ENTERPRISE, Ala. - A violent storm system that ripped apart an Alabama high school as students hunkered inside later tore through Georgia, hitting a hospital and raising the death toll to at least 20 across the Midwest and Southeast.
Eight students were killed when a tornado struck Enterprise High School, blowing out the walls and collapsing part of the roof, Mayor Kenneth Boswell said Friday. They were all in one wing of the school that took a direct hit, he said.
"It was in a split second that we sat down and started to cover ourselves before the storm hit," said 17-year-old Kira Simpson, who lost four friends to the storm. "Glass was breaking. It was loud.
"It's like a bad dream. I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened."
As the massive storm system swept into Georgia, another tornado apparently touched down near the Sumter Regional Hospital in Americus, 117 miles south of Atlanta, killing at least two people and injuring an undetermined number of others, said Buzz Weiss of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. At least 42 patients were evacuate to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Putney spokeswoman Jackie Ryan said.
Six more people were killed in the town of Newton, Ga., and several homes were destroyed, Fire Chief Andy Belinc said early Friday.
The burst of tornadoes was part of a larger line of thunderstorms and snowstorms that stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Authorities blamed tornadoes for the deaths of a 7-year-old girl in Missouri, 10 people in Alabama and nine in Georgia, and twisters also damaged homes in Kansas.
Early Friday, the storm was pelting the Carolinas with heavy rain, causing power outages, street flooding, and a tornado warning was posted through late morning for the North Carolina coast.
In South Carolina, the Coast Guard prepared to search for six people on a small boat who sent a distress call during the storm saying they were taking on water off the coast. The strong wind made it difficult to get a helicopter up Friday morning to search, Petty Officer 1st Class Donnie Brzuska.
At Enterprise High School, officials had been watching the storm Thursday as it swept through southern Missouri and headed into Alabama. The students were preparing to leave for the day when the sirens started up and the lights went out.
Teacher Grannison Wagstaff was with them.
"I said 'Here it comes. Hit the deck," he told CBS's "The Early Show" Friday. "I turned around and I could actually see the tornado coming toward me."
As the students scrambled for shelter, a section of roof and a wall near 17-year-old senior Erin Garcia collapsed on her classmates.
"I was just sitting there praying the whole time," Erin said. "It sounded like a bunch of people trying to beat the wall down. People didn't know where to go. They were trying to lead us out of the building.
"I kept seeing people with blood on their faces."
Outside, debris from the school was strewn around the neighborhood, where cars were flipped or tossed atop each other.
The mayor said officials had yet to determine where students in the school of about 2,000 would attend classes for the rest of the year. He appeared drained as his staff and National Guard crews tried to assess the damage at dawn and search the torn-up neighborhoods for more victims.
"You take it methodically," Boswell said. "You prioritize, and you move on."
At least one other person was killed in Enterprise, a city of about 23,000 some 75 miles south of Montgomery. Another died across the state in rural Millers Ferry, where trailer homes were flipped and trees toppled, officials said.
In Sumter County, home of former President Jimmy Carter, the main hospital received some storm damage and there were two fatalities and an undetermined number of injuries, Weiss said. Officials weren't sure whether the injured and the dead were inside the hospital when it struck, he said.
The front windows of the hospital were blown out and the wind had picked up cars in the parking lot and tossed them around, hurling one into a tree.
Farther north, a tornado killed a man in a mobile home in Taylor County, county Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Lowe said. Weiss said between 40 and 60 homes were damaged in Clay County, south of Muscogee on the Alabama line. The storm also knocked out power to 15,000 homes in Columbus, damaged buildings and toppled trees.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was flying by helicopter Friday morning to Americus and Baker County to survey the damage there, Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan said.
Around Americus, the storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines. Several homes and businesses were destroyed in downtown Americus. Among the worst hit was Cheek Memorial Church. Its wooden steeple was knocked off the roof and smashed in front of the church.
Marcia Wilson, who lives across the street from the Church, said she heard a huge roar as the storm went through.
"It felt like the whole house was fixing to fall in," she said. "We could just hear it coming over us. All I could do was pray that God take care of us and he did. We're all right."