TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The tornadoes struck with unexpected speed, and the difference between life and death was hard to fathom. Below are some of the many stories of survival and loss.
In Brooks, Ga., a mobile home was picked up and disintegrated as it was tossed almost the length of a football field.
Inside was Charlie Green, a man partially paralyzed by a stroke five years ago, and caretaker Jamie White, a mother of three. Both were killed.
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White, 22, was "a T-shirt and jeans girl" who loved horseback riding, being outside and spending time with her three young sons: Andrew, 6; Austin, 5; and Anthony, 1.
Her mother Kimberly Hilton had worked as a caregiver for Green for the last two and a half years and helped her daughter get a job working for him about eight months ago. White worked the night shift and her mother relieved her in the mornings.
"I wish it had been me," Hilton said, choking up. "I've lived the majority of my life, but she's got three little ones who will never know how wonderful she was unless we keep telling them."
Green turned 55 earlier this month. He was a plumber from the age of 14 or 15 until he hurt his knee on the job about five years ago and needed knee replacement surgery. During recovery he had a serious stroke and never fully healed.
He was a loner, but was "a marshmallow inside," his mother Janice Green said.
"It was almost like he didn't want anyone to know they could get to him and make him care," she said.
His half-brother, Kirk Green, said the family was trying to set up a fund for White's children.
"She did her job to the end," he said. "Our family feels great sorrow for her because she had three young kids and she was so young and hadn't lived much life."
In Apison, Tenn., Ken Carter's first instinct when a tornado began plowing toward his home was to flee. He tried the door handle but it wouldn't budge because of built-up pressure.
The 74-year-old retired asphalt superintendent gave the door another jerk when something dropped from the ceiling, knocking him to the ground and cutting a 4-inch gash into his head.
"I got back up and got hold of the door handle, and about that time the whole wall just went and opened to the outside and took me with it," he said as he salvaged belongings from his flattened home on Thursday. "A split second was all it took."
Carter's house was among dozens of severely damaged or destroyed homes on the outskirts of Chattanooga, where officials said eight people were killed.
Marvin Quinn and his wife of 57 years, Willie, also had a survivor's tale as they looked at the damage to their home, which lost its roof.
The couple was reading Bible verses to each other when one of their children called to see if they were aware of the storm about to bear down on them. The call was cut off when the power went out.
"I looked up at the kitchen window, and there was big flash of lightning and I could see the wind was just blowing in all directions, just crazy," the wife said.
Next she said she heard a rumble, like the freight trains that run on the tracks behind their house.
"I said, 'Let's get down and pray, the tornado's coming,'" she said. "And he got down on his knees, and I was bent over and put my hand over his head while we were praying."
In Rainsville, Ala., these are busy days for the local funeral home. Lisa Chandler and her husband have been working almost every waking hour to prepare for five visitations scheduled Friday night for storm victims.
They live above the funeral home on the edge of downtown in Rainsville, a city about 100 miles northeast of Birmingham where 32 people were killed.
They're doing all their work to prepare the bodies using one generator. The work is tougher than usual because the victims were battered by the storms.
But funerals shouldn't be delayed just because it could be a week or more before power is restored.
"People want that bit of closure now," she said.
Friends are pitching in, trying to find gas to keep the generator going and to make sure the hearse is ready to pick up another body or head to the cemetery in the next few days. They haven't had to stop to get a meal, as people keep bringing food by.
"How am I handling it?" Chandler said. "I cry a little and I pray a lot."
In Hackleburg, Ala., David Smith, 70, used a garden rake Friday to sift through several inches of insulation and other debris in his kitchen while his grandson, 10-year-old Bryton Frost, looked on.
Frost went home with his mother about an hour before the storm hit.
Smith, a widower, climbed under a pool table in the lower floor of his brick home just moments before the tornado that destroyed the town pried the roof and walls off his house.
Debris flew through the home, cutting him in several places.
"I'm a heart patient so I'm on blood thinner. I bled like a stuck hog," he said.
And then the wind stopped. Smith sought help before making his way to his daughter's home, which wasn't damaged.
"When he came over to our house, he looked pretty rough," Bryton said. "He took a shower and he looked a whole lot better."
Smith said he may not try to rebuild. He'll stay with his daughter for now. He's been working on a shop for his boat in the Bear Creek community and planned to build an apartment or playroom for the children on the second floor.
"Now I guess I'll just live there for the rest of my life."
In Barnesville, Ga., teacher Victoria Mattox, 29, was asleep when a friend texted her at 12:42 a.m. Thursday telling her the sirens were going off in town. She leapt from bed and made it to her closet just in time.
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Seconds later she could feel her house shaking under battering winds. Windows popped out in the adjoining bedroom and then the ceiling peeled off above her head.
Within seconds, it was over and the closet where she had hunkered down was the only part of the house left standing, a large tree uprooted and arched over it. As she sorted through wreckage Thursday with the help of her parents, who drove down from near Knoxville, Tenn., and friends, she got emotional.
"I had called my father, and I just told him I loved him and I was going to die because I didn't think I was going to make it," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
In Jefferson County, Ala., David Newton, a deputy sheriff said he nearly died.
"It was a nightmare. We hunkered down in a bathroom and saw it rising over our house," he said. "It looked like a big cloud with fast moving debris. The next thing you know it was on top of us."
"If I didn't hold on, I would have gone away with the storm," he said.
Even weather forecasters had to hunker down.
In Smithville, Miss., mobile home park dwellers flocked to the Baptist church for shelter.
They went into sturdy section of the church where they hung onto one another and anything they could grab onto as the building began crumbling away, Pastor Wes White said.
"Our choir robes are OK," the pastor shouted. "They're perfectly white."
The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.