Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Tornadoes on Super Tuesday...

Tha Artivist Writes: I like to thank the Memphis City Schools for having the foresight and the wisdom to let the kids out early...My family was truly blessed to escape the destruction of the tornadoes...We are literally blocks away from some of the destruction in Memphis...When I went to the grocery store late in the evening, a worker and friend told me that she actually saw pieces of the wall from Sears floating in the air from her front porch in the Hickory Hill area...She also stated that she saw huge cloud formations touching the ground (these were tornadoes)...My condolences to the families of the victims...Buildings can be replaced but human lives can not...

Tornadoes Rip Through South, Killing 22

Police survey the damage to a Sears store at the Hickory Ridge Mall in Memphis, Tenn. Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008. A tornado struck the southeast part of Memphis causing damage to the mall. No one was seriously hurt. (AP Photo/Greg Campbell)

By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press Writer

Tornadoes across four Southern states tore through homes, ripped the roof off a shopping mall and blew apart warehouses in a rare spasm of violent winter weather that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more.

The twisters that slammed Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky were part of a line of storms that raged across the nation's midsection at the end of a day of Super Tuesday primaries in several states. Candidates including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee even paused their victory speeches to remember the victims.

A spectacular fire erupted at a natural gas pumping station northeast of Nashville that authorities said could have been damaged by the storms, and an undetermined number of people were reported dead.

A couple and their 11-year-old daughter were killed in their home after a tornado touched down near the center of Atkins, a community of 3,000 along the Arkansas River in the central part of the state where authorities searched in the dark for survivors — or more victims.

"This was an extraordinary night," said Gov. Mike Beebe. "When it's compounded by darkness, that makes it that much more difficult."

Emergency crews went door to door Tuesday night seeking other possible victims in Atkins, working amid a heavy scent from splintered pines. Power lines snaked along a street, and a deep-orange pickup truck rested on its side. A navy blue Mustang with a demolished front end was marked with spray paint to show it had been searched.

Outside one damaged home, horses whinnied in the darkness, looking up only when a flashlight reached their eyes. On Southeast Second Street, a ranch home stood unscathed across the street from a concrete slab that had supported the house where three people died.

The storms killed at least 11 people in Arkansas, eight in Tennessee and three in Kentucky, authorities said.

The power was knocked out briefly at a Little Rock convention hall that hosted a watch party for GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor.

"While we hope tonight is a time for us to celebrate election results, we are reminded that nothing is as important as the lives of these fellow Arkansans, and our hearts go out to their families," Huckabee said.

At the W.J. Matthews Civic Center in Atkins, a shelter was empty except for a American Red Cross volunteers and a single touch-screen voting machine. The civic center had hosted an election precinct earlier Tuesday.

Cell phone pictures sent to television stations showed a dark, broad funnel approaching Atkins. Traffic was snarled on nearby Interstate 40, with tractor-trailers on their sides.

At least six tornadoes touched down in the 100 miles between Oxford, Miss., and Jackson, Tenn., according to the National Weather Service in Memphis, where deaths and damage were also reported.

One storm tore a large part of the north wall off Hickory Ridge Mall in Memphis. A few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but they were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes, said Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department.

Later, the storms damaged a dormitory at Union University in Jackson, trapping at least three people who talked by phone to rescuers who were trying to dig them out. A 2003 tornado in Jackson killed 11 people and a 1999 twister killed nine.

In Arkansas, the Baxter County Sheriff's Office said debris, including parts of houses, blocked U.S. Highway 62. The town of Gassville was sealed off because of the possibility of gas leaks resulting in an explosion.

Officials do not know what started a fire at the Columbia Gulf Natural Gas pumping station near Green Grove, about 40 miles from Nashville. The blaze could be seen in the night sky for miles around, with flames shooting "400, 500 feet in the air," said Tennessee Emergency Management spokesman Donnie Smith.

But the storms could have damaged the station, said Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Browning.

The three dead at Atkins were family members who died after their home took a direct hit, Pope County Coroner Leonard Krout said.

"Neighbors and friends who were there said, 'There used to be a home there,'" Krout said.

In western Kentucky, officials said a couple and their adult daughter were killed as a storm tore through a trailer park, one of two in Muhlenberg County to be struck, Trooper Stuart Recke said.

A tornado shredded warehouses in an industrial park in Southaven, in northern Mississippi, said Desoto County Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Steve Atkinson.

"It ripped the warehouses apart. The best way to describe it is it looks like a bomb went off," Atkinson said. "A lot of fire departments are here and we're searching each warehouse to see if there was anybody in there. It's going to be a time consuming thing and we'll probably be searching into the morning."


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., and Woody Baird in Memphis, Tenn.

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