Image: Mary Grady
Jim R. Bounds  /  AP
Mary Grady sits in her neighbor's yard where she rode out a tornado in Askewville, N.C., Sunday, April 17. Her home was destroyed in the storm.
NBC News and news services
updated 4/17/2011 5:33:20 PM ET 2011-04-17T21:33:20

Rescue crews searched for survivors in wind-blasted landscapes Sunday in North Carolina, the state hardest hit by a storm system that spawned dozens of tornadoes from Oklahoma to Virginia and left dozens dead.

The spring storm, North Carolina's deadliest in two decades, spun off 62 tornadoes in that state alone Saturday night. Eleven people were confirmed dead in rural 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. NBC News was reporting at least 22 dead in North Carolina. Deaths reported by officials in five other states brought the U.S. toll to at least 45.

In the capital city of Raleigh, three family members died in a mobile home park, said Wake County spokeswoman Sarah Williamson-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.

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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. In Virginia, local emergency officials reported seven storm-related deaths, said Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner.

Spieldenner said the state medical examiner's office confirmed one person died in Gloucester, where a tornado hit; two died in flash flooding in Waynesboro; and one person died in Wythe County when a tree fell on a mobile home. Officials were still investigating another two deaths reported in Gloucester and one in Page County.

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.

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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 Colerain, 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 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."

Scenes of destruction across the South looked eerily similar in many areas.

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.

Image: Washington County, Ala.
Dan Anderson  /  EPA
A.C. Bivens looks at the damage to his home after a tornado ripped through Washington County, Ala. The storm, which landed the night before, killed the resident of the area, Gene Box, and two of her children.

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., Zinie Chen Sampson in Richmond, Va., and Jeff Martin and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Survival and heroism in the storms

  1. Closed captioning of: Survival and heroism in the storms

    >>> good evening. tonight one of the deadliest outbreaks of tornadoes in recent memory has carved a trail of destruction and anguish across a half dozen states. since thursday at least 44 people have been killed across the south and east. the most recent deaths occurred late yesterday in virginia and north carolina , which took an especially wicked blow. at least 22 people are confirmed dead there alone. there are reports of 94 tornadoes hitting the state. tonight north carolina remains under a state of emergency . we begin our coverage tonight in raleigh with nbc's kristen dahlgren. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. you can see that clean-up here really just getting started. searchers spent much of the day in many places making sure that nobody else is trapped under the debris after what has been a massive and deadly three-day tornado outbreak .

    >> right there. right there. right there, right there, tornado, on the ground!

    >> home video captured the sheer fury of the twister. it's the up close look at residents like sanford long will never forget.

    >> reporter: it hit all of a sudden.

    >> within minutes his neighbors' houses were gone. their frames snapped and shifted off their foundations. next door joe styles and his w family rode it out on the secondt 1200 floor.

    >> reporter: i came and told her. we heard the loud bang and doors and glass and everything flying around.

    >> returning today, he could only stare. wondering how they survived and how to put it all back together.

    >> reporter: it's one of those things, where do you start?

    >> it's a question being asked across the south after the massive storm brought death and destruction for three days. starting in oklahoma on thursday, tornadoes barreled through arkansas, mississippi, alabama, the carolinas and virginia . leaving more than 40 dead, dozens homeless, and almost all in awe of what is one of the worst spring storms in decades. in north carolina yesterday, 94 tornadoes were reported. the governor toured the hardest-hit areas and has already declared a state of emergency .

    >> reporter: i'm not shocked at all. but i was truly -- i was truly sad.

    >> 1 # people died in bertie county alone. while in raleigh , three children died in a mobile home park.

    >> reporter: they're loving kids. they're beautiful kids.

    >> in all of the despair, stories of survival. a lowe's home improvement store in sanford, north carolina , peeled apart just after a manager pushed customers to safety in the rear of the store. in gloucester county , virginia , 14-year-old rashas matthews made his own harrowing escape.

    >> reporter: right over there, near the drain. i was right there. my sister was right next to me.

    >> while at this church in south carolina , all six people inside walked out from beneath the debris. back in raleigh , it was a wedding album that survived.

    >> reporter: we found it.

    >> giving hope to a couple who lost just about everything else.

    >> reporter: we got it, baby. we got it. we got it.

    >> now tonight, tens of thousands remain without power. the red cross has shelters open for those who still can't go home. but, lester, tonight neighbors here tell me they have every intention of rebuilding.

    >> reporter: kristen dahlgren for us tonight,

    >>

Interactive: Birth of a tornado

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