At first, rescuers thought it was a doll. Then it moved.
In a grassy pasture strewn with toys, splintered lumber and bricks tossed by the tornado's widespread wrath, 11-month old Kyson Stowell was lying face down in the mud, 150 yards from where his home once stood.
"It looked like a baby doll," said David Harmon, a firefighter who had already combed the field once looking for survivors. Then he checked for a pulse. "He was laying there motionless ... and he took a breath of air and started crying."
Finding anyone alive in the field had seemed improbable. Hours after the storm, there was devastation everywhere: The body of the boy's mother was found in the same field, houses were wiped to concrete slabs and a brick post office was blown to bits. Except for a few scrapes, Kyson was fine.
At a makeshift shelter for storm victims at Hartsville Pike Church of Christ in nearby Gallatin, the Rev. Doyle Farris said the child was a reminder that people "should never give up, even in the midst of the worst storm."
"If you look, you can find an inspiration or a bright spot," he said. "The child will always be a reminder in this community of that message."
Kyson's story emerged as a tale of hope amid spectacular misery as residents in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas tried to piece their lives back together after the nation's deadliest twister rampage in two decades killed 59 people.
The extent of the damage was still being tallied Thursday, two days after the storms.
Federal and state emergency teams dashed into the hardest-hit areas, along with utility workers and insurance claims representatives. President Bush, who said he called the governors of the affected states to offer support, planned to visit Tennessee today.
Although homes were destroyed, communities flattened and loved ones lost, there were signs everywhere that recovery, while far away, was possible. Food and clothes began pouring in for the homeless. A classroom inside the Pleasant Field Full Gospel Church building in Scottsville, Ky., was filled with bags of clothes and a nearby kitchen was stuffed with donated food.
In Castalian Springs, Kyson was discharged from a hospital and was in the care of his grandparents, Douglas and Kay Stowell.
As word of the tornado spread through the community Tuesday, the Stowells called their daughter, Kerri, 23, warning her to take cover. Kerri, in a phone call with her fiance's sister, said she was bracing for the storm in the bathtub, clutching her baby.
The phone cut out as Kay Stowell and her daughter spoke. Then came an ominous voicemail - no words, just the sound of wind.