PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. – Dozens of tornadoes spawned by a powerful storm system wiped out entire towns across a wide swath of the South, killing at least 194 people, and officials said Thursday they expect the death toll to rise.
Alabama's state emergency management agency said it had confirmed 128 deaths, while there were 32 in Mississippi, 15 in Tennessee, 11 in Georgia and eight in Virginia.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions into Wednesday night.
"We were in the bathroom holding on to each other and holding on to dear life," said Samantha Nail, who lives in a blue-collar subdivision in the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove where the storm slammed heavy pickup trucks into ditches and obliterated tidy brick houses, leaving behind a mess of mattresses, electronics and children's toys scattered across a grassy plain where dozens used to live. "If it wasn't for our concrete walls, our home would be gone like the rest of them."
One of the hardest-hit areas was Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama. The city's police and other emergency services were devastated, the mayor said, and at least 15 people were killed.
A massive tornado, caught on video by a news camera on a tower, barreled through the city late Wednesday afternoon, leveling it.
By nightfall, the city was dark. Roads were impassable. Signs were blown down in front of restaurants, businesses were unrecognizable and sirens wailed off and on. Debris littered the streets and sidewalks.
College students in a commercial district near campus used flashlights to check out the damage.
At Stephanie's Flowers, owner Bronson Englebert used the headlights from two delivery vans to see what valuables he could remove. The storm blew out the front of his store, pulled down the ceiling and shattered the windows, leaving only the curtains flapping in the breeze.
"It even blew out the back wall, and I've got bricks on top of two delivery vans now," Englebert said.
A group of students stopped to help Englebert, carrying out items like computers and printers and putting them in his van.