WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — Rescue workers with search dogs trudged through the hills of Kentucky, and emergency crews in several states combed through wrecked homes in a desperate search Saturday for survivors of tornadoes that killed dozens of people.
But amid the flattened homes, gutted churches and crunched up cars, startling stories of survival emerged, including that of a baby found alone but alive in a field near her Indiana home, a couple who were hiding in a restaurant basement when a school bus crashed through the wall, and a pastor nearly buried in his church’s basement.
The storms, predicted by forecasters for days, killed at least 38 people in five states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich proclaimed an emergency. President Barack Obama offered Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance as state troopers, the National Guard and rescue teams made their way through counties cut off by debris-littered roads and knocked down cellphone towers.
The landscape was littered with everything from sheet metal and insulation to crushed cars and, in one place, a fire hydrant, making travel difficult.
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 huddling with four others in a little cubby hole in the basement as the church collapsed in the storm.
The pastor and his wife had just returned to the parsonage when he turned on the TV and saw that the storm was coming. Jett yelled to his wife to take shelter in the basement of the church next door, where they were joined by two congregants who were cleaning the church and a neighbour. As they ran for the basement stairs, they could see the funnel cloud approaching.
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.”
The building collapsed, but they were able to get out through a basement door. They escaped with only bumps and bruises.
“We’re thankful to God,” Jett said. “It was a miracle that the five of us survived.”
In Indiana, a baby was found alone in a field near her family’s home in New Pekin, said Melissa Richardson, spokeswoman at St. Vincent Salem Hospital, where the little girl was initially taken. The child was in critical condition Saturday at a hospital in Louisville, Ky., and authorities were still trying to figure out how she ended up in the field, Richardson said.
A tornado hit the New Pekin area Friday, but it wasn’t clear whether it had picked up the child. Authorities have not identified the baby or her parents.
About 20 miles east, a twister demolished Henryville, Ind., the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. The second story of the elementary school was torn off, and wind blew out the windows and gutted the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church. Few recognizable buildings remained.
A secretary at the school said a bus left Friday afternoon with 11 children, but the driver turned back after realizing they were driving straight into the storm. The children were ushered into the nurse’s station and were hiding under tables and desks when the tornado struck. None were hurt.
The school bus, which was parked in front of the school, was tossed several hundred yards into the side of a nearby restaurant.
Todd and Julie Money were hiding there, having fled their Scottsburg home, which has no basement. They were in the basement of their friend’s restaurant when the tornado struck.
“Unreal. The pressure on your body, your ears pop, trees snap,” Todd Money said. “When that bus hit the building, we thought it exploded.”
“It was petrifying,” Julie Money added. “God put us here for a reason.”
Friday’s tornado outbreak came two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level. The weather service issued 297 tornado warnings and 388 severe thunderstorm warnings from Friday through early Saturday.
In April, when tornadoes killed more than 240 people in Alabama, it issued 688 tornado warnings and 757 severe thunderstorm warnings from Texas to New York, said Greg Carbin, warning co-ordination meteorologist at the storm prediction centre.
The storms have been carrying strong winds that change direction and increase in speed as they rise in the atmosphere, creating a spin, said Corey Mead, a storm prediction centre meteorologist. The tornadoes develop when cold air in the storm system moving east from the Mississippi River Valley hits warm air coming north from the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
More severe storms were expected Saturday across parts of southern Georgia and northern Florida. Friday’s killed 19 people in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.
In Washington County, Ind., residents described seeing a massive tornado come over a hill and plow through a grove of trees, which looked almost like a line of bulldozers eight wide had rolled through, crushing the land.
When Gene Lewellyn, his son and his son’s 7-year-old daughter saw the tornado come over the hill, they rushed to the basement of his one-story brick home and covered themselves with a carpet. A black cloud enveloped the house.
“It just shook once, and it (the house) was gone,” said Lewellyn, 62, a retired press operator.
His family was safe, but their home was reduced to a pile of bricks with sheet metal wrapped around splintered trees. Pieces of insulation coated the ground, and across the street a large trailer picked up by the storm had landed on top of a boat. Lewellyn spent Saturday picking through the debris in 38-degree cold.