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Boston Weather: 72.0°F | A Few Clouds

At Least 45 Died in Southern Tornados and Thunderstorms

By William Booth
The Washington Post
ROCK RUN, Ala.

A cold wind blew across the ravaged hilltops of Alabama Monday as Bradford Poole, an unshaven farmer, surveyed his world: his 100-year-old farm house gutted; his daughter's trailer exploded; his son's new home scattered across the highway.

"And we were the lucky ones," Poole said.

His family lost three of its homes, but escaped without death or injury as Sunday's storm system ripped across the area. Poole's sons had lain face down in the basement of one house, "and they swore they could feel that twister trying to suck them out," Poole said.

Sunday saw one of the worst tornado rampages to run through the South in years, a day when hail the size of marbles fell in Mississippi, funnel clouds destroyed churches in Alabama and brilliant, violent lightning blazed across the Georgia skies.

Before it was all over late in the day, at least 45 people were dead -- crushed by debris churned up by the twisters, struck by lightning or drowned by the flood waters borne of the torrential rains that followed the tornadoes. Hundreds more were injured.

At the storm's peak, some 150,000 customers around the region were without power in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Most of the power will be restored by daybreak Wednesday, utility officials said.

About 35 tornadoes were reported in the region on Sunday, and thunderstorms and cold heavy rains continued today, raising rivers and causing widespread flooding. Several funnel clouds were spotted Monday, though none was reported to have touched down.

The storms roiled through a stretch of the South known as tornado alley. They continued a pattern, charted as far back as the 1600s, that is typical for the Southeast in the early spring.

As the storm barreled out of Mississippi and crossed Alabama, the Birmingham weather office issued 21 severe thunder storm warnings for various counties, one flash flood warning and 27 tornado warnings.

At 5:45 a.m. (CST) Sunday, the forecast office in Birmingham issued a statement that severe conditions were developing. At 10:27 a.m. (CST), the office issued its first warning of an actual tornado, pinpointed with the aid of a powerful new Doppler radar system.

The hardest hit region was the hill county of northeast Alabama, within a 20-mile radius of Bradford Poole's farm.

The sirens started ringing at Anniston Army Depot about a half-hour before the first killer tornado struck. The depot maintains an elaborate warning system because it has a quantity of chemical-warfare "nerve agents" awaiting incineration in a series of above-ground concrete bunkers. No chemicals were released, but the sirens did warn residents in a 9-mile area of the impending twisters.

The tornado's funnel touched down on Goshen United Methodist Church near Piedmont about 11:30 a.m. (CST), blowing out windows, collapsing the roof and walls on a pew of children in bright Easter outfits, and killing -- among others -- the 4-year-old daughter of Rev. Kelly Clem. Survivors said they had no warning.

About 130 people were in the Methodist church when the lights flickered and went out during the singing of a hymn. Soon after, roaring wind and splintering glass sent parishioners diving under red-carpeted pews.

One man died outside the church in a vehicle. Another 20 were killed inside the church, including six children aged 2 to 12 who were taken with the others to a nearby temporary morgue at a national guard facility. At least 80 members of the Goshen church were injured.

The storm moved on to north Georgia, where 18 persons were killed. In the Henderson Mountain area north of Atlanta, nine died in Pickens County, including six family members who had gathered together in a double-wide trailer and were killed when their home was thrown 30 yards away from its moorings.

Later, in Charlotte, N.C., a public housing project called Boulevard Homes was "pretty well destroyed" by a tornado, but none of the residents was killed, according to Mickey Casey of Charlotte Police Department. Two persons, however, died in North Carolina -- one an elderly man in Charlotte who had gone out to get his laundry from a backyard line and was struck by lightning.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller (D) declared 12 counties disaster areas, and Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. (D) also toured disaster-stricken communities and was expected to call for federal aid.

Miller said he had no estimate for damage yet, but said it would easily run into the millions. Disaster relief experts said it would take a few days to return power and phones to the hardest hit areas, though it will be months or years before the homes are rebuilt.