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21 dead in wake of powerful storms

AUTAUGA COUNTY, Ala. — The home Willard Hollon had shared with his son and granddaughters is gone now, as is the one where his daughter lived, both twisted from their foundations by a tornado and tossed into the woods nearby. The storms that devastated the South destroyed the family, too: Willard, his son Steve and daughter Cheryl all were killed when the winds roared through.

The storms that smacked the Midwest and South with howling winds and pounding rain left 17 people dead in four states before striking North Carolina, where Gov. Beverly Perdue said at least four were killed Saturday by the powerful spring storms.

The number of fatalities was expected to rise. Raleigh officials reported multiple fatalities in the state's capital, while Dunn police Chief B.P. Jones said a woman was killed in his town in the central part of the state.

As the storm raced across North Carolina, it brought flash floods, hail storms and wind strong enough to rip rooftops off buildings and homes.

North Carolina public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema said the state had logged reports of 62 tornadoes.

In South Carolina, a church with six people inside collapsed after it was hit by a tornado, but somehow no one was injured.

And in Sanford, N.C., the manager of a Lowe's hardware store was credited with saving more than 100 workers and employees by ushering them to the back of the store, which acted as a makeshift shelter as the weather rolled in.

Meanwhile, residents were left reeling in Alabama. Steve Hollon had recently retired from the Air Force and moved into his father's home with his wife and two daughters while they remodeled a home of their own up the road — he had come to the small community of Boone's Chapel, about 25 miles from Montgomery, to be closer to his dad, Willard.

The storm demolished Willard Hollon's home and his daughter Cheryl's house. They were both killed, along with Steve.

Henley Hollon lived across the street from his brother Willard and had come outside after the storm passed to make sure everyone was all right. The winds whirled, the lights went out and it all lasted less than a minute, he said.

Outside, all he saw were a set of wooden steps and flowerbeds, the blooms still on the plants as though nothing had happened. An American flag once displayed outside Cheryl's home had been draped over a tree branch about 100 feet away.

"When I shined the light out there I could see it was all gone," Henley Hollon said.

A weather service meteorologist estimated that the tornado's winds reached 140 to 150 mph.

Hymnals still rested on the pews at the nearby Boone's Chapel Baptist Church, even though the walls and roof had blown away.

Tammie Silas joined other church members to clean up the debris and came upon two photos of the Hollon family.

"This is all they've got left," Silas said as she clutched the pictures.

Willard Hollon's wife, Sarah, his granddaughters and Steve's wife all survived.

Autauga County Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Sedinger said seven others were hurt in the area, including a firefighter injured during rescue operations. He said the storm hopscotched for several miles, leaving some areas devastated and others untouched.

In Alabama's Washington County, about 50 miles north of Mobile, a mother and her two children were among those killed, said county coroner Rickey Davidson. Jean Box, 38, and her two teenage sons, Shelton and Hunter, died when the storm demolished a double-wide mobile home in the Deer Park community, said Washington County Chief Deputy Terry Beasley.

The woman's husband survived and was in the hospital, he said. Winds had thrown things 100 yards from where the home had stood. "It was not a pretty sight," Davidson said.

In Marengo County in west-central Alabama, four separate tornadoes hit over the span of about five to six hours, and a man was killed when his mobile home was tossed nearly a quarter of a mile, emergency management director Kevin McKinney said.

Another death was reported in Mississippi's Greene County, said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

A state of emergency had been declared for the state of Alabama, and the first NASCAR race of a busy weekend at Talladega Superspeedway was postponed.

Tornadoes first started touching down Thursday in Oklahoma, where two people were killed before the system pushed into Arkansas and left another seven dead, including three children.

Back in Boone's Chapel, Henley Hollon talked about his family with Gov. Robert Bentley, who visited to comfort victims. The two looked at Hollon family photos that neighbors had pulled from debris scattered over a quarter-mile, as Hollon told Bentley that he and his wife didn't have time to get into a hallway when they realized the tornado was hitting.

"If God wanted us, we was in the big room, where he could have got us," Hollon said. "I don't try to outguess God."

21 dead in wake of powerful storms 04/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 1:01am]

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