As a tornado ripped through his North Carolina neighborhood, Curt Jernigan huddled in his bathroom, praying for the raging winds to spare him.
When Jernigan emerged from the home, he met a neighbor, his face covered in blood, who pleaded with him to help search for his wife. She had gone missing in the confusion of the storm. The 41-year-old Jernigan agreed to help out, but said he knew the effort to find the woman alive would be fruitless.
"When I saw what he had in his yard, I knew it wasn't going to be a rescue — it was a recovery. It's just devastation," Jernigan said.
His grim thought proved correct. State police said his neighbor, Maryland Gomez, who was in her 60s, was one of two people killed by tornadoes and severe weather that swept across central North Carolina early Saturday.
Gomez's body was found amid the rubble that was once her home in Kenly, a community about 35 miles southeast of Raleigh, said state police spokeswoman Patty McQuillan. In neighboring Wilson County, authorities said a child also was killed. Several people were injured in the cluster of strong storms that hit some six counties.
The only thing left standing of Gomez's home was her front porch, one of at least a half-dozen houses destroyed by the storms that also knocked down trees and power lines. Residents emerged at daybreak to find their homes in ruins, cars flipped over and debris strewn about.
"It was pretty massive destruction," Johnston County emergency management coordinator Derrick Duggins said. "It goes to show the magnitude of what natural weather can do."
In Kenly, family and friends piled up mattresses, took pictures of the damage and filled garbage bags with trash from Mark Stephenson's one-story brick home, leveled by the storm.
Winds tossed family portraits into the woods some 200 yards away and the skeleton of a new camper the Stephensons had just bought sat nearby.
One half of Stephenson's home was flattened, while a tree had fallen through the other half, on top of his 19-year-old daughter's bedroom. She was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
"It's hard to believe, it's hard to take in," Stephenson said. "We've got our lives and our health, so we're good to go."
His 14-year-old son, Hunter, pointed to what used to be his bedroom — now just a pile of bricks and beams. The room was being remodeled, so Hunter had been sleeping in the living room.
"I'm lucky," he said. "It's crazy, if I would have been in there, I would have been dead."
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who represents the area, surveyed the damage Saturday, describing beams in the home where the woman was found as spaghetti-like. Gov. Mike Easley planned to tour the area Sunday or Monday after local officials have assessed the damage.
A Red Cross shelter was opened at a church and National Weather Service officials were sending crews out to survey the damage.