Twisters roared through the nation's heartland in the early morning darkness Wednesday, flattening entire blocks of homes in small-town Illinois and Kansas and killing at least 12 people in three states.
Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the busy tourist season.
The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
By midday, townspeople in the community of 9,000 were sorting through piles of debris and remembering their dead while the winds howled.
Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother's home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.
"She was conscious. I wouldn't say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything," he said. "She knew we were there."
Mary Osman died a short time later.
The twister that raked Branson seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, moving from side to side.
As sirens blared, Derrick Washington stepped out of his motel room just long enough to see a greenish-purple sky. Then he heard the twister roar.
"Every time the tornado hit a building, you could see it exploding," he said.
At least 37 people were reported hurt, but most suffered only cuts and bruises. After the start of Branson's peak season in mid-March, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in hotels on any given day.
Just six guests were staying at J.R.'s Motor Inn, and all escaped injury by taking refuge in bathtubs. Engineers deemed the building a loss after the second floor, the roof and all windows were destroyed.
Looking at the city's main strip, it was difficult to believe there weren't more serious injuries. A small mall was nearly demolished. The Legends Theater, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater and the Branson Variety Theater all sustained significant damage.
The Veterans Memorial Museum was in ruins, and a small military jet that sat in front of the museum was blown apart.
Some of the most popular theaters were barely damaged. The popular Presley's Country Jubilee was virtually unscathed, as was Yakov Smirnoff's theater.
In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.
Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee -- two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County as storms collapsed homes and downed power lines there.
The tornado that barreled through the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville was an EF2, with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state officials said. It left much of the community in rubble. The twisters were spawned by a storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday and was headed toward the East Coast.