Dramatic tales from survivors caught in one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks began to emerge in the 48 hours following the disaster — a family hiding in a tanning bed, another in a cooler, and a university student hit in the head by a flying Jeep Cherokee.
“There were people stuck under debris and yelling for help,” student Adam Melton told , the University of Alabama's student newspaper, in Tuscaloosa.
Dozens of twisters ripped through the South, flattening homes and businesses and killing nearly 300 people in six states in the deadliest outbreak in nearly 40 years.
The tornado that hit Tuscaloosa was the strongest ever there and claimed at least 36 lives.
Melton was sitting on his porch enjoying the evening when the twister hit Wednesday.
"It wasn’t windy or even raining,” he told The Crimson White. “The people in an apartment across the complex started yelling at us because they could see the tornado coming, we couldn’t."
Melton said he and his college buddies ran quickly into the cellar of the house in the front of his housing complex.
“When it hit, the house lifted up off of us and then a Jeep Cherokee came right over us and hit me in the head. We were underneath of the Jeep on our knees and chest for the end of it. After we got hit, we pulled five or six people out, but it was gone. The house was gone.”
Melton said he escaped serious injury.
"It’s something that I’ll never be able to forget," he said.
Other survivors shared harrowing stories:
Lisa Rice, Trenton, Ga. Rice and her two daughters, Stormy and Sky, survived by hiding in a tanning bed.
Rice, owner of S&L Tans on Main Street near the Tennessee border, said the three quickly took action when the wind turned scary Wednesday.
"We were watching it through the window and started seeing stuff flying around," Rice told WRCB-TV3, the NBC station in Chattanooga, Tenn. "We had already made plans that if something happened, we were gonna get in the tanning bed."
Rice has had experience in tornado safety. In 1992, Rice and her girls huddled in a bath tub in their home in Rising Fawn, Ga., and rode out a storm.
This time, Rice said, the three took cover in one tanning bed, yanked down the lid and started to pray. The building seemed to crumble around them, Rice said.
"I kept telling her, 'We're gonna die,'" said Sky.
"We just laid there for a few minutes," Rice said, adding "I kept telling them just to be quiet, it's not over. And the wind kept blowing and then finally it calmed down and we got out and climbed out of the building."
The three said they were thankful for their lives.
"The whole time we were in there, we were just praising God," Rice said. "Just, 'Hold us and keep us tight.' And we're alive. There's a lot of people that's lost their homes here. We can rebuild if we want to or relocate, but there's a lot of people that lost their homes and their lives."
Fred Jackson, Alberta, Ala.“I was in the bathroom in my house at 915 Alberta Drive when the tornado hit,” Jackson, 48, told .
“The earth went to moving,” he said. “Roots were pulling up. Everything was moving. The house is destroyed. We had to get out through a window. We're just trying to find cover before the next one hits.”
Jackson carried a few personal belongings and joined others walking aimlessly in the street in his community, west of Montgomery, Ala. “Alberta is gone. I've lost everything.”
Sharon and Bruce Howard, Alberta, Ala.The Howards were eating dinner at Full Moon Barbecue with their children Rebecca, 11, and Tracy, 10, when a tornado slammed into town, The Tuscaloosa News reported. The family huddled in the restaurant's cooler with a dozen employees.
Sharon Howard said she tried to remain calm as the building started to shake.
“I grabbed them and held them to me, then the cooler collapsed on us,” she told the newspaper. “It was such a relief when we saw people trying to get us out.”
Also destroyed were surrounding businesses, Steak-Out, Big Lots and Krispy Kreme.
"This is like a nightmare, I just want to wake up," said Carolyn Forkner, a Full Moon employee who shared cooler space with the Howards. She was still wearing her drive-through headset when she stumbled out of the ruins Wednesday.
The Peavy family, Griffin, Ga.It was 12:30 a.m. when the noise woke the family. In an instant, their home south of Atlanta was ripped to shreds.
Brothers Corey and Tyler groped through the darkness as their younger sister, Stacey Peavy went to her daughter's room to find the wall gone and Kylie's bed with it, the newspaper said.
Stacey found her, still on her mattress, out in the yard, woozy from a blow to the head. She carried her daughter back to the remains of the home, and joined her sons and husband Joe to huddle in the master bedroom's walk-in closet.
All were injured, but all survived, the newspaper reported.
Tabby Marlowe, Eclectic, Ala.The tornado that blew away the mobile home park where 16-year-old Tabby lived also . Looking in the remains of her home, she found her soiled dress for the prom on Friday.
"We've got nothing," she told al.com, the website for The Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times.
The family had been about to move nearby to Lake Martin northeast of Montgomery.
"We had just paid our first month's rent at a house by the lake and had everything packed in boxes ready to move," Tabby said. "Now we have nothing — no cars, furniture — just one month's rent in an empty house."
But a friend found something else belonging to the family: the only kitten to survive from a five-week-old litter of seven.
"We should call him Twister," said Megan Taylor, 16.
Carson Tinker, Tuscaloosa, Ala.Alabama longsnapper Carson Tinker was injured in the storms, which also forced Auburn's national championship football team to reschedule a trip to the White House.
Crimson Tide spokesman Jeff Purinton said Thursday that Tinker was in stable condition at DCH Regional Medical Center. He didn't specify the nature of the injuries sustained by the junior from Murfreesboro, Tenn., but said Coach Nick Saban visited him before flying to New York for the NFL draft.
It was the only injury reported as of Thursday afternoon involving a University of Alabama athlete, although at least two students were killed.
Auburn's White House trip was postponed because President Barack Obama is set to visit the state on Friday to view storm damage and meet with Gov. Robert Bentley and affected families.
Brian Wilhite, Tuscaloosa, Ala."Except for the sirens, it had an eerie quiet this morning," Wilhite, an internist at Tuscaloosa's Druid City Hospital, told CNN. "It looks like an atomic bomb went off in a straight line. It's probably close to a mile wide."
He said people were pouring into the medical center. Many had head injuries, while others walked around with cuts, he said. "It looked more like a Vietnam War site than a hospital," he said. "I know one physician who watched two people die right in front of him. There was nothing he could do."
Patrick Gannon, Trenton, Ga.Gannon, who is Dade County sheriff, lost his home, but remained confident that his community would recover from the devastation.
"This is the worst storm we have ever experienced here in Dade County. Just mass destruction," .
Gannon said he and his family sought shelter at the sheriff's department Wednesday evening, but their home was a complete loss.
"We still think that we live in the best community in Georgia," Gannon said. "And, you know, these people around here are gonna come together and we're all gonna survive just fine."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.