By Holbrook Mohr and Jay Reeves/ The Associated Press
YAZOO CITY — One prayed to God under a communion table as his church was blown to pieces around him.
Another was on the phone with a meteorologist when the tornado threw him against a cinderblock wall that held just long enough to save his life. A coroner nearly became a victim himself when the twister flipped his truck four times; later he went out in his hospital gown to help identify bodies.
At least 10 people were killed when the tornado ripped through the rural Mississippi countryside and two deaths in Alabama have been blamed on storms there. It’s the stories told by survivors on Sunday that show how much higher the toll could have been.
Dale Thrasher, 60, had been alone in Hillcrest Baptist Church when the tornado hit Saturday, ripping away wood and metal until all that was left was rubble, Thrasher and the table he had climbed under as he prayed for protection.
“The whole building caved in,” he said. “But me and that table were still there.”
Sunday was sunny and breezy as Thrasher and other members of the Yazoo City church dug through the debris and pulled out a few chairs and other items. One found a hymnal opened to the song, “Till the Storm Passes By.”
Hundreds of homes also were damaged in the storm, which carved a path of devastation from the Louisiana line to east-central Mississippi, and at least three dozen people were hurt. Rescuers spread out Sunday to find anyone who might be trapped, while survivors returned to demolished homes to salvage what they could and bulldoze the rubble.
“This tornado was enormous,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, who grew up in Yazoo County, a county of about 28,000 people known for blues, catfish and cotton. The twister wreaked “utter obliteration” among the picturesque hills rising from the flat Mississippi Delta, the governor said.
Tornadoes also were reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. The storm system tracked northeastward, downing trees in northwest Georgia and damaging an elementary school roof in Darlington, S.C., late Sunday.
Mississippi’s Choctaw County suffered the most confirmed deaths: five, including a baby and two other children. On Sunday the air there was filled with the buzz of chain saws, the rumbling of tractors and the scent of splintered pine trees.
National Weather Service meteorologist Marc McAlister said the tornado had winds of 160 miles an hour and left a path of destruction at least 50 miles long. Crews will check the path to the southwest to Tallulah, La., just across the state line with Mississippi, as well as farther northeast of Yazoo County to see exactly how far the tornado traveled on the ground.
Utility workers in cherry-pickers hovered over police officers directing traffic on a two-lane highway busy with relief workers and volunteers arriving to help.
All that remained of Sullivan’s Crossroads Grocery was a pile of cinderblocks and some jars of pickled eggs and pigs’ feet. But owner Ron Sullivan, his wife and four other people rode out the storm there and suffered only some cuts and bruises.
Sullivan had been on the phone, describing the weather conditions to a meteorologist, when the line went dead and the twister hit, tearing the wooden roof off the store and hurling Sullivan into a cinderblock wall.
“I was levitated and flew 15 feet over there to the back wall,” he said. “The only reason I wasn’t killed was the wall was still there. After I hit it, it collapsed.”
A steel fuel storage tank, about 10 feet long, was uprooted by the twister and rolled into the store, coming to rest against a freezer. Hiding on the other side of the freezer was Sullivan’s wife.
Across the street, the home of the parents of Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt was reduced to rubble by the tornado. Oswalt himself was driving a bucket loader Sunday, trying to knock down a damaged tree on the property.
His father, Billy, had been out hunting when the storm hit, and his mother, Jean, hunkered down in a back room of the house with the family’s dog.
“She got our little dog and covered up and she’s OK,” Billy Oswalt said.
The tornado went on to cut about a 10-mile path through Choctaw County, hacking off the tops of pine trees about eight feet above the ground before slamming into three mobile homes.
Alphonzo Evans, 38, had been sleeping in one of the homes when he heard the wind come up. He had planned to take cover in a hole outside, but it was too late. He shut the door.
“By the time I turned around, the wind came up and I went flying,” Evans said.
The trailer flipped twice and broke apart, and Evans woke up on the ground beneath a fallen pine tree, wedged between his television and stove, he said.
Evans was sifting through what was left of his home Sunday. Most of the house had been blown into the woods, only the blocks it stood on remaining.
To the southwest in Yazoo County, Coroner Ricky Shivers was in his truck when the winds flipped the vehicle. He went to a hospital to have bruised ribs and cuts treated, then went out to help identify bodies in his hospital gown.
Shivers told the AP by phone Sunday morning that he did not know whether any more people had died because he was back in the hospital for more treatment. At least four people were killed in Yazoo County, and one died in neighboring Holmes County.
In Alabama, authorities attributed two deaths to severe weather. National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rose said a 50-year-old woman was killed when she slipped and hit her head as she headed to a storm shelter Saturday. Police said a 32-year-old man was killed when the car he was riding in struck a tree that had blown down across a road. More than 30 other injuries were reported in the state, none serious.
Gov. Barbour estimated at least 100 houses in Yazoo County alone had severe damage but said his estimate could rise later. Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said Sunday that at least three dozen people were hurt and nearly 200 homes damaged in Attala, Holmes, Monroe and Warren Counties. Officials were still working to assess the total damage in Choctaw and Yazoo counties.
Speaking in the parking lot of a heavily damaged restaurant in Yazoo City, Barbour said emergency crews would be going to isolated houses in rural areas they had been unable to reach in the chaotic hours after Saturday’s storm.
Hundreds were without electricity while others were left homeless, sifting through what little remained of their homes and bulldozing the rest. Volunteers poured into the hardest-hit areas with four-wheelers, chain saws and heavy equipment to chop up downed trees and haul away the wreckage as the cleanup began.
About 40 National Guard soldiers patrolled Yazoo City, some in Humvees and others in a Blackhawk helicopter. Dozens of state troopers and other law enforcement officers also came from far-flung parts of the state to help.
At Thrasher’s devastated church, about three dozen members stood in a circle and sang “Till the Storm Passes By” on Sunday. Some held Bibles, some held babies and some held each other.
Thrasher has been helping to hold the church together since the recent death of its pastor, and he reminded the group that the church has survived tough times before. They rebuilt after their building was destroyed by arson about 10 years ago.
“The Lord brought us through the fire, and brought us back bigger and better,” Thrasher said. “The Lord will bring us back bigger and better this time, if we stick together.”
Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Yazoo City, Jack Elliott Jr. in Jackson and Maria Burnham in French Camp contributed to this report.