YAZOO CITY, Miss. — 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 cinder block 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, but the stories told by survivors on Sunday 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 crawled 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. National Weather Service meteorologist Marc McAlister said the tornado had winds of 160 mph and left a path of destruction at least 50 miles long.
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.