This aerial photo shows the devastation of the Cedar Crest and Forest Lake neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Thursday, April 28, 2011. A powerful and deadly tornado cut through Tuscaloosa Wednesday evening. President Barack Obama said he would visit Alabama Friday to view damage and meet with the governor and families devastated by the storms. Obama has already expressed condolences by phone to Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance. (AP Photo/The Tuscaloosa News, Dusty Compton)
Randy Guyton's family, which lived in a stately home at the base of a hill in the center of Concord, rushed to the basement garage, piled into a Honda Ridgeline and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they saw outside through the shards of their home and scrambled out.
"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."
Alabama emergency management officials in a news release early Friday said the state had 210 confirmed deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured — 800 in Tuscaloosa alone.
The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city's emergency management center, so the school's Bryant-Denny Stadium was turned into a makeshift one. School officials said two students were killed, though they did not say how they died. Finals were canceled and commencement was postponed.
Shaylyndrea Jones, 22, had expected to graduate from the University of Alabama next weekend with a degree in sports science. Instead, she spent Thursday moving out of her ruined apartment, where she rode out the storm huddled in a hallway. But graduation suddenly isn't so important — she's just thankful she and her roommates survived the night.
"It was the scariest thing I've been through," she said. "We were saying our prayers as it was coming down the street."
Police used bullhorns to tell people not to cross the tape to a neighborhood they were searching. On the other side, people were walking over glass, through pools of water, endless piles of debris and smashed cars. The city imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for Thursday and an 8 p.m. limit for Friday.
Search and rescue teams fanned out to dig through the rubble of devastated communities that bore eerie similarities to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when town after town lay flattened for nearly 90 miles. Authorities in Concord and elsewhere even painted the same "X" symbols they did in New Orleans to mark which homes they searched and how many survivors were found.
In Phil Campbell, a small town of 1,000 in northwest Alabama where 26 people died, the grocery store, gas stations and medical clinic were destroyed by a tornado that Mayor Jerry Mays estimated was a half-mile wide and traveled some 20 miles.
"We've lost everything. Let's just say it like it is," Mays said. "I'm afraid we might have some suicides because of this."
Officials said at least 13 died in Smithville, Miss., where devastating winds ripped open the police station, post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture factories. Pieces of tin were twined high around the legs of a blue water tower, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store was gutted.
At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother's headstone back to its proper place.
At least eight people were killed in Georgia's Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings and trapped an unknown number of people.
"It happened so fast I couldn't think at all," said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.
Bluestein reported from Concord, Ala., Nelson from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Phil Campbell, Ala.; Jeffrey Collins in Concord, Ala.; Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va.; Kristi Eaton in Norman, Okla.; Ray Henry in Ringgold, Ga.; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Williams in Atlanta; and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.