Tornadoes rip through U.S. South, at least 15 dead
The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, February 5, 2008 11:59PM EST
ATKINS, Ark. - 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 15 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 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, the Pope County Sheriff's Office said. Authorities across Arkansas, where at least seven people died, searched in the night for additional victims.
"This was an extraordinary night," said Gov. Mike Beebe. "When it's compounded by darkness, that makes it that much more difficult."
Authorities in Tennessee said storms killed at least five people there, and Kentucky State Trooper Stuart Recke said three adults died outside Greenville, in the western part of the state. At least 60 people were injured in the four states, authorities said.
The power was knocked out briefly at a Little Rock convention hall that hosted an 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 touchscreen 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 between Oxford, Miss., and Jackson, Tenn., said Richard Okulski of the National Weather Service in Memphis.
One storm tore a large part of the north wall off Hickory Ridge Mall in Memphis. Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department said a few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes.
Later, the same system damaged a dormitory at Union University in Jackson, where a 2003 tornado killed 11 people and one in 1999 killed nine. Eight students were trapped Tuesday but weren't seriously injured, school spokesman Tim Ellsworth said.
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, and injury reports could not be confirmed because phone lines were down.
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.
Two people died in Hardin County, Tenn.; two died in Memphis when the roof collapsed at a warehouse; and one died in Fayette County, authorities said.
At least 13 people in Memphis were taken to a hospital, and two were critical, said Lt. Keith Staples of the Memphis Fire Department.
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."