was devastated by flooding last October. The water submerged the county seat of Windsor, damaging 200 homes and businesses. No one lost their lives in the flooding. But Hoggard said the tornado was going to have a staggering emotional impact.
"You might not recognize a name. But you recognize faces and families," Hoggard said. "That's how it is in rural communities."
In Virginia, Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner said one apparent tornado ripped across more than 12 miles through Gloucester County, uprooting trees and pounding homes to rubble while claiming three lives. Spieldenner said two others were killed when a vehicle ran into flash flooding near Waynesboro.
He reported homes and mobile homes damaged and destroyed in a series of other Virginia counties and flash flooding west of Charlottesville that prompted water rescues — including four people rescued unhurt from a car that had plunged into deep water flowing over a street.
Scenes of destruction across the South looked eerily similar in many areas.
At one point, more than 250,000 people went without power in North Carolina before emergency utility crews began repairing downed lines. But scattered outages were expected to linger at least until Monday.
Among areas hit by power outages was Raleigh, a bustling city of more than 400,000 people where some of the bigger downtown thoroughfares were blocked by fallen trees early Sunday.
Police and rescue crews began conducting house-to-house searches later Saturday at a mobile home park in north Raleigh, where the storm snapped some trees in half, ripped others out of the ground and tossed some trailers from one side of a street to the other.
At the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park in Dunn, one woman died while another man was critically hurt when a car was blown atop him outside his home, said Police Chief B.P. Jones.
More than half the 40 homes in the park were unrecognizable piles of debris Sunday morning. A bulldozer was scooping up wood beams and piling them up in a different part of the park. In one home, all that was left was the seat of a recliner — the back gone — and a bathtub.
In Bladen County, the dead included a 92-year-old father and his 50-year-old son. They were killed when they were thrown from their adjacent mobile homes in the town of Ammon. A 52-year-old woman also died in Ammon, and a 50-year-old man died in Bladenboro — both also thrown from their homes, County Medical Examiner Kenneth Clark said.
Bladen County emergency management chief Bradley Kinlaw said 82 homes were damaged and 25 destroyed in Saturday's storms. The path of destruction was narrow — but at least six miles long, he said.
In Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh, a busy shopping district was pummeled by the storms, with some businesses losing rooftops in what observers described as a ferocious tornado. The Lowe's Home Improvement Center in Sanford looked flattened, with jagged beams and wobbly siding sticking up from the pancaked entrance. Cars in the parking lot were flipped by the winds.
Remarkably, no one was seriously injured at the Lowe's, thanks to a quick-thinking manager who herded more than 100 people into a back area with no windows to shatter.
"It was really just a bad scene," said Jeff Blocker, Lowe's regional vice president for eastern North Carolina. "You're just amazed that no one was injured."
Associated Press writers Emery P. Dalesio in Dunn, Jeffrey Collins and Page Ivey in Columbia, S.C., Jackie Quinn in Washington, D.C., and Jeff Martin and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.