updated 4/3/2006 7:54:20 PM ET 2006-04-03T23:54:20

Thunderstorms packing tornadoes and hail as big as softballs ripped through eight states, killing at least 27 people, injuring scores and destroying hundreds of homes in the South and Midwest. At least 17 others were in critical condition.

Tennessee was hit hardest, with tornadoes striking five western counties Sunday and killing 23 people, including an infant and his grandparents and a family of four.

Most of the deaths were along a 25-mile path stretching from Newbern, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, to Bradford, officials said. The Highway Patrol sent teams with search dogs to the area Monday to check what remained of damaged homes and businesses for anyone who might be trapped in the rubble.

Betty Sisk grabbed her son and daughter, age 10 and 13, and took cover in a closet until the twister blew their house apart and threw them into the yard.

“By the time the sirens started going off, it was at our back door,” Sisk said Monday. “I didn’t hear a train sound, I heard a roaring.”

Nothing remained of Sisk’s wood-frame home Monday but the concrete steps. A nearby house was destroyed and Sisk said she had been told the elderly couple who lived there were dead. Another neighbor’s home was blown about 30 feet off its foundation.

Other states reeling
Severe thunderstorms, many producing tornadoes, also struck parts of Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Strong wind was blamed or at least three deaths in Missouri. A clothing store collapsed in southern Illinois, killing one man.

The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it had preliminary reports of 63 tornadoes.

Among the dead in Tennessee was a baby, one of 15 people killed in Dyer County, said Coleman Foss, CEO of Dyersburg Regional Medical Center. Patty Williams of the Johnson Funeral Home identified the child as Lucas Simpson, and said his grandparents who had been babysitting him were also killed by the storm.

In Gibson County, a family of four — both parents and their two children — were among eight victims of the storm, officials said.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Leanne Durm said 17 other people were hospitalized in critical condition.

Witnesses describe twister ‘almost a mile wide’
Although the death toll was higher in Dyer County, the worst reports of damage were coming from Gibson County, Durm said. Bradford reported 1,200 damaged structures, including the police station, while there were 300 damaged buildings in Rutherford and 150 in the city of Dyer, she said.

Newbern alderman Robert Hart said witnesses described the tornado that hit his town as being “almost a mile wide.”

About a half-dozen tornadoes struck Arkansas and one destroyed nearly half of the town of Marmaduke, according to a fire department official.

In mid-March, tornadoes spun off by another huge storm system killed nine people in Missouri and injured dozens in Illinois. Initial reports indicated that system was responsible for more than 100 twisters in five states from Oklahoma to Illinois, the National Weather Service said.

Dire warnings
Paula Kemp, who lives on a small farm outside Newbern, said TV reports had warned of bad weather through the evening and the tornado reached her property “right at 7:45” Sunday night, just as the reports had predicted.

She saw the tornado move over a ridge line and a pond on her property before destroying the barn. She and her husband, Steve, crawled into the bathtub with their dogs, she said.

“I thought it was going to lift us up,” Kemp said. “I’ve seen the aftermaths of tornadoes but I’ve never been in the middle of one.”

Her house was still standing but the storm blew out all its windows.

The Christ United Methodist Church, which celebrated its centennial in 2005, was reduced to a pile of red bricks across the street from the fire hall. No one was inside the church when it caved in, officials said.

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