Firefighters searched one splintered pile after another for survivors Thursday, combing the remains of houses and neighborhoods pulverized by the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in almost four decades. At least 291 people were killed across six states -- more than two-thirds of them in Alabama, where large cities bore the half-mile-wide scars the twisters left behind.
The death toll from Wednesday's storms seems out of a bygone era, before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told the tornadoes were coming up to 24 minutes ahead of time, but they were just too wide, too powerful and too locked onto populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.
"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," said meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
"If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, Carbin said.
The storms seemed to hug the interstate highways as they barreled along like runaway trucks, obliterating neighborhoods or even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va. One family rode out the disaster in the basement of a funeral home, another by huddling in a tanning bed.
In Concord, a small town outside Birmingham that was ravaged by a tornado, Randy Guyton's family got a phone call from a friend warning them to take cover. They rushed to the basement garage, piled into a Honda Ridgeline and listened to the roar as the twister devoured the house in seconds. Afterward, they could see outside through the shards of their home and scrambled out.
"The whole house caved in on top of that car," he said. "Other than my boy screaming to the Lord to save us, being in that car is what saved us."
At least three people died in a Pleasant Grove subdivision southwest of Birmingham, where residents trickled back Thursday to survey the damage.
Greg Harrison's neighborhood was somehow unscathed, but he remains haunted by the wind, thunder and lightning as they built to a crescendo, then suddenly stopped.
"Sick is what I feel," he said. "This is what you see in Oklahoma and Kansas. Not here. Not in the South."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said his state had confirmed 204 deaths. There were 33 deaths in Mississippi, 33 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured -- nearly 800 in Tuscaloosa alone.
Some of the worst damage was about 50 miles southwest of Pleasant Grove in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city's emergency management center, so the school's Bryant-Denny Stadium was turned into a makeshift one. School officials said two students were killed, though they did not say how they died. Finals were canceled, and commencement was postponed.
A tower-mounted news camera in Tuscaloosa captured images of an astonishingly thick, powerful tornado flinging debris as it leveled neighborhoods.
That twister and others Wednesday were several times more severe than a typical tornado, which is hundreds of yards wide, has winds around 100 mph and stays on the ground for a few miles, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks at the Storm Prediction Center.
"There's a pretty good chance some of these were a mile wide, on the ground for tens of miles and had wind speeds over 200 mph," he said.
The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the Weather Service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.
Brooks said the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa could be an EF5 -- the strongest category of tornado, with winds of more than 200 mph.
President Obama said he would travel to Alabama today to view storm damage and meet the affected families.
As many as a million homes and businesses there were without power, and Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations.
The storm prediction center said it received 164 tornado reports around the region, but some tornadoes were probably reported multiple times.
Brooks said 50 to 60 reports -- from the Mississippi-Alabama line, through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and into Georgia and Tennessee -- might end up being a single tornado. If that's true its path would be one of the longest on record for a twister, rivaling a 1925 tornado that raged for 219 miles.