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Ky. tornado death toll rises to 19

Associated Press Modified: March 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm •  Published: March 3, 2012
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EAST BERNSTADT, Ky. (AP) — Carol Rhodes picked through the debris of her life Saturday morning, clutching four VHS tapes to her chest and sobbing as she talked about her neighbors, the Allens.

Debbie and Sherman Wayne Allen were killed when violent storms ripped through northern and eastern Kentucky around dusk Friday. Just one ridge over from the Allens' home another couple was killed, bringing the death toll to 19 in Kentucky and more than 35 across the nation.

"They were the best neighbors," Rhodes said. "You couldn't ask for no better."

Details slowly emerged Saturday morning as rescue workers began surveying the damage to areas hit Friday afternoon and evening. Small communities across Kentucky seemed to bear the brunt of the storm front, which spawned tornados from the Gulf Coast into Virginia and north to Indiana and Ohio.

Laurel County, 70 miles south of Lexington, where Rhodes and her neighbors were picking up the pieces, had five deaths reported by mid-morning. The tiny town of West Liberty, 93 miles east of Lexington, was rocked as well with five deaths.

The rest of the Kentucky deaths were spread over four other counties.

The neighborhood where four generations of the Rhodes family hid together from the storm in East Bernstadt was mostly wiped out. Several homes and vehicles were destroyed. Less than a mile away the same storm also killed Wilburn and Lizzie Pitman.

Rhodes said she and her husband, mother, daughter and grandchild hid from the storm in their basement.

"It was like, 'Whoo!' That was it," Rhodes said. "Honey, I felt the wind and I said, 'Oh, my God,' and then (the house) was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky."

No building was left untouched in West Liberty, a small eastern Kentucky farming town in the foothills of the Appalachians. Two white police cruisers had been picked up and tossed into city hall and few structures were recognizable.

The Rev. Kenneth Jett of the West Liberty United Methodist Church recalled how he and four others huddled together in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed in the storm.

The pastor and his wife were in the parsonage next door when they saw on TV that the storm was coming. They ran into the church and headed for the basement with two congregants who had been cleaning the church and a neighbor who sought refuge there.

The last one down was Jett's wife, Jeanene.

"I just heard this terrific noise," she said. "The windows were blowing out as I came down the stairs."

After the storm, they were able to get out through a basement door, but the century-old church lay in ruins. They escaped with only bumps and bruises.

"We're thankful to God," he said. "It was a miracle that the five of us survived."

David Ison had just closed up at the bank branch he manages in West Liberty when the twister hit around 6 p.m. He was walking to his car in the parking lot when he saw the storm approaching. He and nine other employees crowded into the bank vault.

"We stood in the parking lot and watched it coming. By the time it hit, it was like a whiteout," he said.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson were touring the hardest-hit areas of the state Saturday.

Beshear called up 275 Ky. National Guard troops to assist affected communities. He declared a statewide emergency Friday.

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Associated Press writer Roger Alford contributed to this report from West Liberty, Ky.